They were 40, not 39. Luckily, Harjit escaped IS bullets

India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on March 20 confirmed that all the 39 Indians abducted by Islamic State in Iraq’s Mosul in 2014 were dead. The total number of Indian captives was, in fact, 40.

Harjt Masih — a native of a village near Punjab’s Batala — was able to return alive from the site where incident took place. Giving details of the incident, he said that Indians were working at a factory in Iraq in 2014. “But we were kidnapped by militants and kept hostage for some days,” a PTI report quoted him as saying.

On the fateful day, they were made to sit on their knees and the militants then opened fire upon them. “I was fortunate to have survived though a bullet hit my thigh and I fell unconscious,” he reportedly said. He, however, managed to return to India after giving a slip to the ISIS militants.

Upon his return, Masih had claimed that all the Indians were killed. “I had been saying for the last three years that all 39 Indians had been killed (by ISIS terrorists),” Masih said.

“I had spoken the truth,” asserted Masih, resident of village Kala Afghana in Gurdaspur district of Punjab.

His statement came after Swaraj informed the Parliament that all the 39 Indian workers, abducted by ISIS in Iraq nearly three years ago, were killed and their bodies have been recovered.

The senior BJP leader also said that all allegations of government harassing Masih is completely baseless. “It is baseless that Harjit Masih was harassed, he was kept in protective custody. I had said this in Parliament earlier,” said Swaraj.

Masih said they were killed in front of my eyes and I had been saying all these years, wondering why the government was not accepting what he had said earlier.

Among as many as 39 Indians, who had gone to Iraq to earn their livelihood, several were from Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala and Jalandhar in Punjab. Others were from Bihar and Himachal. The workers were trying to leave Mosul in 2014 when they were intercepted and taken hostage by the ISIS fighters.

In an interview, Masih claimed that four days after the kidnapping incident, all the 40 Indians were asked to kneel down by the terrorists near a railway track. Later, he heard the firing sound of assault rifles and one by one men dropped dead.

Masih claimed he was shot in the leg and pretended to be dead till the terrorists left. He, somehow, managed to reach an Iraqi Army checkpoint in Erbil, from where he was picked up by the Indian embassy.

Masih further said, was he sent back to India days later, and remained in the custody of security agencies for three months.

Masih told a news channel: “I had never lied, the government was lying.” He was quoted saying by Hindustan Times in 2017: “Everything was fine till May of 2014. We enjoyed our work at a factory, though some incidents of firing by IS militants happened in the outer parts of Mosul. But, a month later, they entered the factory and kidnapped all of us.”

He said they were shifted to a place he couldn’t identity. Stating he somehow survived after receiving a shot in his right leg. He said: “They forced us to sit on our knees, in a row, and opened fire. I received a shot in my right leg and was covered with bodies. I fell unconscious. Next day, when I regained consciousness, I found all my fellow workers dead. After a few days of walking, I managed to reach a Bangladeshi relief camp and was rushed to hospital. A week later, I returned to India.” Masih’s statement had been dismissed by the Centre when he had said that his co-workers were all murdered.

He had said: “Why the government is not accepting the reality and giving proper information about the 39 Indians to their kin? If the government says all Indians are safe, why has it not produced any of them in all these three years! Moreover, what will I get by not telling truth.”

Masih’s story of escape, and then being jailed by Indian authorities on the charges of human trafficking is one compelling tale itself. A native of a village near Punjab’s Batala, Masih claimed he had been abducted with the rest of 39 people by ISIS. He further claimed that he saw all of them being shot dead by the abductors, and that he was able to escape unhurt.

In March 2017, Masih was arrested for offenses including human trafficking and cheating. The arrest of Masih, and one of his relative, Rajbir Masih, came on the directions of Ministry of External Affairs, media reports said.

Masih’s sudden arrest came after families of nine of the missing men filed a complaint. The families alleged they had paid Masih and Rajbir sums ranging from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2 lakh for visas and jobs abroad. However, Dubai-based Rajbir, who was declared an absconder in the case, told The Indian Express over the phone that the government was making them scapegoats in the matter.

The families questioned how only Masih could have escaped unscathed and alleged that Masih duo had “sold” the men to IS. Reports said Masih was kept under house arrest at a location in Delhi-NCR area. As per a relative, he was given a VIP accommodation by the government in Noida.

In a statement, Swaraj had said in Parliament that Masih was kept in “protective care” of the government because of threat to his life “in view of his escape” from the IS, media reports said.

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