Seema Devi, whose husband was one of the 39 Indians slain by ISIS in Iraq, along with a relative from Amritsar. Photo: Amit Sharma
Seema Devi, whose husband was one of the 39 Indians slain by ISIS in Iraq, along with a relative from Amritsar. Photo: Amit Sharma

Almost four years after they were kidnapped by the ISIS terrorist group in Mosul, Iraq, the deaths of 39 Indians – most of whom were from Punjab state – were confirmed by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in Parliament’s upper house, Rajya Sabha, on Tuesday. The news came as a rude shock to families of the slain hostages, who had been repeatedly told by their government that their kin were safe.

Seema Devi, a native of Amritsar, Punjab, who learned about her husband Sonu Kumar’s death through TV, said: “It was unethical for Sushma Swaraj to have announced the tragedy in Parliament instead of informing families of victims first. DNA samples of family members were taken twice, but we were not told that these were being taken for verification of the dead bodies of our kin.”

The government had collected DNA samples from relatives of the 39 abducted Indians last October. At the time the government was still classifying them as “missing,” and did not disclose the reasons for conducting the DNA tests.

Families of the missing men had been continually seeking information from Indian authorities since news of their abduction broke.

Relatives of Pritpal Sharma, 55, who had gone to Iraq in 2011 to work as an electrician, found out about his death from their local administration. They later saw Swaraj apprising the Rajya Sabha of the challenges Minister of State for External Affairs General V K Singh had faced while tracking down the remains of the victims.

Sharma’s wife, Raj Rani, and children Diksha and Neeraj were still expecting him to return soon. The central and state governments were constantly in touch with them, but “never hinted that this could have happened,” Raj Rani said.

“A man who escaped from ISIS captivity had told the media and the government that all 39 captives were killed, but the government dismissed his claims without even probing them,” she said.

Rani was referring to Harjit Masih, who claimed to have escaped from IS captivity last year, and said that all 39 abducted Indians had been shot down. But Swaraj on Tuesday claimed to have proof that Masih’s story was false.

“We were kept in the dark from Day 1,” said Pawan Kumar of Dhadde village in Punjab’s Jalandhar district, whose 60-year-old father, Balwant Rai, was among the hostages.

“We were constantly assured by Sushma Swaraj that our men were safe, but we were being misled. The [Narendra] Modi government should make public the report, including investigations done by various agencies, to prove how our men died in Mosul,” said Pawan, while his mother, Gian Kaur, wailed incessantly in the courtyard.

Rai had gone to Mosul in 2012 after having worked at Muscat in Oman for several years. “With constant assurances from the External Affairs Ministry, we were hopeful. All our hopes have come crashing down,” said Pawan, expressing anxiety about performing the last rites of his father.

In Chak Desraj, a village in Jalandhar district, neighbors consoled a wailing Manjit Kaur, who lost her husband Dawinder Singh. “Saadi umeed tut gayi” (All our hopes have been dashed), said Kaur’s brother, Baldev Singh. He added that his sister worked as a sewing teacher to earn a living, but managed only a hand-to-mouth existence for herself and her three children. “We don’t know what to do now,” he said.

Last year, when a United Nations report highlighted that 100,000 people were being held captive by ISIS in Mosul, the hopes of these families were rekindled.

“We kept waiting for a miracle,” Baldev said. “But the government never made things clear, they never provided us any proof. Earlier, when we were asked to provide DNA samples, we still hoped for some good news.”

He said he hoped the government would provide some financial assistance to the families of the 39 Indians killed.

Amarjit Kaur of Murar village in Kapurthala, Punjab, regretted not being able to see her husband Gobinder Singh’s face after he died.

“We were told by district administration that the central government was trying to locate and rescue them. Everything that was told to us was false. The government misled us on the status of my husband,” Amarjit said.

Even political leaders in Punjab targeted the central government for the delay in confirming the killings. Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh said: “The Narendra Modi government delayed confirmation of the killings even when Masih confirmed their killings after his escape.”

Kamaljit Singh’s mother, Santosh Kaur, of Hoshiarpur, Punjab, came to know about the news of her son’s death from a television report.

“I ask the government for the remains of my son so that we can perform last rites. If the government fails even on this request, we will lose our confidence in it,” she said.

With input from Sukhcharan Preet (Barnala), Jagjit Dhanju (Kapurthala), Satpal Rattan (Hoshiarpur) and Amit Sharma (Amritsar).