Home > News > Interview
The Rediff Interview/Tilak Raj, one of the hostages in Iraq
September 08, 2004
Truck driver Tilak Raj, 40, was kidnapped along with six others in Iraq on July 21 by a little-known group called 'Holders of the Black Banners'. He was released after 42 days in captivity when his employer, a Kuwait-based transport company called Kuwait and Gulf Links, reportedly paid a ransom.
Tilak Raj, married for 12 years and the father of three children, hails from Dharampur village in Una district of Himachal Pradesh. A narrow lane passing through dense forest in the foothills of the Himalayas leads to his half-constructed two-room house.
A driver since his teenage years, Tilak Raj was earning Rs 4,000 a month in his hometown before leaving for Kuwait in search of greener pastures.
Before the kidnapping, he was a cleanshaven man. The kidnappers forced him to grow a beard, which he still sports now. After his first night of undisturbed sleep since his ordeal began, Tilak Raj recounted his nightmare at breakfast next morning with correspondent Ehtasham Khan. Excerpts:
What happened when you finally reached home yesterday [September 3]?
All my relatives and fellow villagers assembled here to welcome me. It was a great occasion.
You returned home after going through so much danger. Had good sleep last night?
Last night I felt as if I had got a new life. It was a rebirth for me. I returned home. I was so happy. Unlimited... I was so happy that I could not understand what was happening with me. I had a wonderful sleep after that... honestly, first time since I was kidnapped.
When you went to sleep last night, what did you recall?
Yes, when I went to sleep last night I could not believe it was actually happening. I recalled how I was a prisoner all these days and now I was a free man. My son was next to me, so I was very happy.
When was the first time you went to Kuwait?
I reached Kuwait on December 3 last year. We were six people together from Una.
How much did you spend in going there? How did you go there?
I spent nearly Rs 75,000 on that. There is one Soni Placement in Nangal [a neighbouring town] through which I went abroad.
How did you get so much money?
I took money from some relatives and friends. I collected small amounts.
How much money do you owe others now?
I took a loan for building this house and then for going abroad. So I have to pay some Rs 1,50,000 collectively.
What was your monthly salary in KGL?
I got 75 dinars a month in KGL. They provided us accommodation, but we had to pay for the food. So I was able to save about Rs 7,000 to Rs 8,000 a month.
If you couldn't save much, then don't you think it was better to work in India?
Yes, I thought I would be earning more. But I could not get the return on the investment I made. I invested Rs 75,000 for going abroad.
Did you know that you would be saving only this much in Kuwait?
No, I thought I would save at least Rs 10,000 a month so that I could repay the loans and feed my children well. My family was also happy that I was going abroad.
When did you first go to Iraq?
My first visit to Iraq was in February [this year]. That time everything was normal. Just like in India. The situation worsened in April.
Did you tell your employer that you don't want to go to Iraq because of the war?
We used to be escorted by security personnel. They provided us security. But the important thing was that the company had provided us tourist visas and not work visas. The tourist visas expired every three months. So we feared that if we demand something, they will not extend our visas. We had invested so much money in it that we didn't want to take any risk. They would have sent us back.
Did they pay you something extra for going to Iraq?
First they paid us 30 dinars for each trip to Iraq irrespective of how many days we spent in that country. Later some of our senior drivers who were on work visas protested. They demanded more money for going to Iraq because of the war. So the company started paying us six dinars for each day we spent in Iraq.
How was the situation in Iraq when you were there?
I went to Iraq 15 times before I was caught. I stayed as long as 25 days even in April. It looked quite normal to me. Iraq is just like India. The girls looked like Indians, then the vehicles... the scooter, Rajdoot motorcycle, and even the same tractors as we use here in India [bursts into laughter]. Iraq is a wonderful country, very nice people, and they respect Indians very much. We had a good relationship with the Iraqi people.
But when we were caught, we understood something was wrong.
How many people were with you when you were caught?
We were seven people in seven trucks – three Indians, one Egyptian and three Kenyans. We had to deliver the consignment in Fallujah town where we were caught. My truck had cement and the others had computers, etc.
How did it happen?
We were going to Fallujah and suddenly they [the kidnappers] came in small jeeps. They stopped us as soon as we entered Fallujah. They asked some address from our guards and asked where we were going. Within no time they started firing from their sten guns. They were about 30 or 40 people. All of them had covered their faces. We tried to escape, but they overpowered us, tied our hands, and put blindfolds on our eyes. Then they took us from there.
What did you see when they opened your eyes?
We were in a room and all I could see was weapons all around. Guns were scattered everywhere. The windows and ventilators were blocked from inside. It was a two-room apartment somewhere close to the town. We were made to stay together in one room. There was a toilet and a kitchen. Three armed kidnappers stayed with us all the time. There was a television in the room and a video camera. They recorded our kidnapping and asked us to make a statement that we have been kidnapped.
We could not understand their language. They spoke only in Arabic. The Egyptian understood Arabic and English and the Kenyans also understood English. I also understood a little bit of English. So this was the channel through which we communicated. But it was difficult to fully understand what they were saying.
Did they tell you why they had kidnapped you?
They told us that we were helping America, that's why they had kidnapped us.
Did they beat you or misbehave with you?
No, no, never.
What about food?
We got food timely. Three times a day. It was only non-vegetarian fare. Mutton and roti and watermelons. We had food together with the kidnappers.
Were you comfortable eating that?
Yes. For the first four days it was not good, but later we adjusted with the situation. I used to eat non-vegetarian food earlier also.
What was your daily routine there?
Nothing, we just sat together. They didn't allow us to talk much among ourselves. Three of them were always with us. They taught us about Islam and how America was destroying Iraq. They taught us to offer namaaz. We used to read it five times a day along with them.
Did you understand all that?
No, it was in Arabic. So I wrote it in Hindi and memorised it.
What did you memorise?
Like we do aarti and ardas, they call it fateha in Arabic. So I memorised like 'Allahamdo lillah hir rehman'... something like that. And then we offered namaaz regularly as they did.
Did you do it by heart or was it forced upon you?
First, I was doing it out of compulsion. Then it came to my mind that there is one God. The names are different. Allah, Ram, Rahim, Guru Nanak, Koran, Gita all are the same. This was in my mind.
What else did they tell you?
They taught us about Islam. They said Islam is the only religion. There is no other religion in the world.
Do you agree with this?
No, not at all. How can I leave my religion?
Did they talk to you properly?
They explained to us with love. They encouraged us whenever we got depressed. They told us not to worry. They said if we get mad thinking about the future, then how will we take care of our family after our release. They said their fight was only with KGL and the US and that we were innocent. They also assured us of letting us off soon. They always gave us hope.
They never threatened to kill us. I cannot tell you how good they were with us. They are actually anti-American. They are ready to kill even Muslims who support America.
People ransacked mosques in Nepal after some Nepalis were killed in Iraq. What do you now think about Muslims and Islam after suffering so much?
I will never say anything bad about Islam. I am grateful to my kidnappers that they kept me safely all these days. I praise them. Islam is a very good religion.
Having lived with them for so long, what do you now think about their struggle?
What is happening with them is wrong. If someone destroys my home, what will I do? I cannot tolerate it. Their country has been ruined by America. Earlier Iraq was such a nice country. They are very nice people. Whatever is happening there is because of the cruelty of America.
So they [the kidnappers] are fighting for their country, for Iraq. It is justified.
Is kidnapping right or wrong?
It is right according to them. But kidnapping is painful. Look at my children.
Did you know people were making efforts for your release when you were held captive?
There was a television in my room where we could see only al-Jazeera TV. I saw my home once when people were protesting here. I saw the puja going on in my home on TV. Then the Egyptian told me about the negotiations with the Indian government.
How did you feel then?
I could not stop my tears [starts crying]. My country and my people were having lot of problems because of me.
When were you scared the most?
For the first few days we felt that they will let us off in a day or so. But when it got delayed, then we were scared. When they took Antaryami [another Indian hostage] from us, I was very nervous. I thought today they have taken him and my turn will also come soon. I was prepared to die. [Antaryami was taken to another room, made to wear an orange cloth, and filmed with a kidnapper aiming a gun at his head. This had caused panic across India.]
But Antaryami returned after three hours. I cannot explain how I spent those three hours. We sat and cried together. He then explained what happened with him. I then asked one of the kidnappers what was happening. He told me it was just to pressure KGL so that they accept the demands. He asked us not to worry. It was to create panic in India.
When did you know you would be released?
They told me on August 30. They gave us lunch and recorded our statements on a video camera. They also gave us a copy of the Koran and some other Islamic literature. This was also filmed. But this has not been shown on TV as yet. Later the same thing was recorded again in Baghdad before our release. This was given to the media.
How was it when you finally got released?
I could not sleep. I was so happy and wanted to see my house and my family immediately. I actually had sleep last night only at my home. When the flight in Kuwait was late by two hours, I was not able to control myself. I was thinking why it was happening.
What will you do with the gifts [the Koran and other Islamic literature] that they gave you?
It was very unfortunate. I could not bring them with me. I was not carrying any bag with me. All of us gave the gifts to the Egyptian guy who had a bag with him. And he took them with him. When we arrived in Kuwait, we were immediately taken over by the Indian officials. We didn't get a chance to take them from the Egyptian.
What would you have done with the gifts if you could have brought them with you?
I would have kept them with me with respect or given them to some Muslim brother. I could not read them.
Have you collected all your belongings from Kuwait?
Yes, I have got everything. All the money that the company owed me. I have got everything. It is in dollars. I don't know how much.
How much did you get from the government?
The chief minister [Virbhadra Singh] gave me Rs 100,000 and I got Rs 200,000 from Canada [from Indians living there].
Are you planning to seek compensation from KGL?
I have not thought about it.
What about the future now?
I will see if the government gives me any job in the state transport department. I don't have money to start business. I have to repay my loans.
Tilak Raj's photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images
Hostages' photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Headline Image: Rahil Shaikh