'That the Indian nationals have been sighted, they are unharmed, they are in captivity, and we know their captors. This is the sort of information I think everybody has the right to know and we would share it. Information beyond that we feel would be detrimental to the safety of those who are in captivity and it is not at all in the interest of our countrymen to share that information,' says MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin.
Syed Akbaruddin, 54, spokesperson and joint secretary in the ministry of external affairs, is soft-spoken but resolute. The Arabic-speaking diplomat from to 1985 batch of IFS, has served in many places including Cairo, New York, Vienna, Jeddah and Islamabad.
Considerately but with a poker face, he delivers measured reactions before the media day after day in a critical situation when 39 Indians workers belonging to the Tariq Noor Al Huda company in Mosul, Iraq, have been kidnapped. In the war zone of the tormented country, the ground situation is hard to know as aggression by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is increasing.
Since the last few days there is not much news of the 39 trapped workers who may have almost become “bonded labour” or even be used as human shields in the ISIS’s war against the Iraqi government. In fact, not much is known about them, really, to even their relatives. The situation is delicate and the Indian government has inherent limitations, as do Turkey and China.
To keep the focus on the fate of 39 missing Indians in Iraq, Rediff.com’s Sheela Bhatt met Akbaruddin, bottom, left, to recount the position of 39 poor, mostly Punjabi Indians whose lives are in real danger.
In the last 10 days we haven’t heard much about the 39 Indians kidnapped in Mosul. Can you throw light on the issue please? Where does it stand today?
Well, let me give you the issue in its entirety. When this problem started a month ago, we had more than hundred plus, approximately 150 Indians, in the zone of conflict. And the rest were in non zones of conflict in Iraq. Since then we have been able to bring back more than a hundred Indians. From the zone of conflict, I am only talking about the 150 Indians who were in the zone of conflict.
Of course, all of you in the media were interested in the 46 nurses we brought back. You were also interested in how we brought them back. But we also brought back another 50 plus people, many of them nurses, exactly from the zone of conflict. We brought them back quietly, without fanfare, but in extremely difficult circumstances.
The success of our being able to bring them back was that nobody knew what was the path we were taking. Because in such a situation it is extremely important to get the job done and sure, we will share the outcomes of the process much later. But this is a process which is still in progress.
You are interested in those who are in Mosul and we can tell you that we are pursuing that to the best of our abilities. We are doing that not only through diplomatic channels, however in such situations you have to follow unconventional methods. And these unconventional methods are best kept quiet for their success and that’s why all I can tell you is no news means good news in such circumstances.
Okay, as you said, even from the conflict zone you have been able to bring out around 50 Indians. Can you tell us why are we not able to do the same with these 39 Indians?
These other Indians who we have brought out were in smaller numbers. Four in some place, 10 in some place, 30 in some place. They also did not attract attention. So those who were able to access us, were able to do so without fear that they would be targeted. Also, they were not in captivity in the sense they were in places in the zone of conflict, they were lying low, they were functioning in a low key manner, but they hadn’t been taken captive.
And that’s the fundamental difference between all those who we brought back and those who are currently in captivity. Those in captivity, by our accounts, remain unharmed. However, we are not able to move to the next step because they are in captivity.
Can you tell us something about the ground situation in Mosul? Where are they being kept captive? What is exactly going on in the war situation?
Well, you see, we will not get into details. You will appreciate that when Indian lives are at stake, I will not be able to give you a graphic account of the situation that they are in currently. All I can tell you is that we are aware of their captivity, we are aware that they are unharmed, and we are making efforts to ensure that we can get them released in an unharmed manner. However, at this stage, we will not be able to share with you any other details about the ground situation or about their personal circumstances.
There are two control rooms, one in Delhi and one in Iraq, right? Who are handling these?
There are many control rooms, one in Delhi, one in Baghdad, one in Najaf, one in Karbala, one in Basra, as well as one in Erbil. So in every part where there is a possibility to provide assistance, we are providing it.
If I am correct, in the beginning, you had informed us in your press conference that there are around 10,000 Indians in Iraq. So out of them how many are back? And how many are still there and what is their exact position?
By our count approximately a little more than 3500 are back. Of whom we have provided tickets to approximately 2500 plus. The remaining 1000 or approximately that number, we have contacted through our embassy, worked with their employers and facilitated the provision of ticket by their employers. So in our assessment, by our count, approximately 3500 have been brought back. Give or take a few because some may have come back by themselves without informing us. But that’s the number we are working on, these are ballpark figures, but broadly correct.
And what happened to the other five to six thousand people and where are they? Who are they?
Many of them remain there. For example, large numbers are in the Kurdish area in the North. The majority of Indians always had been there. Because development work was faster there and there were lots of projects, and obviously they attract expatriates including Indians. Many of them still remain there because they feel this is not in the zone of conflict, this is not where they fear for themselves, and therefore they continue to work there despite us giving them the option or telling them they should leave, also telling them that we will provide their air tickets if they do not have the money for that. Everybody has been told this, both in the conflict zone as well as outside the conflict zone.
But in Basra area, where there are a large number of petrochemical related people who are working in those areas as well as in Erbil, significant number of Indians remain despite our wanting to get them back.
Coming back to the conflict zone, these 39 Indians… Is that a correct number?
I will not get into numbers.
But you have told us before…
Again, you would like to check the details, I always say that I will not get into numbers, because for me one Indian is one too many in captivity. And therefore any Indian who is in captivity is in a difficult circumstance. What we are aware of is that there was a group of Indians who were numbering x which is approximately 40, who were abducted and kidnapped, long ago. And out of which one was able to escape. And therefore the deductions to the number we are coming to. However, at this stage, I will not want to get into any numbers because these are evolving situations and it is best to await the outcomes of these before we get into any specific numbers.
Okay, so the efforts are on?
I can assure you the efforts are in full swing, both at an international level, through diplomacy, at the ground level, through other means.
You know there are lots of interviews of parents, of relatives, wives and children of those who are in captivity, and one of the relative has said on television that they fear that some of them may be dead. So can you tell us, is there any such fear? Any serious issue?
There is no safety in captivity. However, we can understand why relatives are worried, why they are concerned. As governments, we can only go by corroborated information. At this stage there is no corroborated information of any harm to the Indians who are in captivity. So all I can say is we have been able to work out solutions for a large number of Indians, more than 3000 plus who are not in the conflict zone, but also almost 100 plus who were in the zone of conflict. And none of them has been harmed thus far. Not one.
Therefore, while I do understand the concern, and it is normal for concern and worries to creep in, I can assure that the Government of India is doing its best, it’s doing way beyond what normal diplomatic practice requires and we continue to work on this to ensure the relief of all Indians in captivity.
How many Indians have died in conflict zone in Iraq?
Not a single one that we are aware of. Not a single one that has been corroborated by any source. Off and on you have these stories of somebody having been caught in the conflict and two of these stories we tried and checked up and found they were wrong. There was one story from Bahraich of an Indian, it came in newspapers on the front page, saying that an Indian who was coming from Tikrit to Baghdad was killed. When we contacted the Bahraich district magistrate, he immediately found out that this instance had nothing to do with Iraq. It was from Saudi Arabia. So as of today I can confirm to you not a single Indian in the conflict zone has died due to causes related to the conflict.
Do you have a confirmation that they are kidnapped by ISIS? Who are the kidnappers? Do you know?
Yes, I have previously said, and I can repeat we are aware of the identity of the kidnappers. However, at this time, with Indian nationals in the captivity of kidnappers, we do not think it appropriate to get into further details about who the kidnappers are, what they want, etc. Because after all Indian lives are at stake and at an appropriate time we will share all information with you. Currently we do not think it is appropriate to share all the information we have with us.
We are so worried about this issue. And the relatives will be much more so. They would like to know the status of the negotiations. Is there any deadline, can you tell us? One month? When would they come back?
In conflict situations there is always flux. There is no way anybody can indicate with firmness the sort of timelines you are asking. All we can say is trust in us, we are focused on it, we are aware of our limitations, but also our goals. And our goal is to ensure that all Indians in captivity are released and brought back safely.
You will have to understand that the situation is one where normal channels and normal institutions are not functioning. It is a situation where there are no normal diplomatic channels and therefore there is no normal diplomacy as we know it that can be worked on. Hence, we would not be able to indicate timelines etc except to reassure you that all that is possible will be done and is being done and much more beyond what we can share with you is being done.
Are we in touch? Have we been able to touch base with the kidnapped Indians in some way?
Let me tell you what I can share with you. That the Indian nationals have been sighted, they are unharmed, they are in captivity, and we know their captors. This is the sort of information I think everybody has the right to know and we would share it.
Information beyond that we feel would be detrimental to the safety of those who are in captivity and it is not at all in the interest of our countrymen to share that information because they are in captivity and we would not do anything that may undermine their current status.