'Travel agents sold us for 500 dollars'
Imagine being forced to clear bombshells from a war-ravaged barren land in Iraq, working a 16-hour shift, with barely any food to survive.
Sahim Salim speaks to two young men from Punjab who managed to make their way back home from Iraq after wily travel agents in India practically sold them for 500 dollars. The men spent almost six horrifying months there and were lucky to somehow buy their freedom back.
Twenty-six-year-old Kanwaljit Singh sits on his charpai [bed] at his home in Khurlapur village, some 70 kilometers away from Jalandhar in Punjab. He has been abused, assaulted and forced to slave in the past seven months. But has lived to tell the tale.
"I have a lot to be thankful about. Never mind the loans I have looming on my head, I am back in one piece. I am happy now," Kanwaljit says.
Till last year, Kanwaljit was a farmer, who tilled his family land. Then he met a friend sometime in December last year, who told him about a travel agent who could send him to Iraq. Kanwaljit met with the travel agent on January 2, 2011 in Jalandhar.
"This man, Bhupinder Singh, told me that I needed to pay him just Rs 1,30,000 to go to Iraq and work for the American military. He told me that I just had to work eight hours a day, with two weekly offs and in return I would be paid $ 600. I mortgaged my land and gave the travel agent all the necessary papers with the money," says Singh.
Within three days, Singh took the ride to Delhi's international airport and was on his way to Baghdad. At Baghdad airport, he met an Iraqi, who took him to a secluded farmhouse, a seven-hour journey from the airport.
"At the time, there were four of us, including two Sikhs. The Iraqi took away our passports. On the way, we stopped at a hair cutting saloon, where a barber forcefully cut the hair of the two Sikhs."
"We were then taken to an isolated 1,500-acre land, with no people or society in sight. Here, there was a small farmhouse, where the four of us were kept. Our so-called supervisor did not know any Hindi or English, so we mostly communicated by sign language," Singh says.Click NEXT to read further...
Image: Wasted ammunition can be seen in this picture clicked by Kalvinder Singh, who was also forced to work in the same war-ravaged wasteland
'We survived on dry rotis and black tea'
Kalwinder Singh, another youth, who also went to Iraq with Kanwaljit, says that the place where they were "imprisoned" was a huge wasteland with a one-storeyed house in the middle.
Kalwinder, who is back with his family in his village of Takhni in Hoshiarpur (some 50 kilometers from Kanwaljit's village) told rediff.com that the farmland was ravaged in the American-Iraq war. It had live bombshells, wasted ammunition and missiles.
"The moment we were taken there, I knew the place was affected by war. There were countless number of bullets and bomb shells all over the area. The only sign I read in the area was 'Saudi road number 270'. The nearest towns were Al-Najaf and Karbala," says Kalwinder.
Recalling the first night in the farmhouse, Kanwaljit says, "Till about 9-10 pm, I was under the impression that this was just a temporary stop because I was told by the Iraqi supervisor in sign language that I would be working in a hotel."
"By 11 pm, I told my supervisor I wanted to go back. I cried and screamed, but to no effect. I did not sleep the whole night. The next morning, we were given a trolley and a shovel. About five Iraqis demonstrated to us how to pick up ammunition and bombshells around the area," he added.
There was no American military or good working conditions or three meals a day as promised.Click NEXT to read further...
Image: Kalwinder Singh also went to Iraq with Kanwaljit
Photographs: Sahim Salim
'I could buy my freedom for $ 1,200'
'We were told that we needed to work eight hours, with the opportunity of working four hours overtime a day. Instead, we worked for 16-18 hours a day, picking up and dumping the bombshells in a truck. We got dry rotis (called Khubus) and bland daal twice a day. We got black tea (called Sulaimani) in the morning and nothing else," says Kalwinder.
At the end of the first month, all these young boys earned was $300 instead of the promised $600.
"I cried at my fate and somehow called my parents and told them of my predicament. By the fifth month, I knew enough broken Arabic to know from our supervisor that we were bought for $ 500. He told us that Punjab-based travel agents had sold us. I could buy my freedom for $ 1,200. An idea began forming in my head," continues Kanwaljit.
Both boys relayed the magical figure of $ 1,200 to their parents. Kanwaljit's family arranged for $ 800, while Kalwinder's $ 900. Rest, the boys put in their hard-earned money and paid their supervisor.
"I think even the police there is involved in the whole racket. The immigration officials did not even ask us how we stayed on in the country for the last seven months despite being on a 10-day visit visa," says Kanwaljit.
The boys swear that they will never blindly put everything on stake on promises of a few travel agents.
"A lot of young men in Punjab aspire to go to Gulf countries for work. Like us, they put everything on stake, only to be duped. To them, all I have to say is to not do it," says Kalwinder.
Part II: 'They took away our passports and forced us to clear bomb-shells'
Image: The shell of a used bomb can be seen in this picture clicked by Kalwinder Singh