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'They took away our passports and forced us to clear bomb-shells'

Last updated on: September 23, 2011 17:38 IST

Sahim Salim talks to young men from Punjab who were forced to clear bomb-shells from a war-ravaged barren land in Iraq after being duped by travel agents in India. The men were rescued by the Indian Embassy, and are currently awaiting their return home.

Part I: 'Travel agents sold us for 500 dollars'

There is something to smile about for the families of at least 27 young boys from rural Punjab trapped in Iraq.

Nineteen boys, who were allegedly forced to clear bombshells in the war-ravaged country, have finally been rescued by the Indian Embassy in Iraq and are just waiting for the paperwork to be processed to get their ticket home.

It has been a long wait for these men, who were forced to slave for private contractors to clear bomb-shells -- both live and used ammunition from isolated fields near Al-Najaf -- some 160 kilometers from Baghdad.

Mortgaging everything they and their families owned, these boys had been duped by travel agents based in Punjab to part with anywhere between Rs 1,25,000 to Rs 1,75,000 to go to Iraq to supposedly work for the American military.

In exchange, they were promised about $ 600-800 a month. Instead, they found themselves at the mercy of private contractors, forced to work 16-18 hours shifts of hard labour.  

After allegedly buying them from Punjab-based travel agents for $ 500, these contractors allegedly smuggled them into the country on a 10-day visa.

"They then confiscated our passports and forced us to work in war-ravaged barren lands. We were forced to clear bomb-shells and wasted ammunition. We were paid next to nothing and given two bland meals a day," one of the boys, Narender Singh told over the phone.

"We could not do anything as our passports were with our contractors and as far as the law in the country is concerned, we were illegal migrants with no passports," he added.

Narender, and 18 others like him, are now at the Indian Embassy.

Another boy, Bhagwan Das, who is from Khambra village, told that they managed to flee from their supervisors after a showdown.

"Their main weapon against us was our passports. The only time they gave it to us was when they transported us from one site to another. They do this so that they are in the clear if challenged by the police. They would wash their hands off, by telling the police that we were illegal migrants," Das said.

"One Sunday, when they were transporting us from one campsite to another, we held on to our passports. They beat us up, threatened us, but we did not surrender our passports again. As there were 19 of us, we attracted some attention. So our supervisors just left us in the middle of the road, some of us bleeding from the beating they gave us. It was around 2 am. We immediately contacted the Indian Embassy," Das said.

Narender said that the embassy officials told them that they had a list of about 19 passport numbers forwarded by the ministry of external affairs. The embassy sent cars to take these men, who are now at the embassy guest house.

The families of the youth belonging to Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur and Kapurthala in Punjab and Una in Himachal Pradesh, had put in a complaint with the Jalandhar police about their boys' predicament.

They also forwarded a complaint to the ministry of external affairs, after which the Indian Embassy in Baghdad was notified.  

"The situation here is much better. I just pray to our government to send our tickets so that we can come home to our worried families. It is really sad here. There are at least 250 Punjabi youth stuck here at our campsite alone being forced to work," he said.

"Most of them are being forced to stay here against their will. Some of them are working because they are the sole breadwinners of their families and have nothing to go back home to except loans," Das added.

Part III: "I have mortgaged everything I own for his freedom'



Sahim Salim