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'Sometimes I wish ISIS had killed me too'

By Swarupa Dutt
Last updated on: April 04, 2018 12:55 IST
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'At least if I had died, my family would have got the money.'

IMAGE: Harjit Masih, centre, flanked by "best friend" Kanwaljit Singh, left, and Harsimranjeet Singh.
This photograph was taken near the construction site they worked at in Mosul. Simranjit and Kanwaljit were among the 39 Indians killed by ISIS. All photographs: Kind courtesy Harjit Masih

Everyone at Kala Afghana village in Punjab and in neighbouring villages knows Harjit Masih, but he is not proud of his fame.

He is the man from Mosul.

The man, who survived a massacre that left 39 work-mates dead at the hands of Islamic State after they overran the Iraqi city in the summer of 2014.

"Everyone knows me because of that terrible tragedy. My memories of Mosul only bring me sadness. How can I be proud about my fame? I lost everything there," Masih told's Swarupa Dutt over the phone.

It was his neighbours who told the 28 year old that the bodies of his colleagues had returned home on Monday, April 2.

It was his neighbours who told him that the Punjab government had promised an ex gratia payment of Rs 5 lakh and a job to the kin of the deceased.

He was watching the news on Tuesday when he heard about the prime minister's ex gratia payment of Rs 10 lakh for the kin.

Did he get anything, the neighbours asked.

Nothing, not a single rupee, he told them.

Instead, the government called him a liar, the families of the men who died have filed charges of human trafficking and cheating against him.

He often wishes he had not survived the massacre; at least his family would have been provided for.

His sister has just finished milking the two cows that give two litres of milk a day.

Barely enough for a family of five, but essential sustenance when there is barely anything else. The cows are precious and of the two rooms in the family's mud house, they occupy one.

After a breakfast of tea and two rotis that his mother cooks, he sets off to find work at construction sites. He is home by 9 pm and after dinner it's bedtime.

In Mosul too, his work day would end at 8 pm, dinner and bed two hours later.

It brings a smile to his face sometimes, when he remembers the cricket matches with the Bangladeshi workers on their day off on Friday.

"We won as many times as they did," he says.

But mostly Mosul is an internal battle he is still fighting.

Iraq has taught him to be a survivor.

And survive he wants to, to ensure a better future for his family.


Prime Minister Modi has announced an ex gratia of Rs 10 lakh for the kin of the 39 men killed in Mosul in 2014. Have you got any aid?

I am really happy for them, but wish the government would bestow the same concern on me.

I am not getting any benefits only because I am alive. How is this fair?

At least if I had died, my family would have got the money.

But I do feel extremely sorry for their families; it's terrible they have come home dead after all these years.

I have asked the Punjab government and the Centre for aid since the time I came home in 2014, but haven't got a single rupee. What can I expect to get now?

Debtors come home every day and I ward them off saying I will soon get aid from the government.

Sometimes I wish ISIS had killed me too. I am being penalised only because I survived.

Mera na koi kusur, na koi dosh. All I did was to tell the truth.

Did the government get in touch with you after it announced that the men were dead?

No, never. Not even when Sushma madam (External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj) made the announcement (in Parliament) that they were dead.

IMAGE: Harjit poses for a photograph taken by a neighbour. He doesn't own a smart phone and had to request the neighbour to WhatsApp the picture.

Have any of the families tried to contact you since the bodies returned?

No, none. All of them got in touch with me when I returned to India in 2014.

They used to meet me then, but when Sushmaji kept saying that that the men are still alive they stopped meeting me. They thought I was lying.

I told the families, I told the government that the men had been killed right before my eyes. They would ask me how I survived.

Mujhe pataa nahin mein kaise bach gaya (I don't know how I survived).

The families said madamji (Swaraj) had told them their men were alive.

They said they had got phone calls from the men after June 14, 2014, the day they had all been shot dead.

The government has maintained that you have been lying about the deaths of the 39 Indians and about the manner of your escape. Why?

I don't know why the government believes I lied.

But let me tell you one thing, when terrorists kidnap you, they don't leave anyone alive.

So the government must have thought if I can escape as I said I did, the others must have also escaped.

Chakkar yehi hai ke gareeb ghar ka bachcha hoon na, toh isiliye (I'm a poor man, that is primarily why nobody believed me).

How well did you know the 39 men who died? Were they from your village?

I worked with them, we shared meals, we lived together for 10 months...

Of course I knew them well.

We were not from the same village, but that doesn't matter at all when you are in a foreign land.

What work did you do in Mosul?

I was working at a construction site in Jamia, a district in Mosul.

We were hired to build the University Lake Towers -- a residential complex of 23-storey high-rises. I doubt they have been completed even now.

The men were assigned different jobs. Some drove tower cranes, some were steel fixers, some painters.

I used to erect the saria columns (steel frames for columns and beams).

The work was not backbreaking, but in the summer months it was extremely hot.

Kya karein, if you are poor, you have live with these difficulties.

It was a good life. Kabhi kabhi bomb phat jataa tha (sometimes bombs would explode).

We could hear it clearly, some far away, some near. But still it was a good time.

We never thought we would face any major difficulties there.

My duty would begin at 7 am, lunch was between noon and 1 pm, with duty hours ending at 4 pm.

If you worked between 4 pm and 8 pm you would get overtime. The company would give us the rations and we would cook our own food.

Of the 40 men, two were dedicated as cooks. You know how it is in Punjab, we can't do without rotis.

We would eat rajma chawal and roti.

Sometimes we would also eat khaboos (a Middle Eastern flat bread much like naan) at a small restaurant near the work site.

We stayed in air-conditioned tents, 20 men in a tent.

There were Bangladeshi workers employed by the same company who stayed in a hall in a building under construction.

We had communal bathrooms. There was running water and I was happy.

In the evenings after 8 pm, we would have dinner and go to bed.

How much did you earn there?

$400 (approximately Rs 25,000) as wages and $100 (Rs 6,500) as overtime per month.

I would send $450 (Rs 29,000) to my family.

My father was a daily wage labourer; so you can imagine how important my job was for us.

But of the 10 months I was in Mosul, I was paid for only seven months.

I could only send around Rs 70,000 to my family.

I bought a cell phone there with a local SIM and spoke to my family on every Friday, my day off.

It was everyday conversation with my parents, two brothers, and my sister.

Of course, I never told my family that there were bombings around me. They would have told me to pack my bags and come home.

Were you aware of what was happening in Iraq? That ISIS was closing in on Mosul?

Dikhta tha bilkul (we could see it before our eyes.

There were bombs going off with increasing frequency.

The sky would turn red and orange with explosions.

We would get WhatsApp messages from the local people informing us of the situation in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

We knew the situation was dangerous, but you know how it is, you somehow never think anything will happen to you.

Our site managers told us we were foreigners, so ISIS would never harm us.

The construction site was near an Iraqi army base so we could see the rockets being launched. Obviously, that meant the army base was also a target for ISIS.

Then some time in February, I think, of 2014 our salaries stopped. They never told us why.

Slowly in the next couple of months, the Iraqi employees started packing up and leaving.

All the while the bombing kept increasing. We did not inform our families even then.

But around June 2014, when everyone said that Mosul would certainly fall to ISIS we began panicking.

We called the agent who had sent us here and the Indian embassy in Baghdad, but we did not get any help.

It was only then that we told our families and asked them to call the Indian government and get us out of there.

Nothing happened.

What happened on the night you were abducted?

On June 11, 2014, tribal militants came to our camp and said they would help us get to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

It was far away from the fighting and the men said there could be work for us at the many construction sites.

They were wearing clothes Iraqis wear -- a kaftan and a white head-dress -- their faces were uncovered, but we knew they were militants because they had guns.

But they were friendly and told us not to be scared and if we faced any difficulties we should get in touch with them.

They left their phone number with us. They told us aap koi tension na liyo.

That night as we were readying for dinner at around 8 pm or 9 pm, around 10, 15 men came into our compound.

They were dressed in black T-shirts, their faces were covered in a mask -- it was like they had put socks on their head with two holes for eyes. And they were armed.

We knew this was a different bunch from the men who came in the morning.

They gave us plastic bags of dal and salt and told us to cook and eat it. They said if we needed anything we should ask them.

Then they entered our rooms and searched the place and said we should come with them. They said they would help us get home via Erbil.

We had to give them our passports. They said they were now the government and would give us visas to go back.

We were very tense, but not scared.

They did not push us around or hurt us. So we 40 Indians and the Bangladeshi men were packed off in a large truck.

We were taken to a building and locked up in the basement.

We realised, of course, that we had been kidnapped. But there was no fear because we felt we were finally going back home.

They held us captive for about three days. We would get food regularly.

Hum soche nahin the hum logon ko maar denge, itna pyar karte the woh (they treated us very well so we never thought they could kill us).

I don't know where we were taken because we had never really left our compound and gone anywhere.

We were told not to try to get out for our own safety because there were bombings everywhere.

On the third day in captivity, in the evening, they came and asked the Indians and the Bangladeshis to split into two groups.

They said they would first drop us off at the border and then come back for the Bangladeshis.

Then what happened?

Then they told us 40 Indians to get into a small truck.

It was suffocating inside; we couldn't see where we were going. But again, we felt no fear because we really thought they were taking us home.

They had treated us so well over the last three days, the thought didn't even cross our minds that our lives could be in danger.

After some time, the truck stopped and they told us to get off.

There were small hillocks all around the place. They asked us for our mobile phones and told us to kneel on the ground, next to each other, shoulder to shoulder.

Then they took position behind us, unslung their guns and took aim.

It was only then that I realised that they were going to kill us.

We begged for our lives, we wept for mercy, we told them we would convert to Islam... they said nothing.

Kuch nahin suna un logon ne. They didn't listen to us.

There were around 10 men, maybe more, I don't remember.

All of them had guns, but only some of the men shot at us. It wasn't just one man. Sabko fatafat maar diya.

I don't remember crying out. Or maybe I did, but the noise of the firing drowned it out.

I fell face down on the ground as soon as they began firing.

The man next to me was Balwant Rai from Shahpur village in Punjab. He was a large man and he fell on top of me.

IMAGE: Harjit with Manjinder Singh in Mosul. Manjinder's sister filed a human trafficking case against Harjit in 2016.

How did you survive?

I think Balwant Rai saved my life. His body covered me from the barrage of gunfire.

A single bullet had grazed my thigh, just above my knee, but other than that nothing.

My leg was bleeding, but it was a superficial cut.

People keep asking me the same question, how did I survive?

Mujhe abhi tak pata nahin, abhi tak samjha nahin (I still don't know, still can't understand).

I think I was semi-conscious throughout the shooting. I crawled out from under the dead weight of Balwant Rai's body.

The ISIS men had left by then, but it wasn't as if I waited for them to leave.

My mind wasn't working, I couldn't think that far.

The men were lying around me dead. There was blood on the bodies, under the bodies.

Nobody was crying out in pain or asking for help because nobody else was alive.

I did not turn over anybody that was face down, or go up to any of the men to see if they were alive.

I just knew they were dead.

I realised I had to get away from there.

I walked away, but there was no habitation around, no roads, nothing, just miles of nothingness.

After some hours, I came upon more bodies. They had been dead days ago. They had started smelling.

I stumbled onto a road. A man gave me a lift.

I asked him to drop me to Erbil, but he wasn't going there. So I said just take me to wherever you are going.

I rode with him, but after a bit he stopped a taxi and told me to get off.

The cabbie turned me over to the same ISIS men who had shot us. They did not recognise me.

They asked me my name, my pappa's name and what I was doing in Iraq.

I lied and said I was Ali from Bangladesh and I wanted to go back to the construction site where my mates awaited me.

I didn't even know if the Bangladeshis were alive, I just lied.

I pretended I didn't understand any of their questions.

They asked me which God I believed in. 'Upparwala ek hi hai, rab hai, khuda hai... I told them I believe in Him.'

I don't know if they felt sorry for me, but they organised to have me taken back to the construction site after a few days with them.

Didn't they ask you to prove you were a Muslim?

No, they didn't ask me a single question on their religion.

If they had, I would have come back with the rest of my mates in a coffin.

Back at the camp, what happened?

ISIS had released the Bangladeshis after they shot us and dropped them back at the camp.

They (the Bangladeshis) refused to believe my men had all been killed.

They kept saying I was lying, so I showed them the bullet wound on my leg.

They said they were going to Erbil the next morning and I could come with them.

They gave me a dhoti and shirt so I could pass off as a Bangladeshi and the next morning we were all dropped off at the checkpoint in Erbil which was manned by the Iraqis, not ISIS.

Thereafter, I spoke to the Indian embassy several times and even spoke to Sushma madam.

She asked me, 'Kya hua hai, beta? (what has happened, son)?'

I told her, 'madam yahan se mujhe nikal lo. Mujhe bahut darr lag raha hai (please get me out of here, I'm very scared).'

I was handed over to an Indian in Erbil. There I spoke to several more Indian embassy officials and all the while I kept telling them that the 39 Indians had been killed.

I stayed with that man for a couple of days and was later sent back to India.

Do you believe the government did all it could to help you and your mates get out of Iraq?

But what could the government do?

ISIS had occupied the area. Neither the government nor anyone else is responsible for what happened. Kisika koi kasoor nahin.

Was the government right in letting the families believe the men were still alive?

I had told the government they were all dead, but I guess they could not believe me because I was the only witness.

They did not have any proof of their death. Maybe there were political pressures as well.

Have you ever met Sushma Swaraj?

No, never. I met several people from the Indian government during my time in the custody of the government.

I would ask them their department, but they said they said they did not belong to any department and that they had just come to meet me. Mere dekhbhal ke liye (to look after me).

What happened in India after you returned?

For a year, I was in the custody of the government. I wasn't allowed to meet my family.

The government told me that I was in danger from the families of the men who had been killed.

At times I stayed in Gurgaon, at times in Bangalore, Greater Noida, then they sent me to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.

They said I would be given a job as an electrician in Dharamsala, but before I began work, I would be allowed to meet my family.

By then, nearly a year had gone by.

When I went back to Dharamsala for the job they had promised, there was nobody there, there was no job either. It was a dead end.

I came back home. That was June 2015.

Did your family know you were alive?

Yes, the government had informed them I was alive, and I was allowed to speak to them.

But I had been told not to tell my family anything about the other labourers.

By this time, the media got wind of the fact that I was alive and they would keep pestering me for interviews.

So I held a press conference in Chandigarh with Bhagwant Mann (the Aam Aadmi Party MP) and told everyone the truth.

Yet, the families of the other men said I was lying.

They said they had received calls from the men two days after the massacre and they would also return.

Mujhe kya takleef hai woh wapas aa jaye toh?( if they come back, what problem could I have?).

They are not my enemies, but I knew the truth.

What happened while you were in the government's custody? Were you tortured? Which agency interrogated you, what did they want to know?

They hardly interrogated me.

For the first few weeks in custody they just asked me about Iraq, the massacre, and every detail about my time there.

I was treated with the same attention and care that a child would be given.

Jaise bachcho ko rakthe hain. Food, clothing, I was given whatever I asked for.

But I don't know which agency had my custody. Nobody ever tortured me.

Didn't you ask why you couldn't go home?

I did, but they said my life was under threat from the families of the others.

And you believed them?

What else could I do?

But I guess the government was right because those families slapped a human trafficking case against me.

In 2016, I was arrested on human trafficking charges on the basis of a complaint filed by relatives of some of the missing men.

I had to spend six months in jail and am now out on bail.

Are you in touch with the Bangladeshis who worked with you in Mosul?

I would have liked to keep in touch, but their phone numbers were all local Iraqi numbers. The last time we met was at the check post in Erbil.

How do you respond to the human trafficking charges against you?

I went to Mosul with the other men. I had to pay an agent to get me there.

I don't even have a fan in my house. No agent lives in a kuccha house like this, they have lots of money.

How do you make a living now?

I used to work as an electrician before I went to Iraq. Now, I am a daily wager at a construction site.

I don't get work every day. I earn between Rs 100 and Rs 300 per day.

In a month I get work for around 25 days.

My father used to work at construction sites and his income helped run the family. But he died two years ago.

He died because of me, because of the shock of seeing me go to jail.

One brother is a plumber, the other is under training at a photo studio. My sister and mother work as household help.

In a good month, the family income would be around Rs 9,000, but that's hardly enough to feed five mouths.

I still have to pay back the loan of Rs 1.30 lakh which I had taken to go to Mosul.

Would you like to go back to Iraq?

I have already lost my father; I don't want to lose anyone else.

I hardly made money there, what will I get now? It's better that I work here.

What next?

I want the government to give me a job. I want to make my family happy.

I can get my brothers and sisters married, I can build a better house, I can take care of my family.

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