New Delhi: Mosul was declared liberated from the Islamic State in July 2017. A month later, when Indian officials arrived, they found that 39 Indians taken hostage by the terrorists of the so-called caliphate were missing. The Indian authorities were informed about mass graves in Badush, a village northwest of Mosul, which had a prison cell operated by the Islamic State terrorists.
File photo of Mosul in Iraq. AP
One mass grave had exactly 39 bodies and India's worst fears came true. Around 700 people taken hostage by Islamic State at Mosul were taken to Badush prison and executed. A missive was sent to New Delhi, which contacted the state government to arrange DNA samples of family members of 39 missing Indians. The process was finally completed with the help of respective district magistrates in October- November 2017.
Pappu Singh, brother of Santosh from Bihar, who went to Iraq in 2011, confirmed to Firstpost that he, his sister and mother gave the samples at district magistrate office in Bihar's Siwan. The family members met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in January 2017 in New Delhi. When they were called for DNA samples, the family was not informed whether Santosh, 28, was dead or alive.
"We were told this was to ascertain certain identification process, but we were not told that Santosh is dead. We had no means to question the district authorities further. At least they should have told our mother," Pappu said.
The hunt for the missing Indians began in June 2014 when Indian embassy in Baghdad informed Ministry of External Affairs that they lost contact with 40 construction workers in Mosul. Friendly intelligence services informed Indian counterparts that after capturing Mosul, Islamic State carried out mass executions in the city and barring Sunni hostages, others may not have survived.
Sources in the intelligence agencies said National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and then Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief Asif Ibrahim made a trip to Baghdad sometime during the last week of June to coordinate the operation to evacuate Indians stranded in war-torn nation as well as carry out discussions with officials from Iraqi interior ministry on the whereabouts of missing Indians.
"Intelligence became a rare commodity after fall of Mosul and Tikrit. Some inputs were received from fleeing residents and prisoners who escaped executions. Harjit Masih, the Indian who managed to escape along with Bangladeshis claimed all 39 had been killed but there were inconsistencies in his statement, prompting the Indian government to continue search for missing Indians instead of declaring them dead. In December 2014, an intelligence input suggested that the missing Indians may not have survived," sources said.
Months later, an intelligence report quoting an unidentified humanitarian worker claimed that missing Indians were killed in June 2014, however, Indian government wanted to plug all the loopholes through proper inquiry. In late 2015, reports suggested that 39 Indians were working as labourers in Islamic State-controlled territory.
"It was a war-like situation and any input trickling in from Iraq was vetted and forwarded to top officials in the government. Although some of us in the intelligence agencies believed that all 39 were killed, it could not be officially confirmed to the families because it would been wrong on the part of the government," intelligence sources said.
Minister of State for External Affairs Gen (Retd) VK Singh made two trips to Iraq after Mosul was liberated and visited Badush where mass graves " including that of 39 Indians " were discovered.
Former CBI forensic expert doctor SC Mittal told Firstpost that DNA test was only option to ascertain the identity of missing Indians after deep penetration radar showed bones lying beneath rubble.
"If the DNA sample of next of kin is available, it takes couple of days to confirm the identity. In the present case, after first confirmation, Iraq's Martyrs Foundation started conducting test on other bodies. The cells remain alive for 10 to 15 years and in some cases, for a longer period. There was no doubt about the information which came from Iraq because in DNA testing, even if you have a tiny piece of tooth and hair, the identity can be easily established," Mittal said.
Sushma Swaraj told Parliament that she declared them dead only after getting concrete evidence. The Opposition slammed the government for giving hopes to the families and delaying announcement of deaths. However, former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told Firstpost it would have been wrong on the part of the government to declare them dead before mounting a search in liberated Mosul.
"The government did its job properly. Initially, there was no reason for us to believe that Islamic State could kill Indians the way they were targeting Yazidi and Christians, because India has not been in direct confrontation with them. By attacking the government, Opposition is diminishing the importance of the issue. It is not about BJP and Congress. What would anybody gain by withholding such information? I think the announcement has been made after a thorough investigation," Sibal told Firstpost.