When four militants corralled M.J. Nithyamol and 45 other Indian nurses into a bus, smoke was rising behind them from the bombed-out emergency ward of their hospital. Blood had yet to dry on its crumbling walls. Bits of human flesh and hair still stuck to the rubble.
That was when Nithyamol, 29, had a fleeting, terrifying vision of her own possible end in the bleak emptiness of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's battle-ravaged hometown in Iraq. She and the others had just been ordered out of the hospital by the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Assault rifles jangled by their side, the faces were inscrutable behind dark glasses and black balaclavas. One of them suddenly turned and cocked a rifle. As Nithyamol gasped, he pointed the barrel to the top-floor windows of the Tikrit Teaching Hospital-the nurses' home, workplace and refuge all through the past week while the din of gunfire and exploding bombs closed in on them. The man let off a volley of bullets and shards of glass rained down on them.
Some of the nurses screamed, a few ran to pick up three of their bleeding colleagues injured by the broken glass. The bus moved. The nurses wept, hugged and consoled each other and prayed through an eight-hour ride to Mosul. It was a circuitous route, possibly because the roads were not safe. For the nurses, there was no way of knowing: The windows were draped in thick curtains. A black flag and a banner scrawled in Arabic fluttered in the front-apparently to alert other militants stalking the route to hold their fire. A van with the nurses' luggage followed the bus, and three militants brought up the rear in a dusty, beat-up car. The fourth rode in the bus with them. All 46 of the nurses had reached Iraq just a few months earlier. They were recruited by a Delhi-based agency, which charged them Rs 1.5 lakh each and promised a monthly salary of $750.
"We took the offer since several nurses we knew were already working in Iraq. They said they faced no problems," says Neena Joseph, 25, one of the nurses, who is now trying to live down her ordeal at her home in Thalayolaparambu, Kottayam. The first batch of 33 nurses reached Iraq on August 16 last year. The remaining 13 flew in this February. From the moment they joined the Tikrit hospital, the nurses were confined to the building. "We were never allowed to go out. Our only familiarity with the town was the skyline we saw from the windows on the second floor where all the nurses stayed, six in each room," recalls Nithyamol. They had their first brush with Iraq's new realities on June 12, when the crackle of gunfire sounded near the hospital, and the nights were lit up with burning buildings. Soon, the Iraqi nurses whispered that they were about to flee the town. The Indians knew they were trapped.
There was one lifeline, though. Their cell phones still worked, and they had the Indian embassy's number. "On June 13, we called up Ajay Kumar, the Indian ambassador in Baghdad, and pleaded with him to move us out,'' Nithyamol recalls. All except one of the 46 nurses were from Kerala, and they rang up Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. "He offered his support and asked us not to worry. He said the roads in Tikrit had been closed and it was not advisable to travel in such circumstances," says Sandra Sebastian, 25, a nurse from Ramapuram in Kottayam.
The wards of the huge hospital began to empty out. The nurses spent the days watching TV bulletins and scrolling news on their phones-until the television stopped working and internet was no longer available on the phones. They had no clue what went on beyond their windows. "For a while, we thought it was just a clash between two local groups in Tikrit. But soon enough our window panes trembled from blasts that became more frequent," says Nithyamol. One day the Department of Non-Resident Keralites' Affairs of the Kerala government called them, asking for their passport numbers and other details for an evacuation.
It did not take long for the hospital to run out of food. The nurses would have starved, but for a kind and daring Iraqi official. He brought them food through the next two weeks. "We know him only as Dr Mohamed from the Iraqi health ministry. He stayed near the hospital and would come and help us every time we gave him a missed call on his mobile,'' Nithyamol recalls. By June-end, Dr Mohamed told them that he would not be around anymore. He said the militants were advancing. It was just a matter of time before the rebels took control of the hospital. By then, the two Iraqi soldiers who were guarding the hospital had also vanished.
The next day, the militants reached the hospital. "They wore black clothes, balaclavas and sunglasses. We were frightened. They brought in a few of their men who were badly injured and asked us to attend to them," says Nithyamol. On the morning of June 30, the militants ordered them to vacate the hospital by 6.45 p.m. The nurses managed to ring up Chandy and Kumar. "Both of them asked us to do what the militants demanded, since it would be dangerous to disobey them. But the militants did not turn up that evening," says Nithyamol.
On July 2, a bomb tore through the hospital, bringing down its emergency ward and blood bank. Blasts echoed all around and Nithyamol watched a building burning 100 metres away. "Burnt cars and trucks littered the street, flesh rotted in what was left of the emergency ward," she recalls. That evening, the militants came back and asked them to pack their belongings in five hours and leave with them. Again, the nurses called up the Indian Embassy and Chandy. "Both of them asked us to remain calm and said the Indian Government would do everything to rescue us,'' says Nithyamol. Once again, no militant turned up to take them away.
But the next day, they came. "They arrived around 11.30 in the morning and asked us to leave the hospital in 15 minutes. They said they were going to blow up the hospital but wanted to shift us to Mosul. We immediately rang up the Indian Embassy. The officials asked us to try and plead with the militants to spare us, but to go with them if they didn't relent. They said the Government might consider a commando operation to rescue us if things went bad,'' says Sebastian. Soon, the weeping, terrified nurses shuffled towards a bus waiting outside the hospital.
The militants told them they would come to no harm. They assured the nurses that they would be taken to Mosul and then to the Erbil airport from where they could fly to freedom. Once the bus started, some of the nurses' mobile phones rang. The nurses still don't know who the callers from New Delhi were. But they were asked to peep out of the windows and text the names on the signboards along the route. In Mosul, they were asked to alight the bus in batches of 10. "We thought they were lining us up for execution and were terrified. We finally walked through a small passage into a hall which had four air conditioners that had just been unpacked. We still suspected that the militants would use us to wangle a ransom from the Indian Government. The man guarding us asked us to cover our heads, fingers and toes," says Nithyamol. Their armed captors served them khubz, dal and cheese.
They then lugged in some mattresses and asked the nurses to go to sleep. All through this journey, the Indian embassy in Baghdad kept in touch with the nurses through text messages, and even recharged their prepaid cell phones. But the room they were now in had no socket and, one by one, their phone batteries were dying. On July 4, the nurses were asked to get ready to go to the airport. They rang up Ambassador Kumar, who advised them to go with the militants. Their bus was intercepted, presumably by other militants, thrice on the way to the airport. "We were asked to get down at a place and get inside a building.
Thankfully, it had an electrical socket and we charged a cell phone but there was no signal. Two of us had the SIM of another service provider and we used those to ring up the ambassador. He asked us to walk out of the building and enter a vehicle parked nearby, after confirming that the driver's name was Abdul Shah. But we found no driver or vehicle outside," says Nithyamol. "Later, the militants returned and asked us to board a bus. It took us to a spot where a couple of Indian embassy officials were waiting for us. The officials rushed us to the Erbil international airport by 8.45 p.m.," says Nithyamol. Though this would indicate that the Indian Embassy was in touch with the militant captors at least during the last leg of the drama, the Government is silent on the details. The nurses finally boarded their flight to safety at 4.10 a.m. (local time) on July 5.
The ordeal is not over. Most of these young women are staring at an uncertain future. They come from poor families who borrowed whatever they could, pledged and sold their property- all to pay their way to a job in Iraq that they no longer have. "I went there hoping to support my father who is a daily wage earner. My father had pledged our home for the Rs 1.5 lakh that I needed to pay for the job in Iraq," says Nithyamol.
Nurses are paid poorly in most hospitals in Kerala. "They are paid less than Rs 6,000 a month. So many go to Iraq or other Gulf countries to repay their debts and loans," says Jasmin Shah, president, the Kerala Nurses' Association.
That's why just as Nithyamol and 45 of her colleagues were being brought back to Kerala, five other nurses risked everything and flew to Iraq.
Reproduced From India Today. © 2014. LMIL. All rights reserved.