Waited 4 years for news from Mosul. Today, they're devastated
They waited four long years. They waited in Punjab, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal. They waited on birthdays and wedding anniversaries, on festival days and new year's eves.
When the government said it believed their husbands, brothers and children were alive, they listened. But today, they heard their country's foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, say this in Parliament.
"With full proof I can say these 39 are dead."
The construction workers who were kidnapped by Islamic State terrorists in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, and have been missing since then, will not be coming home. Their bodies were recovered from a mound in Badush.
"Why did the government give false hope to the nation for three and a half years that the people were still alive? That was disappointing behaviour," Shashi Tharoor, the MP from Thiruvananthapuram, wrote in a tweet.
At least four family members who spoke to the news agency Asian News International echoed that sentiment.
"For the past four years, EAM (the External Affairs Minister) was telling me that they were alive, (I) don't know what to believe anymore," said Gurpinder Kaur, who learned of her brother Manjinder's death today. "I am waiting to speak with her. No information was given to us. We heard her statement (which) she made in Parliament."
At a press conference, Swaraj said that by informing the legislature first, she was only following parliamentary procedure. An explanation that's unlikely to console Gurpinder.
"Yes, she was supposed to announce this in Parliament first, but he was part of our family," the young woman told ANI. "All she cared about was her reputation. She used to say they're like her children, if that's the case, where's her sorrow?"
"We should have been contacted as soon as they received the information. Had that been done, it would not have been such a huge blow."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Swaraj and her colleague in the foreign ministry, General (Retired) VK Singh, had "left no stone unturned" to locate and bring home the missing workers.
"We appreciate (the) efforts of (the) government and of officials who worked hard to take the sad episode to a conclusion over the past four years," said President Ram Nath Kovind.
But that this conclusion - the sudden, desolating culmination of a prolonged wait - left the victim's families numb with shock, was palpable in their testimonies.
"He had left for Iraq seven years ago," said Kamaljeet Kaur, whose husband Roop Lal was killed. "We last talked to each other in 2015. They had taken DNA samples two to three months back. I don't know what to say."
"He left for Mosul in 2013-14. They had been saying that all of them are alright, and now they say this," said Harjit Kaur, the wife of Gurcharan Singh. "I don't even know what to say."
Again and again, that same refrain of speechless devastation.
"I don't know what to say," said Puroshottam Tiwari, who's mourning the loss of his nephew Vidya. Since 2014, I had been pleading with the government to bring him back somehow, and today, they say that he is no more."
'WANT DNA REPORTS'
DNA tests were used to confirm that the mortal remains found in Badush were those of the missing Indian nationals.
Not all the bodies have been identified. Swaraj said one was a 70 percent match, as his parents were both dead and the DNA sample of next of kin was provided.
Gurpinder Kaur says she wants to see the DNA reports.
"We demand from (the) government to provide us DNA reports," she said. "It's being politicised. We had been running from pillar to post...(for) four years, and now we're being told via TV that we lost one of our own."
But others say they aren't making any demands of the Modi administration.
"We don't demand anything from the government," said the wives of Surjit Kumar Menka and Davinder Singh. But Menka's spouse added, "I have a small child. I have no support."
Amarinder Singh, the Chief Minister of Punjab (the state from which most of the workers hail), has asked the Centre to provide compensation to the bereaved families.
But what amount of ex-gratia relief can compensate for the loss of a loved one?
"What demand do I make from them?" asked Rajesh Chand, who lost his son Aman in Mosul. "I have already lost him."
(With inputs from Mausami Singh, and news agencies ANI and Reuters)