Indian Nurses Back Home From Iraq: Job Half Done, But MEA Deserves Congratulations

Although what transpired finally between the MEA officials and ISIS would not be known, it should be noted that another lot of 39 Indian construction workers is still with ISIS in captivity.

It was a mammoth task to bring the 46 Indian nurses, stranded in the conflict-ridden zone of Iraq, back home.

These nurses were working in a hospital in slain Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s hometown Tikrit. They could have returned well on time when the ISIS waged war against the government but many of them had not received two months’ salary and, in order to repay their loans, stayed in the conflicted zone.

The Indian government was constantly monitoring the events and movement of every Indian stranded in Iraq along with the whereabouts of these nurses. The ISIS militants had moved these nurses from Tikrit to Mosul on a bus on Thursday. According to reports, the nurses were quite afraid and while talking to their families had shown loss of hope. Uncertainty was looming as to what the Sunni militants, who have done too many atrocities against women, will do to them.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had its eyes on the event and was constantly trying for their freedom. But the ISIS move had baffled them too.

What transpired on Friday was unexpected, dramatic, yet fruitful for the country.

The ISIS militants, after keeping the nurses in Mosul for a brief period, moved them again – to Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq’s north.

The MEA silently arranged for a special plane and brought the nurses back from Erbil.

According to reports, also on the flight back to Kochi and, subsequently, Delhi, will be 70 other Indian nationals who had reached Erbil from Kirkuk. Two government officials, MEA joint secretary (Personnel) S K Sinha and a Kerala government official, were on the flight that left Delhi on Friday evening to bring back the 116 Indians.

The Indian Express quoted MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin detailing the events. The report read: He (Akbaruddin) said that a team of Indian officials had been sent to Erbil earlier as part of a “carefully crafted” strategy. “This process did not happen just like that.” The spokesperson said External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had been in touch with several of her counterparts in the Gulf. “We were using other doors as well… one of those doors opened, and we were able to extricate our Indian nationals.” “Conventional tools of diplomacy” did not exist in a war-like situation, Akbaruddin said, adding, “It was an extremely difficult situation. We were in contact using very unconventional methods.”

“Quiet work” had happened, he said, adding that India “has friends not only in Iraq, but also outside. It was a national endeavour. While the External affairs Minister led the diplomatic effort, we were always in contact with what was happening. We remained in touch through other tools. National assets are being used in the endeavour.”

Asked if Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been personally involved in the process, Akbaruddin said, “The Prime Minister is hands on all the time.” Swaraj, the spokesperson said, had been chairing a high-level meeting almost every day, sometimes cancelling other engagements, while the MEA’s secretary (East) Anil Wadhwa chaired a high-level group meeting twice daily.”

The Hindu spoke to a Mareena Jose while she was on her way back with other 45 nurses: ““We are all so happy. It is indescribable…no amount of words can express it…I can’t wait to meet my family…they have been so worried this whole time. We never thought we would come out of this situation alive…we thank everyone…the government, the officials, the media…for tracking us…watching over us…and finally helping us get out,” she said.

“We left Mosul today [Friday] morning at 10 am. From there they took us in a bus to a place along the Erbil-Mosul border…our embassy officials received us there and took us to a hotel…and now we are going to the Erbil airport,” she said.

She said they had been in captivity for the last 20 days but the situation worsened over the last four days. “Last four-five days were very worrying…everyday, we would hear gunshots outside our hospital building. Bombs kept going off…so we used to go down to the basement every night,” said Ms. Mareena.

There was a great deal of negotiation to bring the nurses back. But the militants did not negotiate for the release of the nurses and other Indians in monetary terms. Not only they consider ransom un-Islamic, they have money in abundance too – the ISIS is reported to be worth $4 billion.

Given the complexity of the situation and the reports of ISIS capturing Indians for the skilled labour that they would have needed to run their ‘caliphate’, the Indian government had also sought the help of Saudi authorities who too put in a word with the ISIS.

The hostage situation was deepening and the militants were refusing to release the nurses in Tikrit itself as it would have revealed their location. The movement from Tikrit to Mosul to Erbil was just to keep their organization safe while providing a passage to the Indians.

Although what transpired finally between the MEA officials and ISIS would not be known, it should be noted that another lot of 39 Indian construction workers is still with ISIS in captivity.

The work is half done, but MEA must be congratulated.

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