Behind the scenes: The Iraq hostage crisis that wasn’t

The nurses were in danger but not in the way it was reported. An account of the peculiar politics of a war zone

shreerupa

Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | July 16, 2014


The nurses returned home on July 5, ending days of uncertainty.
The nurses returned home on July 5, ending days of uncertainty.

On July 5, the special AI-160 flight carrying 46 Indian nurses and 137 other Indians from strife-torn Iraq to Kochi had to make an unscheduled stop at Mumbai. The five-hour delay was but a blip in the intense hostage drama that the nurses faced in Iraq. The calculus of the crisis that had gripped the national imagination for almost a week, however, was misdirected. There were hostages and there was danger; but not in the role-playing order delineated in the popular narrative.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), re-christened as Islamic State (IS), an army of Sunni militants disgruntled with the Shia Iraqi administration, along with the former Ba’athist Naqshbandi and other Sunni groups, proceeded from Syria, capturing swathes of territory on the Iraq-Syria border. They took over Mosul, the second largest city of Iraq, on June 9. At around 2 pm, June 11, Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussain, also fell into their hands. According to reports, not a single bullet was fired; it was a “peaceful” transition with tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces fleeing ground zero.

In the north of Tikrit was the Tikrit teaching hospital where the 46 Indian nurses lived and worked. They were already in a hostage-like situation, if one applies the definition given by the official spokesperson of the Indian government, Syed Akbaruddin, as “the lack of free will”. They were not allowed to go out of the hospital premises ever. One of the nurses, Sumi, told Governance Now that in her nine months of stay there she had never ventured out.

On June 12, the hospital had some unexpected visitors, who would eventually turn out to be the saviours of these holed-up, helpless women. Soon after the IS men entered the building, the Iraqi staff reportedly fled, leaving the patients and nurses to fend for themselves. Of the 46 Indian nurses, 31 were housed on the second floor of the residential part of the hospital while 15 were on the ground floor. The nurses and their ‘captors’ co-existed for 23 days (not five days as has been portrayed by the government and widely reported in the media).
Without exception, the nurses vouch for the decent behaviour of the militants. On the other hand, the Iraqi army was bombarding the vicinity, even as it was aware of the presence of foreign nationals in the building. In fact, the emergency ward of the hospital was bombed, in which three patients were killed and three cars gutted. These claims were not confirmed by the Indian government.

In New Delhi, meanwhile, the government had a lot on its plate. The nurses had contacted the Indian embassy in Baghdad on June 12. But the first time the government mentioned them was on June 18, in a reply to a query by a journalist in a media briefing, saying, of the 46, several wished to stay back.

Almost a fortnight later Akbaruddin denied the presence of IS in the hospital. “By our last communication, as of now none has intruded into the hospital. Number two, they have electricity and food supplies. We are working with a variety of people to try and see how best we can move them out from there,” he told media on June 25.

Media briefings on the Iraq situation were held almost every day from mid-June onward. Each time the focus was, however, on the evacuation of Indians from non-conflict zones and the 39 Indian construction workers who had been taken to Mosul by IS. They remain in captivity as of July 11. Nobody got a whiff of the real crisis the Modi government was facing. The government was like a duck paddling furiously under water but retaining a tranquil demeanour above it.

The Indian government maintained that it was difficult to have road access owing to incessant firing and bombing and hence it was safe for the nurses to stay in the hospital building. The IS, on the other hand, reportedly wanted to directly negotiate with the Indian government as it was apprehensive that the Iraqi army might kill the nurses and blame it on the IS. According to a media report, one of the militants told the nurses, “We are not targeting you.” A large number of the IS, as mentioned above, are from the former Ba’athist party; a party which had very friendly relations with India during the Saddam regime. In fact, Saddam had played down the Babri Masjid issue and had let the Indian envoy to Baghdad go with a mild rebuke after the incident.

The now famous statement of the government knocking on all doors, “front door, back door and trap doors” in the face of suspension of conventional diplomacy, which was thought to be made in the context of the 39 construction workers was actually more applicable for negotiation with the IS in the Tikrit hospital building. The emotive issue of 46 women engaged in the noble profession of nursing, if killed by the Islamic militants (or any other group for that matter) would have proved hugely detrimental to Modi’s image.

On June 20, prime minister Narendra Modi met the newly appointed national security adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. Doval, a trusted man of Modi, left for Baghdad on June 24. In the media briefings, meanwhile, the government only mentioned Suresh Reddy, a former ambassador to Iraq, among the senior government people in Baghdad from India. The ex-spymaster had already pitched his tent there by then.

In the meantime, the nurses were as safe as one can be in such a conflict zone, in the hospital. The IS men advised them to move to the basement when firing from the Iraqi army got worse. According to a nurse, the militants told some of them that they were free to leave if they pleased, though there was a danger of being bombed by the army. The Indian embassy, however, advised the nurses not to move.
By June 30, the bombing worsened. Doval and the other major players through interlocutors by then had already negotiated with the captors. It is unlikely that money was exchanged since the IS controls some oil fields and is reportedly cash rich at the moment.

On July 3, the ‘captors’ knocked on the nurses’ doors and gave them exactly 15 minutes to pack up. Fearing the worst and startled by the sudden change in the militants’ behaviour, the nurses boarded the vehicles waiting for them. New Delhi announced that the nurses were being ‘moved’ by IS to an “unknown location”. Describing the situation as one of “grave difficulty”, the impression went out that the nurses were taken hostage afresh and were being moved out of the reach of the Indian government while the reality was that the nurses were driving to their freedom with the knowledge of the Indian government. Sure, there was danger, but not from the IS.

One of the nurses summed up the situation thus: “It is because of them [IS] that we are here [back in India].”

The nurses were taken to Mosul, the stronghold of the IS. The drive from Tikrit to Mosul took five hours. On July 4, the nurses were taken to the Mosul-Erbil border where two Indian officials were waiting to take them to the Erbil airport. The flight had a woman officer from Kerala and joint secretary SN Sinha accompanying the shaken nurses on their journey home.

Interestingly, AI-160 was initially denied permission to land in Erbil by the Maliki regime. Frantic calls ensued from Swaraj and Modi’s office after which the flight was allowed to land. More trouble followed when the aircraft needed refuelling but was denied citing shortages. Some more high profile calls later the flight eventually took off for Kochi around the dawn of July 5.

(This story appeared in the July 16-31, 2014 issue of the magazine)

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