Every year, May 12 is observed as the International Nurses Day to honour the work done by nurses and mark the contribution that they make to society. This year, the day holds special significance, given that thousands and lakhs of nurses are working tirelessly across the globe in the battle against the COVID-19 outbreak.
On this year’s International Nurses Day, it is worth revisiting the dramatic escape of a group of 46 nurses from the ISIS stronghold of Tikrit about seven years ago. In June 2014, depressing news trickled in from the strife-torn Iraq, where the Islamic State was making rapid territorial gains. The ISIS terrorists had managed to intrude into Tikrit as the Civil War between them and the Iraqi Army escalated.
On the midnight of 12 June 2014, all the nurses, both Indian and Iraqis, heard a crackle of bullets on a road nearby the hospital. For the Indian nurses, this was their first brush with Iraq’s changing reality as they heard a volley of bullets being fired, along with a loud thud of noise coming from grenade explosions. Soon, the Iraqi nurses whispered among themselves to flee the town. The Indians, on the other hand, knew they had nowhere to go. 46 Indian nurses were stranded in the hospital. All except one of the 46 nurses were from Kerala.
The next day, ISIS terrorists had occupied the ground floor of the hospital. The Indian nurses lived on the second floor of the hospital in the makeshift dormitories. All the hospital staff, including the patients, were hoarded up on the second floor as the incessant firing continued on the ground floor.
One of the nurses who were present at the hospital later recalled how the masked ISIS terrorists wielding guns came up on the second floor every once in a while, asking them to check on the patients downstairs. Terrified, they would accompany them and follow their orders. Amidst the gloom of being in captivity of ISIS, their only reprieve was their mobile phones, and they had the Indian embassy’s number on it.
On June 13, they called up Ajay Kumar, the Indian ambassador in Baghdad, and asked him to help them move out of the hospital. On the same day, they called the then Kerala CM Oommen Chandy, who reportedly offered them support and asked them to not worry. He reportedly told the nurses that the roads in Tikrit had been closed, and it was not advisable for them to travel in such circumstances.
For days on end, the nurses lived in perpetual fear of being assaulted and executed at the hands of their ISIS captors, who were also known for committing unspeakable atrocities against women and holding them as sex slaves. They spent their time in captivity watching TV bulletins and surfing news on their phones, until the television stopped working and the internet was no longer available on the phones.
Subsequently, the wards of the hospital began to empty out. In about 10 days, everyone had cleared out of the hospital, except the Indian nurses. Hopes of evacuation started diminishing as the nurses were informed that the ISIS fighters were advancing and would anytime soon capture the city and the entire hospital.
On the morning of June 30, the terrorists commanded them to vacate the hospital by 6:45 pm. Overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, the nurses called up Chandy and Kumar and told them about the ultimatum given by the ISIS terrorists. They both asked the nurses to follow the directives of the terrorists, for disobeying them would be dangerous and could invite their wrath. However, the terrorists did not turn up that evening.
With terrorists not coming to fetch them, the nurses stayed in the hospital for the next few days. On July 3, a group of ISIS fighters emerged and asked the nurses to vacate the hospital in 15 minutes. They were being shifted to Mosul. A bus was standing outside the hospital to transport the nurses. Terrified by the fate awaiting them, the nurses rang up the Indian Embassy and informed them about the development. They were advised to plead with the terrorists to let them off but to go with them if they did not relent.
As the nurses lugged themselves onto the bus, the terrorists assured them that they were not going to harm the nurses, and escort them to safety. They told them that they were being taken to Mosul and then to the Erbil airport from where they could fly back to their country. They were taken to an air-conditioned room where they were asked to sleep.
Throughout their ordeal, the Indian Embassy in Baghdad steadfastly kept in touch with them on phone and at times recharging their prepaid cell phones. The next day, that is, on July 4, the terrorists returned and asked the nurses to get ready to leave for the airport. The ISIS terrorists had arranged new buses to ferry the nurses and escort them to the border, where they had an office.
After reaching the border, the nurses patiently waited for the rescue team but could not get in touch with them. There was no phone network at the place. The rescue team was 5 km away but they were not allowed to enter the ISIS-controlled area.
The office staff then arranged another bus to ferry the nurses to the rescue team. They were then taken to the military office, and then Erbil airport after their documents were verified. The Indian Government had arranged a special flight from Delhi to Erbil to fly the nurses back. After 23 days of traumatic experience, the nurses, unscathed and unharmed, finally boarded the flight on July 5 and returned home.
The escape, which was dramatic and unprecedented, given that ISIS had become notorious for meting out brutalities on their hostages, is partly credited to the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who was continuously in touch with all the major countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iraq. It is believed that New Delhi activated informal channels and established peripheral contacts with ISIS, and other splinter groups in Iraq to precipitate the rescue. The foreign ministry later refused to identify interlocutors who had negotiated the release of the nurses.
It is also said that important businessmen residing in the Gulf countries played a pivotal role in helping the release of nurses. According to the sources, at least a couple of prominent Malayalee businessmen were active along with various contacts in the Gulf region, to secure the release of the nurses.
The horrifying ordeal of Indian nurses stranded in a hospital in Iraq amidst the spectre of ISIS occupation was adapted in a Bollywood movie Tiger Zinda Hai that had Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif in lead roles.