Nurses at Tikrit

That was the time when nurses thought their lives were at captors’ mercy. The insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had just given an ultimatum to the 46 nurses holed up in the basement of a hospital in strife-torn Tikrit in Iraq to board a bus and they feared they would not see another sunrise.

What the nurses did not knew was that it was part of the plan finalised by Indian officials along with negotiators to safely evacuate them from Tikrit, which is expected to face the brunt of an impending attack by Iraqi forces who are aiming to reclaim the territory.

As negotiations were on, Indian authorities had initially asked the nurses not to get out of the hospital basement they were staying for the past some time. However, as negotiations proceeded, the ISIS insurgents brought four buses to the hospital and asked the nurses to board the bus but they refused.

As the nurses remained adamant, the ISIS insurgents had no other way to persuade them and even warned them about possible attacks on the hospital.

At one point of time, sources said, the insurgents even threatened that they should board the bus in 15 minutes or face consequences. Panicked nurses then telephoned Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala seeking their opinion.

They gave the nod to the nurses to board the bus but did not provide much details about the evacuation plan as the administration feared that leaking of their evacuation plans could jeopardise the exercise. The nurses and their families were in touch with media and the administration feared that every move could come in public domain.

Neither the Kerala government nor the External Affairs Ministry gave an account of how they managed the evacuation though there were reports that both Kerala and Central governments tapped their sources in the Middle East to broker an agreement with the ISIS for safe evacuation. It was speculated that some Kerala businessmen based in the Middle East were also tasked to help the Indian officials.

For the nurses, the reassurance came only when those who took them from Tikrit to Mosul, an ISIS stronghold, behaved sympathetically with them. “They told us that you are all our sisters. You would not be harmed. But we did not believe them”, Sandra, one of the nurses, said in Kochi as she returned.

The ISIS had even offered the nurses a new contract to work in the hospital but with a lesser salary as they had not much resource to pay them what they were getting already. However, the nurses refused and wanted to return home as early as possible.

At Mosul, they were given food and bed to sleep. In contrast, the nurses had moved into the basement of the Tikrit hospital following attacks and had a hard time there. There was no air-conditioner in the basement and they used to pour water on their beds to keep it cool.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on July 6, 2014)

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