Freed Pakistani Sikh teenager recounts 40 days of Taliban torture

PESHAWAR: Luckily, 17 years old Gorvinder Singh has returned safe to his home in Peshawar’s Mohalla Jogan Shah. But the scars of physical torture on his body are still visible and the fear in his eyes speaks volumes of the ‘terror’ meted out to him and his fellow Sikhs for 40 days when they were in the custody of the abductors in the tribal region. Gorvinder Singh told this correspondent the tale of the 40 days, when he was at the mercy of militants in an undisclosed place.

On January 19, Gorvinder Singh, Surjeet Singh and Jaspal Singh were kidnapped from Mathra area of Khyber region when they, along with two other Sikhs, were on the way to Tirah valley in connection with their business enterprise. They were traveling in a rented vehicle.

“When we reached Mathra area in Khyber tribal region, we were stopped by some 12 militants. All of them were holding AK-47 rifles. Some of them covered their faces with a long piece of cloth hanging from their turbans. They dragged out the driver from his seat, slapped him on the face and ordered to hand over the car and leave the place. While some of the militants were still fixing the driver, two of our colleagues found an opportunity to make good their escape,” Gorvinder said, adding that they were taken away in the same vehicle.

The humiliation began in the vehicle when militants forcefully took off the captives’ turbans, blindfolded them and cuffed their hands behind. After more than an hour’s drive on a bumpy rugged road, the vehicle was stopped at the roadside and they were brought out, Govinder said.

“Our eyes and hands were opened. There were mountains all around. They asked us to follow the three militants while the rest of them were following us. After some five hours of tiresome walk, we reached a spot in the mountains having two small huts. When we arrived, three militants were already there.

We were told to sit on the

ground. Meanwhile, one person with scissors came to us and started cutting Jaspal’s hair short. Then came Surjeet’s turn and finally it was mine.”

Gorwinder went on to say that Jaspal started weeping loud.

One of the abductor started kicking him indiscriminately in the back, shouting at him to shut up. However, another militant with long curly hair brought tea and bread (nan) and asked the guy to stop kicking Jaspal.

“For the next 40 days, tea

and bread was our only meal,”

he added. According to Gorvinder, as the darkness set in, they took them into one of the huts and shackled them.

“In the morning they used to open our chains and take us out. But the practice of putting chains at night continued for 40 days.”

On the first morning, Gorvinder said, militants asked them for the telephone numbers of their families and elders of the Sikh community. “At noon they started contacting our families in front of us and it was here that we came to know that we were kidnapped for ransom. They warned them not to disclose this episode and arrange Rs 50 million, which came down to 20 million in the next few days.”

When asked whether the militants compelled them to accept Islam, Govinder said their only demand was money. “We did not see any one of them offering prayers even once,” he revealed.

The talks between militants and Sikh elders on the one hand and physical torture of the captives on the other continued for weeks to come. “Always before contacting our families, they used to thrash us so that our family should feel the pain and pay the ransom,” he lamented.

After three weeks, the abductors gave an ultimatum to the families of the captives that if their demand was not met by February 19, they will kill one of them. On February 18, Gorvinder said, the militants took away Jaspal Singh and after two days they were told that Jaspal was killed.

“But we didn’t trust them and thought they may be using it as a pressure tactic to get money,” he stated. The issue of the Sikh abductees came into the limelight when the body of Jaspal Singh was found beheaded on a roadside in the volatile tribal region.

To avoid any harm to the helpless Sikhs, their elders tried to hide the news while making efforts, behind the scene, for the safe release of their loved ones. But Jaspal’s murder finally revealed the truth.

Arbabullah, a political activist at Jogan Shah, popularly known as ‘pir’ of the Sikhs for his close association with the community, told this daily that a delegation of Sikh elders went to Khyber tribal region to meet the militant commander Mangal Bagh and sought his help for the safe release of the abductees. “But the abductors were so resourceful that even Mangal Bagh failed to secure their release,” Arbabullah said.

However, fate seemed to have smiled on Gorvinder and Surjeet when one fine morning the security forces launched military offensive against the kidnappers.

“Our chains were not yet opened when we heard helicopters hovering around

in the midst of random gunshots. Three militants inside our hut rushed out and we were left alone. Following this, we came out but did not find any of the militants. Meanwhile, Surjeet sustained stomach injuries as a result of accidental bullet shots,” he explained.

The firing continued for some time and then troops appeared, closing in on the huts.

“When they came towards us we put our hands up. They

started inquiring about our identities. We told them that we belong to the Sikh community

and were kept here by militants who had fled.

Our appearances were deceptive for them, as we were not wearing the turbans. Besides our hair was cut short. Finally they removed our trousers to

check out whether we were circumcised or not. And then we were airlifted in a chopper from the area and were brought to Peshawar,” he added.

Historically, Pakistan’s tribal areas have served as safe havens for criminals. But with the rising militancy, crimes in the restive tribal belt increased manifold.