PESHAWAR: All that the Pakistani Taliban wanted was money and that’s all they talked about, says Gurvinder Singh, one of the two Sikhs from Peshawar who were rescued after 40 days of captivity with the Pashtun-speaking terrorists. The Taliban beheaded the third abducted Sikh trader last month because their ransom demand wasn’t met.
Gurvinder’s story blows the myth the Pakistani Taliban has built around itself as a band of fighters for Islam.
“All the bandits wanted was money. They were not religious men. We did not see any one of them offering prayers even once,” he said at his home in Peshawar’s Mohallah Jagan Shah. The area near Khyber Pass, from where they were rescued, is under the influence of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan commanders Nazir Afridi, Adnan Afridi and Tariq Afridi.
While Surjeet Singh was rescued on Monday along with Gurvinder and they were reunited with their families in Peshawar, Jaspal Singh was beheaded after the families failed to raise the ransom of 30 million Pakistani rupees within the deadline. Jaspal’s decapitated body was found on February 21.
“We were shackled and chained for 40 days, given only rotis and tea and kicked and beaten black and blue,” Gurvinder told TOI. The 17-year-old described for the first time the horror that the three faced at the hands of their captors.
Belonging to the 3,000-strong Sikh community of Peshawar, mostly petty traders and business families, the three set out on January 19 to sell merchandise in some small towns nestled in the Tirah Valley near the Khyber Pass, that is the doorway to Central Asia from Pakistan. They had traversed these badlands before and Pashtun terrorists had always let them be. But not this time.
“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 him to hand over the car and leave,” Gurvinder said. “While some of the militants were grappling with the driver, two of our co-travellers found an opportunity to escape but we were bundled into the vehicle and driven away.”
Their humiliation began in the vehicle. The Taliban abductors ripped out their turbans, blindfolded them and cuffed their hands behind their backs. After more than an hour’s drive along a bumpy, rugged road, the vehicle stopped.
“Our blindfolds and handcuffs came off. There were mountains all around. They asked us to follow the three militants while the rest walked behind us with their rifles trained.” In that formation, they trekked across the mountains for five hours. “We reached two small huts where three other militants were waiting. We were told to sit on the ground. One man with scissors came to us and started cutting Jaspal’s hair short. Then came Surjeet’s turn and finally it was mine.”
He said when Jaspal started crying and wailing loudly, one of the abductors kicked him in the back, shouting at him to shut up. “However, another militant with long, curly hair brought tea and thick rotis and asked him to stop kicking Jaspal,” he said, his eyes glazing a bit. “For the next 40 days, tea and bread was our only meal.”
According to Gurvinder, as darkness set in on the first night of captivity, the militants took them into one of the huts and put metal chains with iron fetters on their feet.
That became routine. “In the morning they used to open our chains, take us out and put chains back at night.”
On the first morning, Gurvinder said, the terrorists asked for the phone numbers of their family members and elders of the Sikh community. “At noon, they started contacting our family members in front of us and it was then that we came to know that we were kidnapped for ransom. They warned our families not to disclose this episode and arrange 50 million rupees. It came down to 20 million in the next few days.”
The talks between the captors 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 family, they used to beat us violently so that our family would feel the pain and pay the ransom,” Gurvinder said.
After three weeks, the abductors set an ultimatum, threatening to kill one of the hostages if their demand was not met by February 19. On February 18, the militants took away Jaspal, Gurvinder said. After two days, they were told that Jaspal was dead.
“But we didn’t trust them and thought they might be using it as a pressure tactic to get money,” he said.
Gurvinder is certain he and Surjeet would have been dead by now, had not the Pakistani military operation been successful. “Our chains had not yet been opened that morning when we heard helicopters hovering and bursts of gunfire. The three militants inside our hut rushed out and we were left alone.”
He and Surjeet crawled out of the dusty hut, the latter now bleeding from bullet wounds in the stomach. They could not see anybody but the gunfire was incessant.
“Then we saw Pakistani soldiers. We put our hands up.”
The soldiers first refused to believe that the two bedraggled men were indeed the kidnapped Sikhs. “We had no turbans and our hair was cut short. Finally, they asked us to remove our shalwars to check whether we were circumcised or not. And then we were airlifted in a chopper from the area and brought to Peshawar,” he said.