Jalandhar: For Ravinder Kumar and his family, February 6, 2023 was an extremely happy day. Three men from the family – Ravinder’s son, brother and brother-in-law – left for Italy, looking for work and a salary in euros, which in Indian currency would have easily converted into Rs 1 lakh per month.
But what the Dera Bassi-based family from Mohali district never knew was that their men, along with 14 others from Punjab and Haryana, would remain trapped in Libya for six months instead of ever making it to Italy. Ravinder’s family had paid a whopping sum of Rs 49 lakh to Madan Lal, a Haryana-based travel agent in Pehowa, who was their family friend.
When they realised the fraud, the family got an FIR under Sections 406, 420 and 120B of the IPC and Section 13 of the Punjab Travel Professionals Regulation (PTPR) Act registered against Madan Lal and his two female accomplices.
While Ravinder’s younger brother Sandeep (30) and brother-in-law Dharamveer returned home on August 20 after facing a nightmare in Libya, his son Tony (21) reportedly died after he jumped from the window of a fourth-floor building to escape a raid by the mafia.
The men aged between 20 and 35 years finally reached Delhi on August 20, 2023, following the efforts of Aam Admi Party (AAP) Rajya Sabha MP Vikramjit Singh Sahney. Back in Libya, they had been imprisoned in Zuwara and Tajoura detention centres, besides being sold off multiple times by ‘donkers’ (human traffickers).
In Libya, the men were robbed of their belongings, including passports, mobile phones, cash, luggage and clothes. They did not even have shoes to wear. The Indian Embassy officials got us chappals to wear, they told The Wire.
Helpless family, awaiting son’s body
Talking to The Wire from Dera Bassi in Mohali district, Ravinder broke down when he said that his brother and brother-in-law came back safely, but his only son died in a bid to flee from the mafia’s raids.
“Asi ta pehla hi mare si, hor maarte (We were already dead due to life’s struggles; this tragedy has ruined us forever). I was told that my son died in the month of May, when he was trying to save himself from the mafia’s raid in Libya,” he said.
For two months, Ravinder had no idea that his son was no more. It was only after the travel agent reached his village and informed the panchayat that he learnt about the tragedy. “I spoke to my son on May 6. That was the last time I ever heard from him. He would tell me that the donkers were beating and torturing him. We immediately approached Madan Lal to bring my son back but he did not do anything. I am helpless and find it hard to believe that my son met such a fate,” he said.
Tony’s body is still in Libya and the AAP MP is trying to bring it back at the earliest. “We sold off our only source of income – half an acre of agricultural land – for around Rs 16 lakh and raised the rest of the amount on loans to send the three of them to Italy. We spent Rs 13 lakh per person and sent another Rs 2 lakh to a Pakistani donker to free them,” Ravinder said.
Ravinder’s brother Sandeep shared how the men were forced to drink water from the toilet and faced atrocious treatment at the hands of multiple donkers. “We had no idea where we were being taken. It was only after we landed in Libya that we realised that we had been duped. It was terribly hot in Libya. We were mostly given non-vegetarian food to eat and at times macaroni. The donkers would beat us, demanding 5,000 to 15,000 Libyan dinars from us, which meant Rs 13 to 40 lakh in Indian currency,” he said.
Sandeep said that he was doubtful about whether his nephew had died in the way they were told, as he never wore gold earrings in his ears, a tradition in many north Indian families. “I was separated from my nephew by the donkers. Though we remained in touch with each other for some days, later we were informed about this tragedy. My nephew never wore gold earrings but, in the photographs [of the body], we noticed the gold earrings. We have not received any call from the Indian Embassy in this regard and hope that he was lodged in the jail,” he said, praying that the body is not his nephew’s.
Donkey route to Italy via Libya
The story of the 17 men stuck in Libya once again brought to the fore the endless tales of human trafficking from Punjab and Haryana to Europe.
Libya is a major transit point for human trafficking, mostly to European countries. “Within days, we were prisoners being treated like animals without any identity,” said Sandeep Kumar.
It was perhaps for this reason that the donkey route to Italy was from Amritsar to Dubai and then Egypt. From Egypt the men landed in the captivity of an armed mafia in Zuwara city of Libya. During their six-month stay, the men primarily remained in three cities – Benghazi, Zuwara and Tawergha.
Notably, till last year, the fake travel agents or the donkers used to take people to Italy via Serbia via the sea route, where Indians were allowed visa-free entry and a month-long stay.
However, following reports of rampant human trafficking, Serbia banned the visa-free entry of Indians from January 1, 2023. The donkers, in a bid to chalk out another illegal route, were now opting for Dubai and some other Middle Eastern countries as the transit point to reach Italy.
Clueless Haryana based victims narrate ordeal
Haryana-based victim Anmol Singh’s (21) widowed mother sold her house in Jalandhar, some gold and took money on loan to send her only son to Italy. At present, she is staying with her two married daughters in Pehowa, Haryana.
Anmol’s sister Ramandeep Kaur told The Wire that her brother is depressed and is suffering from typhoid. “He is undergoing treatment and the doctors have advised him to take rest. He has turned fragile and is not in a condition to say anything. We are indebted to AAP MP Vikramjit Singh Sahney for bringing the men back. For us it was like a rebirth,” she said.
Ramandeep, a teacher, said that she met local MLA Sandeep Singh, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar and home minister Anil Vij and got an FIR registered against Madal Lal at Pehowa police station. “We want to request the Haryana government and MP Vikramjit Sahney to help us get back our money from the travel agent,” she added.
Answering a question on how they knew the travel agent, Ramandeep said, “We had heard about his work a lot and he lives close to our house. There was every reason to believe him.”
Similar was the story of Ankur (22), a resident of Baram village in Kurukshetra district, Haryana. Ankur’s paternal uncle Satvir Malik was the one who helped him go to Italy. “We thought that this would help bring Ankur’s family out of poverty. Ankur’s father died some years ago and his mother and two sisters were dependent on him,” Malik said.
Malik said that the travel agent never mentioned Libya. “We were shocked to hear that the men were stranded in Libya. He had informed us that the men would be taken to Dubai from Amritsar, where they would stay for around a week and from there, they would get the work visa for Italy. Nobody had any idea that we were badly duped,” he said.
The scale of fraud and financial loss could be gauged from the fact that apart from paying Rs 13 lakh to send Ankur to Italy, his uncle again sent Rs 10 lakh to a donker and the payment was made via Dubai. “We took a loan and borrowed some amount from a local arthiya (commission agent) to send Ankur to Italy. Hamare bache ki jaan bach gayi (Our son’s life was saved),” he said, thanking god and MP Vikramjit Sahney.
Back in Punjab, the story of Gulpreet Singh from Bhogpur town in Jalandhar district was nothing short of a twist of fate. “My cousin was on a work visa in Jordon, also near Libya. As far as I know, he along with two of his friends decided to move to Libya to join this group, which was heading to Italy. And he got trapped too. Thankfully, he came back alive. Given the situation he was stuck in, it is indeed a miracle that he was safe and fine,” said his cousin Ankur Kumar from Patiala.
AAP Rajya Sabha MP led the rescue operation
AAP Rajya Sabha MP Vikramjit Singh Sahney, who led the rescue operation and facilitated the repatriation, said that he received a panic call from the men on May 28 informing him of their ordeal. “We even spoke to them on video calls in which we could see that they were living in unimaginably bad conditions, without proper food and water facilities,” he said.
Sahney said that since India does not have any diplomatic mission in Libya, they were helpless. “As the men were in distress, we immediately intervened and booked a hotel for them. We arranged two taxis for them, so that they could run from the captivity of the mafia and get rescued. On June 13, we initiated the rescue operation and successfully rescued the young men. That night, I and my staff remained constantly in touch with them till they reached the hotel,” he said.
The MP further shared that even the rescue operation was a roller coaster ride. Two days after the men reached the hotel, its owner duped them and informed the Libyan Police of their stay. The men were sent to a jail in Tripoli, Libya’s capital.
Later, the MP requested the nearest Indian Embassy which was in Tunisia to intervene in the matter. The Indian Embassy in Tunisia contacted the United Nations to release the men from the Libyan jail on humanitarian grounds and repatriate them to India.
“After weeks of correspondence and persistent requests at many levels from our side, on July 30, the Indian High Commission, Tunisia was able to get counsellor access through the United Nations and the men were released from the jail. They were sent to the Port of Illegal Immigrants in Tripoli, Libya. Then finally on August 19, all the paperwork and other formalities were completed and the men boarded a flight to Delhi,” Sahney shared.
The MP said that he was focusing on the legal action to be taken against the unscrupulous agents who duped these men, and on bringing back four others who were still stuck in Libya. “I am in constant touch with the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of Punjab Police against Human Trafficking and officials of Haryana and Delhi Police, to ensure that the guilty are booked and strict action is taken against them,” he added.