Scores of Indian nurses are under “siege” in the Tikrit Teaching Hospital in Iraq.
They are safe but still “in the line of fire” of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), the brutual new brigade that is racing across western Iraq.
While Western embassies and the United Nations are rushing to evacuate dozens of their staff from Iraq, 46 Indian nurses — all from Kerala — are desperately waiting for a miracle to happen. For them, life has become a living hell.
The nurses have spent seven fear-filled nights in the hospital, subsisting on food that is being rustled up by the authorities. With gun-toting terrorists now effectively guarding the hospital and walking in and out of the building, the nurses who have been holed up in their quarters on the upper floor have only one prayer: Please do something to evacuate us.
But there is precious little the Indian and Iraqi governments or volunteer agencies can do at the moment except advising them to stay put. It’s the best option at the moment, they say.
Soon after Tikrit was seized on Wednesday, gunmen moved to set up checkpoints around the city, which lies between the capital Baghdad and Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city which was captured the previous day by the Isil, an offshoot of the Al Qaeda terrorist organisation.
Talking from her quarter in the besieged hospital, Marina M. Jose, a resident of Kottayam district in Kerala, said while the state government is doing its level best to keep them calm and motivated, the need of the hour is an assertive intervention by the Narendra Modi government in New Delhi to enlist the help of the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to safely take them to Baghdad.
“We are safe inside the compound... but we are worried about our fate. The hospital is gradually running out of food. We had no tea, milk and water on Monday which were later provided by ICRC officials on our request,” Marina said.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said the state government is regularly interacting with the central government on what could be done to alleviate the nurses’ difficulties and ultimately evacuate them.
“We are also in direct touch with the nurses. Though the central government is ready to extend all help, the problem is transporting them to Baghdad, which is around 150km from Tikrit. It’s not safe to travel as the road to the capital is infested with terrorists,” the chief minister added.
“Our concern is how to provide them with basic needs if the stay gets longer in the event of an extended conflict,” Chandy added.
Marina said the 46 nurses have not been reporting for hospital duty for a week now. “We’re scared to go down, except to meet ICRC officials, as terrorists are roaming the streets and some of them are stationed at the gates.”
“Our Internet connection and WiFi have been disconnected and our only window to the world is an Arabic television channel which we cannnot understand,” said Seeliyamma George who hails from Kasargod district.
“We mainly get information through phone calls from our families back home and the Indian Embassy in Baghdad. But the many frantic calls made when bombs were exploding around us completely drained our prepaid phone credits. That was a harrowing experience. The ICRC officials finally managed to recharge the phone credits yesterday,” Seeliyamma said.
The nurses voiced apprehension about the Indian government’s appeal to stay put. “How long is the question. They say it’s not safe to travel. If the news that the Americans have evacuated their citizens from Tikrit is true, then why can’t our government do it?” asked Marina.
The Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement in New Delhi earlier that the safety and security of Indian nationals currently in Iraq remained a matter of serious concern for the Government of India.
The ministry advised Indian nationals to avoid all travel to Iraq, until further notification, in view of the precarious security situation in that country.
“Indian nationals in Iraq may consider leaving the country by commercial means if it is safe to do so. Our nationals living in areas affected by the ongoing armed conflict are advised to stay indoors as far as possible and are advised to remain in contact with our Embassy in Baghdad for necessary advice and updated information on the evolving security situation. Those nationals who do not have travel documents or need other consular services are advised to seek assistance from the Indian Embassy in Baghdad,” the statement said.