Agartala: As his family was at its wits end to obtain 50-year-old Ranjan Saha's death certificate, the banana seller startled one and all by returning home 16 years after he had been abducted by armed militants who held him captive at their hideout in Bangladesh. He was let off for "good behaviour" as he never tried to escape.
"Since my abduction, I had been pleading with the rebels to release me as I was the lone bread earner of my (four-member) poor family. But they always became furious and tortured me," the feeble-voiced Saha told IANS.
"They made me do various type of works in their camp deep in a jungle in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) (in southeast Bangladesh). I do not know the exact name of the place. There are at least 25 other people, mostly kidnapped by the extremists, also working in the same camp," he added.
Saha was kidnapped by the extremists of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) from Jampuijala, 35 km south of Agartala, on 18 April, 2000, along with two others. He had gone to Jampuijala to buy bananas, which he would sell in Agartala.
"The guerrillas also kidnapped at gunpoint two other traders along with me. They kept us blindfolded for more than a month as we had to trek through mountainous terrain before we reached the militant's camp in the CHT," he said.
"The abductors subsequently learnt that we would not be able to pay any ransom. Hence they made us do various types of work like cleaning and maintaining the camp, cooking and collecting water, besides other odd jobs. The two other captives who were kidnapped along with me were shifted to other unknown locations," Saha said.
"Despite my inability to do so due to ill health and hostile surroundings, I quietly continued with the hard work. The food was sometimes unpalatable. I was constantly praying to god to liberate me from this awful life for the sake of my wife, two sons and my beloved daughter," he said
According to Saha, "the militants were pleased as I never tried to run away from their camp".
"Recently, god might have heard my prayers. The militants released me one month back after giving me some money. I then went to relatives' house at Madhabpur in Habiganj district of Bangladesh. From there, clandestinely I crossed the border with the help of a Bangladeshi middleman and reached my house at Shibnagar in Agartala (last week)," Saha said.
After Saha's abduction, his family lodged a case in the Jirania police station and met a number of people, including ministers, senior police officers and other influential people in a bid to locate him.
"In 2007, we filed a case in a court here to get my father's death certificate. The case is still pending with the court," Ranjan Saha's elder son, Abhijit Saha, told IANS.
Ranjan Saha, who is now being treated at the government-run Gobind Ballabh Pant Hospital and Medical college, was upbeat about his future.
"I would re-start my business afresh after my health improves," he said.
Saha's 45-year-old wife Sumitra explained how she struggled during the past 16 years after her husband's abduction and brought up the children by working as a cook in a neighbour's house.
"I am indebted to god that my younger son Rajesh got a temporary job as a representative of a private company in Kolkata. I married off my daughter Sampa and she is happy. It is only due to god's mercy my husband returned to us," Sumitra told IANS.
According to Tripura Police documents, during the peak years of terrorism in the state between 1997 and 2014, over 2,430 people, including legislators, political leaders, traders, government employees and civilians were kidnapped by extremists, of whom 1,705 were subsequently released.
"For many years, abduction for ransom became a trade by the militants. Many people were released by the extremists after taking ransom but many people were killed as the victims' families either could not pay the money sought or did not fulfil the rebels' other demands," security and terrorism expert Manas Paul told IANS.
Members of NLFT and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) undergo arms training in hideouts and covert camps in various parts of Bangladesh, which shares an 856-km border with Tripura.
Banned in 1997 by the central government, the two outfits advocate Tripura's secession from India. However, ATTF has become almost defunct as most of its cadres have surrendered.