High in the sunburned mountains that surround Pul-e-Khumri, beneath its parched earth and rock, Kali Mahato had dreamt he would find gold. Back in the small village of Bedam, Tenia Devi bid him farewell as he squeezed into the back of a jeep, beginning his 2,000-kilometre-long journey to northern Afghanistan. "I'll send money every month," Tenia Devi remembers her husband had said. "The most important thing is for you to make sure the children keep up with their education."
Fifteen months on, Kali Mahato remains a prisoner of the Taliban, along with five other Indian power-sector workers like him. Afghan intelligence officials say with near certainty that these people are being held at Haqqani Network-run safe-houses in the remote eastern provinces of Paktia and Khost, along the Pakistan border.
"Everyone told me, 'don't get worked up, we'll get him free'", recalls Tenia Devi from her meetings with Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das and India's former external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj. "Now, no-one even calls to tell us what's going on. I'm on my own, struggling to feed my children."
Afghanistan's intelligence service, the Riyasat-e Amniyat-e Milli, has been working overtime to ensure these people's release. They even freed some terrorists from state custody to secure the release of one of the kidnapped men in March. But now, with India-Pakistan relations sharply deteriorating, fears are mounting for their safety.
Laying power-lines through one of the world’s most savage battlefields isn't a job even soldiers would volunteer for. In the spring of 2018, when a local labour contractor came looking for power-sector workers willing to travel to Afghanistan, he was mobbed. Kali Mahato, along with Hulash Mahto, Prakash Mahato and Prasadi Mahato, bought their way into the work, paying Rs 10,000-fee to a broker.
"There are no jobs here, so, every year, thousands of men have to migrate in search of a livelihood. The jobs in Afghanistan paid ₹20,000 to ₹25,000 a month, so a lot of people wanted them,"" Bedam's deputy village head, Ritlal Mahato said.
KEC International, the RPG Group subsidiary for whom the men used to work, was one of the two Indian companies that won a $235.16 million contract in 2017 from Afghanistan's state-run power firm Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat to build the CASA-1,000 power line project, linking Pakistan via Afghanistan, to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Afghanistan hoped the powerline project would bring up to $50 million a year in transit fees for the country’s cash-strapped government. For India, winning the project was a major strategic gain: The country had shown that it's companies were willing to step up to partner with Afghanistan in circumstances wherein few others would.
Little did it know that KEC was traipsing towards a disaster.
"We are trying our level best to offer hope, medical care and continue to pay all dues and more to the families of the abducted employees,” an RPG spokesperson said. “Every month the salary is remitted to the families through the designated bank account. Additionally, an ex-gratia has also been remitted to the families.”
Fighting in the Baghlan region had been escalating steadily since 2015, with the Taliban overtaking large swathes of territory. Powerful warlords Ismail Khan and Muhammad Atta, both veterans of the jihad against the Soviet Union, blocked the government in Kabul from exercising its power directly in the region. Local militia commanders like Mustafa Andrabi stepped into this landscape, extorting money from travellers on the Baghlan-Balkh highway, and taxing nomads for the use of mountain pastures.
From 2015, though, the Taliban began to displace these militia, building-up their presence in the ethnic-Pashtun dominated Dand-e Ghori area, north-west of Pul-e-Khumri. In September that year, the Taliban seized control of Dand-e Ghori, and held it for five months before being defeated by the Afghan security forces.
However, lacking in numbers, the security forces were compelled to hand over the security of Dand-e Ghori to a militia led by Mullah Alam, an Ahmadzai Pashtun and one-time jihad commander against the Soviet Union, who is linked to the Hezb-e Islami-ye Afghanistan.
Within days, Mullah Alam’s forces were defeated, giving more space to the Taliban. In 2016, the United Nations estimated "more than 32,500 individuals [were] displaced by the fighting in Dand-e-Ghori and Dand-e-Shahabuddin."
The Taliban also expanded their presence, capturing the key village of Chashma-ye Shir in the summer of 2016, and conducting checks on traffic on the Baghlan-Balkh highway. In addition to threatening security forces members using public transport, the Taliban began taxing the truckers and farmers plying on the roads.
Even though Taliban in the Pul-e-Khumri area have suffered losses too — with their long-serving commander Maulvi Lal being killed in an air strike last year — its fighters continue to dominate key sectors of the Baghlan-Balkh highway, threatening traffic. Fierce attacks on Afghan forces are commonplace.
KEC had been provided the services of 60 guards from the Ministry of Interior-run Afghan Public Protection Force, an industrial organisation set up to to protect infrastructure, a spokesperson for Baghlan’s administration told Firstpost. The company's local partners, however, felt the guards would be ineffective and made a deal with the Taliban's local commander, Qari Bakhtiar, buying safety for cash.
The truth, however, was that the workers had walked into the middle of a war, where no deal was even worth the paper it was written on.
In December 2017, just as work on CASA-1000 began, Afghan forces backed by the country’s air force began a major new offensive to clear Taliban insurgents from areas around Pul-e-Khumri. This sparked bitter clashes that led to the destruction of dozens of homes and opened a floodgate of refugees.
Then, in March, 2018, Taliban retaliated against the government by blowing up power pylons carrying electricity from Uzbekistan, severing power supplies to Kabul, Ghazni, Maidan Wardak and Nangarhar.
Local police chief Brigadier-General Akramuddin Sary dispatched troops to the area but technical personnel declined to work on the pylons, fearing an ambush. The police then kidnapped Qari Bakhtiar's son, Tariq, to mount pressure on the Taliban.
In the end, a bizarre compromise was reached. The Taliban agreed to allow work on the power lines to resume, in return for injured insurgents being allowed access to medical treatment in Pul-e-Khumri. The Taliban were also assured that the power would be supplied to villages under their control, including Sang Soragh, Karadak, Alikhel, Zahrabi, Kamra and Dand-i Shahabuddin.
Following the deal, RPG's engineers were dispatched to begin work on the damaged pylons — travelling, as agreed, without escort. The Taliban, however, felt the government hadn't kept its end of the deal, and decided to take the workers hostage anyway.
Afghan authorities responded by asking elders and clerics from the Taliban-held village of Dand-e Shahabuddin, on the northern fringes of Pul-e-Khumri, to mediate. Initially, sources familiar with the negotiation say, Qari Bakhtiar promised to let the workers go, saying they'd been held by mistake.
Inside days, though, Afghan intelligence sources say, the men, pawns in a savage geopolitical game, had been transferred to Khost. "Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence isn’t interested in the hostages," one Afghan intelligence official said, "but in getting India out of Afghanistan." "It is going to make this as painful as possible."
Fears for the prisoners' safety is mounting in Bedam, fuelled by the lack of credible news from the government. "Every time we've talked to someone, we’re told not to worry. But we know what happened to the Indians who were made hostages by the Islamic State in Iraq, and what the government said about them. The situation is frightening, though of course we all pray things will work out," says Ajay Mahato, Tenia Devi’s neighbour.
The Ministry of External Affairs will not discuss the specifics of the ongoing hostage negotiations, but says it believes the men are safe. There's no way of predicting, though, when — if ever — the negotiations will conclude.
Former foreign secretary Vivek Katju says that the still-unfolding tragedy should lead the government to study what can be done to insulate Indians working in war-torn regions from the risks. "Perhaps it’s time to consider some kind of insurance because it is the most vulnerable in our society who are taking these risks," he said.
“Employees of our companies working in difficult countries have extra allowances and perks and special insurance coverage which for the sake of confidentiality cannot be disclosed,” an RPG spokesperson told Firstpost.
"For fifteen months, I’ve been on my own. I even travelled to Mumbai, to try and find work as a maid. I have children to feed and educate. Tell me, does anyone want to work in someone else’s home? The truth is, our country has forgotten us," Tenia Devi says.
Updated Date: Aug 21, 2019 12:53:55 IST