Sanoj Kumar Yadav, 33, fell off a machine and broke his rib.
Gurpreet Singh, 36, lost a finger while operating a machine.
Subash Kumar, 47, was locked in a stable without food and water for six days.
For around two months, starting 14 December 2022, this is what a batch of 12 Indian men faced in Libya – where they were deceptively sent as labourers.
”When we were there in those horrible conditions, we thought we will die here, and never return home,” said Gurpreet.
On 10 February and 2 March, however, the men made it back home with the help of a Sudanese national, a Punjab-based journalist, a Dubai-based Indian woman who runs a school in Libya, a BJP district chief from Punjab, and the Union Ministry of External Affairs.
This is the story of how the men were conned into a job in Libya, how they survived these testing circumstances in a foreign country, and their virodh (rebellion).
But First, How Did the 12 Indian Men Reach Libya?
On 5 January, Joginder Singh, 47, a resident of Punjab’s Moga, travelled to Dubai via Delhi with four friends. He was told that he will operate machinery in a Dubai-based cement factory called Al-Sheri, and would be paid 600 dollars or Rs 50,000 a month.
”Rajwinder Singh, who I had worked with for nine years in Delhi, had approached me and others with this offer to work in Dubai. He promised a good sum of money and food and lodging,” said Joginder, over a call.
The job was going to help Joginder’s family of five in Moga lead a better life.
All that he and others had to do to bag this “lucrative” job was pay for their own airfare and visa. “I paid Rs 1.5 lakh for all this. I am back after spending all this money without earning a single rupee for the work I did. I endured so much torture there…,” recalled Joginder, as he fought back tears.
How did the men – who were promised a job in Dubai – reach Libya?
Since Joginder had already worked in Dubai in the past, he was not suspicious until he arrived in the Gulf city on 6 January.
“We were kept in a company building in Dubai and asked not to tell anyone about our whereabouts. I felt something was wrong,” said Joginder.
Like him, Subash Kumar, who hails from Nawanshahr in Punjab, too worked as a mechanic in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi for nearly 25 years. He too was not suspicious of the offer at first.
“But when we reached Dubai, we were asked to either go work in Libya for two-three months or return to India,” Subash told The Quint.
For Gurpreet Singh, 36, returning home to Punjab’s Kapurthala was not an option. “I had already spent so much money on the plane ticket that going back empty-handed was a futile thing to do… I didn’t know what kind of country Libya was or what circumstances awaited us there,” said Gurpreet, who was lured to Dubai with the promise of a driver’s job for 750 dollars or Rs 61,000 a month.
“Rajwinder, the man who offered us the job, had promised that eventually I will also get a permanent license to drive in any of the Gulf nations and a work visa for a longer duration,” narrated Gurpreet.
On 6 February, Rajwinder was arrested by the Punjab police under section 420 (cheating) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and is currently lodged in Ropar jail.
A Barren ‘Airstrip’ in Libya
Joginder, Subash and Gurpreet claimed that when they reached Libya just days later, their worst fears came true. “Aisa lag raha tha jaise khaali kheton mein plane utaar diya tha, zameen ekdum banjar thi (It felt like the plane landed on a field, the area was totally barren),” alleged Gurpreet.
He also claimed that as soon as they deplaned, an agent -- apparently working for the Libyan contractor they eventually worked for -- came and greeted them and took away their passports and other ID cards.
“There was no immigration process, no one stamped our passports, and no routine checking,” Subash claimed. He alleged that the men were taken to a factory that belonged to the Libyan Cement Company (LCC) in Benghazi.
En route to the factory, Subash claimed that he heard “firing.” The workers' quarters were right behind the cement factory, he claimed.
At the Quarters, No Food or Clothes or Mattress
While the men had not yet been acquainted with the work or the work hours, the living conditions were abysmal.
“At first, we were kept in a workshop. We had no food, no money, no clothes, and it was extremely cold. There was no bed or mattress… I thought it’s a new place, I will eventually adjust,” said Joginder. The other men that The Quint spoke to also asserted that the quarters were “dirty, dilapidated and ill-equipped.”
In the early days, the men sought help from other Indians living in the quarters. “One day, I saw a frail, lanky man sitting alone and crying. When I asked him what had happened, he said that his mother had passed away back home in Uttar Pradesh but the contractor was not releasing his passport. This is when it hit me – I may never go back,” Gurpreet recalled.
'Worked 16 Hours a Day, Paid Only Rs 2,500 a Month'
Gurpreet claimed that for nearly two months, he drove a truck for at least 16 hours a day, hauling 60 tonnes of sand to the cement factory.
In return, he was given 150 Libyan Dinar for a month or approximately Rs 2,500. “I could barely buy utensils and food, which lasted me only 12 days,” said Gurpreet. This is not what he was promised.
Joginder, whose job was to operate machinery, claimed that he did not receive any uniform, safety shoes, gloves or protective eyeglasses to operate the machines.
“I have worked in the Middle East long enough to know that the safety rules are quite stern but here, we weren’t given any safety equipment. One of the men who hailed from Bihar (Sanoj Yadav) even fell off a machine and broke his rib,” Subash told The Quint.
Gurpreet too lost his finger while he was operating a machine at the cement factory. “They just cleaned the wound with water and tied a bandage over it. Neither did they apply any ointment on the wound nor did they give me any painkiller,” he recalled.
“I was wincing in pain. I had lost all hope that we’ll ever go back. Dil hi khatam ho gaya tha (We had lost all hope),” said Gurpreet. He added that eventually an Indian doctor came through and helped him out.
He alleged that two of the 12 men stuck there had even tried to end their lives.
'Found Out that We Had Been Bought For 3,000 Dollars'
“We didn’t have our passports or visas. We had no health cards… Days after he fractured his rib and could not take the pain anymore, we took Sanoj Yadav to a private clinic,” said Subash.
Subash understands the local language spoken in Libya, and confronted the contractor about the dismal living conditions. “I was locked up in a stable for six days without food or water. Thankfully, the guard was a Bangladeshi citizen and stealthily got me some rice once a day,” said Subash.
He also claimed that he, like many others there, he was beaten up and tortured for speaking up.
While they confronted their contractor, something shocking surfaced.
“Paanv tale zameen khisak gayi (The earth shifted beneath my feet),” recalled Joginder.
The men had found out that they had allegedly been “sold” by Rajwinder to the contractor for 3,000 dollars or nearly Rs 2.5 lakh each. When the men confronted the contractor to release their passports so that they could go back to India, he told them that they would have to work for at least three years at Benghazi because he had "paid" for each of them, Subash claimed.
“One month and five days in Libya were equal to a sentence of 10 years,” said Joginder.
He claimed that when they “protested,” men who allegedly were a part of the army, were called in. “They locked us up, beat us up. We were scared… So, we called Rajwinder again and again,” said Joginder.
Soon, they realised that their conversations with Rajwinder were making their way to the contractor at the Libya factory, who then punished and tortured them further.
‘We Either Die Or Protest And Live’
It was now time to fight back.
“We decided that if we have to stay alive, we have to rebel,” Joginder told The Quint. It was then that the men made a video of the conditions in Libya, borrowed internet from a Sudanese national and sent it to a Punjab-based journalist, Jagdeep Singh Thali.
It went viral, and soon reached the local authorities in Punjab.
The purported video, said Subash, was deleted by the contractor's accomplices before the men left for India. The Quint has not watched these videos.
BJP District Secretary, Ropar (Punjab) Anmol Joshi, told The Quint, “The journalist raised the issue with the local authorities in Ropar, who, in turn, brought the issue to BJP District Chief, Ropar, Ajayveer Singh Lalpura.”
Ajayveer then took up the issue with the Chairman of National Commission of Minorities, Iqbal Singh Lalpura, who also happens to be his father.
Iqbal Singh, then escalated the issue to the Ministry of External Affairs, said Joshi.
Since India does not have an embassy in Libya, the Tunisian Embassy was contacted and a Dubai-based woman called Tabassum, who runs an NGO in Libya, was alerted about the situation, Joshi claimed.
“Tabassum originally hails from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh and is married to a Pakistani man. She runs an NGO and a school in Libya. On 4 February, she visited the quarters in which the Indian workers were put up, and gave food and medical supplies to them. She, then arranged their exit from Libya, and retrieved their passports, which had been confiscated by their contractor,” Joshi told The Quint.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs created pressure for the release of the 12 men, a person who helped with the rescue operation told The Quint.
The men returned to India via Cairo in Egypt and then Mumbai in two batches. Four of them returned on 9 February, and the remaining eight on 2 March.
'Cried Bitterly When Reunited With Our Land, Families'
After suffering for nearly two months, Gurpreet came back home to Punjab to his wife and two children on 12 February this year. “Sabse pehle Golden Temple jaake seva ki (The first thing I did was visit the Golden temple in Amritsar and performed seva),” he said.
He started work the very next day by doing seva at a gurudwara in Kapoorthala, where his family owns farms and grows wheat.
When asked about whether the contractor paid him any money at all or not, he said, “Jaan bach gayi, yehi kaafi hai (I'm alive, that is enough).”
“When we landed, we were crying bitterly. Kabhi nahi socha tha ki apni zameeen ko chhu payenge (Never thought we'll be reunited with our lands),” said Subash, the sole breadwinner of a family of five.