Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a Catholic priest from Kerala who was abducted by Islamic State extremists in the Yemeni city of Aden in March 2016, was freed on Tuesday much to the elation of Indians, particularly Keralites.
Uzhunnalil who hails from Kottayam, was working in Bengaluru in connection with the activities of the Salesians Syro Malabar Church. He was kidnapped by the IS terrorists when the militants attacked a care home run Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Aden. At least sixteen people were killed including a nun from India. Uzhunnalil was taken hostage and held in Yemen since. The armed extremists who abducted the priest had been demanding a ransom for freeing him. His family, the Church authorities and the state government had pressurized the Centre for his release. However, it paved way for apprehensions when the release got delayed for months. Some even raised criticisms over the Centre’s sluggishness in the matter. Meanwhile, rumours that he was crucified on Good Friday also spread which were later proved to be false. Uzhunnalil had sent a video message in April this year pleading for help. He appeared in poor health and shared with pain with the Indian government and Vatican authorities. He had complained that the concerned authorities weren’t making any efforts to communicate with the abductors or intervening with seriousness. In the video, he complained that had he been ‘a European priest’, he would have been taken more seriously by the authorities and people and ensured his release. He said that since he was from India, he wasn’t ‘considered as of much value’. The voices in support and the attempts for his release strengthened after the video was out. Thus after eighteen months of uncertainty and apprehension, Father Uzhunnalil landed in Muscat on Tuesday.
It was the diplomatic moves of Sultanate of Oman that mainly paved way for his release. Vatican authorities and Indian Foreign Affairs Ministry coordinated with the Omani government in the efforts. Whether the terrorists were paid a ransom or the priest freed through other ways, aren’t yet known. Such aspects related to the release of those held captive in foreign countries are anyway not known to the outside world. As far as the Foreign Affairs Ministry is concerned, the release of Indians imprisoned or held captive in foreign nations is a complex task with much headache. Besides Yemen, incidents where Indians have been held captive in war-torn areas such as Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, were also reported of late. It’s a laborious task to free those enslaved in extremely complicated circumstances in faraway countries. But it’s also true that the Foreign Affairs Ministry have in recent times made commendable interventions. However, Father Uzhunnalil’s release getting delayed indefinitely had then sparked concern. The painful chapter has now ended.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry issues directions as well as warnings in connection with travelling as well as working in countries plagued with riots and internal conflicts, as and when required. But mostly, such warnings are ignored. It’s the employment recruiting agencies that neglect or bypass the official directions and send the employees to the conflict-ridden zones. Then there are the voluntary organisations. They undertake risks travelling to such places in order to bravely carry out their responsibilities. Their safety when they encounter difficulty is however, the responsibility of the government itself. There are thousands of Indians employed in foreign countries who are imprisoned in different countries for reasons that are genuine or wrong. Their release should also be considered as the duty of the central government. But the reality is that the government doesn’t even have any clear-cut data about them. This points towards the necessity of a more scientific data bank related to those travelling abroad.