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Lone Iraqi youth is Indian nurses' sole contact to outside world

Tuesday, 1 July 2014 - 7:00am IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: dna

Breakfast for the 31 of the 46 Indian nurses holed up in the besieged Tikrit Teaching Hospital was biscuits dipped in black tea. There were no plans for lunch. All they had was a three-fourths full sack of rice, a little cooking oil and an LPG cylinder to do the cooking.

Fortunately, lunch would be served. The Iraqi youth they had sent out on Sunday morning with a list of things to buy, essentially foodstuff, returned on Monday morning. The Iraqi youth is their only conduit to the outside world. Till Friday, he was a PRO of the 600-bed Tikrit Teaching Hospital, where the nurses worked.

Friday night, the hospital's emergency block was hit by a stray bomb dropped from a Iraqi government helicopter gunship. That was the final straw for the few local staff still left in the hospital. The bomb killed three patients. The local staff fled. The nurses stayed put. They had nowhere to go.

Saturday night, another rocket landed on the hospital compound. "It shook the building and dust and debris flew into their rooms. They are a frightened lot," a source in constant touch with the nurses told dna.
Sunday morning, after a harrowing night, which left the nurses unnerved and mentally and physically exhausted, the "PRO" returned "with red beans (Rajma), chickpeas, Quboos (Arabic bread) and rice."

At 2.30 pm, lunch was made, and served: Kanji with a dish of red beans. Frugal fare. "Dinner would be whatever is leftover from lunch, and Quboos," said the source. "The worry is that once the Shia militia enter the city, no one would be able to step out, not even the PRO," said the source.

Of the 46 nurses, 31 are on the third floor of the building, 15 are on the first floor. There is a state of undeclared war between the two groups. "The 15 on the ground floor are nurses who joined the hospital in January 2014. They have not been paid their salaries so far. They don't want to go back without their money. They have to pay back loans. The 31 on the third floor want out, no matter what," the source told dna. "There's a standoff inside."

The ministry of external affairs says the nurses are safe. The embassy in Iraq is in constant touch with the nurses. MEA refutes reports that the hospital was bombed. MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin told dna, "There is a hospital caretaker the embassy is directly dealing with. We supply the nurses with what they need through this caretaker."

Is the caretaker and the PRO one and the same? The source said he will have to get that confirmed, hinting that it might be the same man. "I spoke to the Indian ambassador just now. He assures me the embassy is in constant touch with the nurses. He spoke to a nurse, identified as Tinsy Thomas, and she has confirmed that the caretaker has delivered money and food to them," Akbaruddin told said.

On Sunday, the MEA said the 100 Indians trapped in Tikrit will be airlifted so safe locations from Tuesday. India is banking on Iraqi forces to free Tikrit by Monday night. What happens next? "Tuesday night Shia militias will enter Tikrit. What will follow will be intense door-to-door fighting between the Shias and the Sunni rebels. It will be every man/woman to himself/herself. There will be blood on the streets. Hard to think anybody will venture in to airlift anybody out," said the source. There is a standoff outside, too.

Around midnight on Sunday, a group of Islamic State rebels climbed up to the terrace of a hospital building and fired in the air to celebrate the return of the Caliphate. The nurses cowered in their rooms. The PRO/caretaker told them to stay calm, that they wouldn't be harmed.

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