Kochi/Hyderabad/New Delhi: A group of 183 Indians stranded in strife-torn Iraq, including 122 nurses, arrived home yesterday while 200 more were on their way.
A special Air India flight from Arbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, carrying the Indians landed in Kochi close to noon, with Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and his cabinet colleagues, legislators, Lok Sabha members and state government officials waiting to receive 46 nurses from Kerala freed by Iraqi insurgents.
Seventy-eight people hailing from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, including 76 nurses, later reached Hyderabad by the special flight and officials were making arrangements to send them to their respective hometowns.
The evacuated Indians included 15 from Navsari in Gujarat who landed in Delhi and boarded a flight to Mumbai on their way home.
The external affairs ministry said that another 200 Indians were to return to Delhi last night by an Iraqi Airways chartered flight from Najaf.
In the next 48 hours, approximately 400 more Indians would be returning to various destinations, including Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad, by commercial flights, said ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin.
About 1,200 Indians would be returning to India at the government’s cost by tomorrow. The Indian mission in Baghdad has persuaded Iraqi companies to send back approximately 600 other Indian nationals, and it is processing the papers of 400 others.
Welcoming the return of the nurses from Iraq, Congress leader Amarinder Singh yesterday urged the government to intensify its efforts to secure the release of 39 Indians, mostly from Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, being held hostage in Mosul.
At Kochi, three family members of each nurse were allowed to go inside the airport to receive them. A special immigration desk was set up for them.
There was a mad scramble when the nurses arrived, with anxious family members hugging and kissing their loved ones.
Some nurses shed tears of joy, and others were seen clutching the hands of toddlers, most of them the children of the nurses.
Sandra Sebastian, one of the nurses, told the media at Kochi airport that she was very scared when they were taken away by the insurgents.
“... very afraid... will not go back,” she said in broken English.
Chandy earlier said that he had lost all hope when initially the plane did not get permission to land in Arbil because of strong winds.
He thanked External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for her efforts to secure the nurses’ release.
Earlier reports said many nurses had protested at Arbil airport, saying they would not board the plane unless they were paid four months’ wage arrears, but they relented after Indian officials spoke to them.
Seena, a nurse from Kannur, said for 23 days they had lived in isolation in Tikrit, where they were working.
“Our patience was running out... gun-toting men came to our building in the hospital campus on Thursday. They asked us to pack our things and all they gave us was 15 minutes.
“We were told to enter one of the four buses parked outside... and in a few minutes, we saw the first and third floor of our building go up in flames,” she said.
Another nurse said, “never in our dreams we thought that these armed men would be our saviours”.
“We had no clue... whether they were going to kill us or they would be our saviours.
“On our eight-hour drive to Mosul, the kind behaviour of these people surprised all of us,” adding they stopped at many places and gave the nurses water, biscuits and food.
Another nurse could not hide her happiness at being back with her family. Recounting her story, she said: “Once in Mosul, they put us in a big room and we were given beds and food. We feel that the new government there helped us reach here safely. We thank each and everyone who prayed for our return and also all the authorities who helped us,” she said.
The Kerala government made arrangements for the nurses to travel in hired vehicles, while a lone nurse from Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu was provided with a railway ticket to her hometown.
Meanwhile, UAE-based Indian businessman B R Shetty has offered the 46 nurses jobs in hospitals he owns across the Gulf country, Nepal, Bhutan and India. In advertisements in Kerala newspapers, he asked the nurses to contact his office.