Airlift: A mother's story

I shudder at the thought of that day in October 1990 at the Jordan airport. It never fails to create a mixed feeling of pain, fear, agony, helplessness and guilt knife through me. What if I had lost him? My little son, all of three then.

August 2, 1990; a Thursday morning. On our way to work, we suddenly found ourselves caught in a crossfire between the Iraqi and Kuwaiti forces near Shuwaik. Kuwait had been invaded. The rest is history. After months of struggle, we decided to come home.

The journey to Jordan – through three reasonably well-organised refugee camps – was strangely uneventful, mostly because our expectations were nil – food, a bath, sleep were the least of our concerns. Living in a refugee camp is akin to getting admitted to a general hospital dormitory; you take solace in the fact that there are others like you.
That day in October dawned to the good news that we would be taken to the airport to be flown to India. The men from our camp headed out to get the passport verification done, and that’s when the dust storm struck.

Visibility was nil and the men returned uniformly brown and unrecognisable, covered head to toe in fine dust. We burst out laughing, for the first time in nearly three months. Three months that form a foot-note of a foot-note, known now thanks to a movie.

We were dropped off a little way away from the airport. The men joined the serpentine queue leading up to the airport and waited, luggage in hand, through that evening, night, next morning and afternoon, till they reached the baggage check-in counter. The women and children walked into the airport premises to a sea of people of almost every nationality. Everyone was settling down, or trying to, waiting till the call came to leave.

At noon the next day, it was announced that the Air India flight would take off around two. We would be home soon! We packed our luggage and I sat down with my three-year-old on my lap; he was running a fever. My older son, aged nine, who had an upset stomach and had visited the washroom umpteen number of times since morning, wanted to go again one last time before the flight. He wanted the paper towels, fast.
I put the child on the floor, hunted for the roll, handed it over and when I turned to the other side to pick my little one up... he was not there! Had he followed his brother? I got up and ran towards the washroom. He was not there anywhere! I returned to where we were sitting, he wasn’t there either.

Like a woman possessed, I ran from one end of that airport to the other, opening almost every toilet door, men’s washroom, ladies’ washroom, looking for him. Every child in a red tee-shirt looked like my son. Our flight would leave shortly and nobody was in a position to understand my plight. I ran outside hoping to find my husband, somehow evading the cane wielding policeman who was chasing me and shouting at me to go inside.

My husband must have spotted me, for he came leaving the luggage and found me crying, trying to explain. We walked inside, towards the place we were sitting and what do we see? Our little one was sitting there cross-legged with his brother! The relief I felt at that moment was total, immense and beyond words! To this day I do not know where he went.

Soon after we had settled down in the plane, Air India served us biryani! As one of our friends put it, it was the best biryani we had ever tasted. Thank you Air India, home-coming could not have been sweeter!

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