It's hugs, tears and cheers in Kochi

It's hugs, tears and cheers in Kochi

It's hugs, tears and cheers in Kochi

Three weeks of uncertainty and prayers finally ended in smiles, hugs and an emotional reunion with loved ones as the 46 nurses stranded in strife-torn Iraq returned home on Saturday. 

Hours ahead of the scheduled arrival of special aircraft AI 160 at the Cochin International Airport in Nedumbassery near Kochi, families of the nurses gathered around the international terminal, and dignitaries including Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy turned up for a special welcome.

Around 40 minutes after the 11:57 am arrival, the nurses emerged from the terminal. A huge crowd, holding banners and placards with welcome messages, cheered on.

Difficult to forget

For many, the horrors of being in the middle of an armed battle will be difficult to forget, even though the militants, suspected to be from an al-Qaeda offshoot — Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), doubled as their caretakers.

“The hospital floors used to shake with every explosion in the neighbourhood. The militants kept asking us to keep the windows open, probably to avoid injuries from broken glass. But we were clueless about their intentions… all we could do was pray and hope,” Sandra Sebastian, a native of Ramapuram in Kottayam district, said.

Sumi Jose, a native of Kothamangalam in Ernakulam district, said there were “conflicting signals” and their group was on tenterhooks till Friday afternoon.

“They (the militants) kept telling us that they will help us reach India and we shouldn’t be worried. Initially, the Embassy officials had asked us not to travel with the militants. We left the hospital with them only after the chief minister gave us a go-ahead on Friday,” she told Deccan Herald. 

The insurgents, who wore masks in Tikrit, did not sport them in ISIS strongholds, where they appeared more relaxed, Sumi said. When asked if she would return to work in Iraq, she replied with a quick “Never.” Sona Joseph, another nurse from Kottayam, described the homecoming as “a new life”. Sona, along with twin sister and nurse Veena Joseph, arrived here as part of the group. 

Neena Joseph, a native of Thalayolaparambu in Kottayam, said the militants had taken care of the group but there was a constant battle against fear. Marina Jose, another nurse from Kottayam, said she was immensely relieved and wanted time with her family for the feeling of being back home to sink in. The nurses said the militants looked after them ever since they took control of the hospital in Tikrit.

The 46 nurses – 17 of them from Kottayam – had moved to Iraq for employment in two batches; one in August 2013 and the other, earlier this year. 

Most of the nurses said salaries were pending for two to six months and the families were struggling with loans taken to pay recruitment agencies. Some had paid up to Rs two lakh to the agencies. 

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