A day after they were released by Sunni militants in Iraq, 46 Indian nurses returned home on Saturday. The special Air India flight had about 170 Indians on board, including many who were working in Kirkuk.
The flight, which left Erbil in the early hours of Thursday, landed at the Kochi International Airport at 11:50 am, where the nurses were received by Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. The plane then headed to Hyderabad, where 70 disembarked, before finally reaching New Delhi with the remaining 54 Indian workers.
An emotional and warm welcome awaited the nurses at the Kochi airport as they reunited with their families after speedy immigration clearance at special counters. Their waiting relatives shed tears of happiness as they hugged them.
Their release followed hectic negotiations as India activated all diplomatic and non-diplomatic channels over the last fortnight. In fact, the top secret “deal” with the militants is learnt to have been struck by Thursday night itself, when the nurses were being moved from Tikrit to Mosul. Indian officials were sent to Erbil beforehand to receive the nurses at a border checkpost on Friday. But given the “tenuous links” in a conflict situation, South Block was waiting for confirmation, with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj being updated on the developments till 2 am on Friday.
It is learnt that the “deal” was struck through a set of “intermediaries” who had access to the captors. Top government sources said the “same intermediaries” have now been asked to negotiate with the militants for freeing the 39 Indians in Mosul. “We don’t want to jeopardise the next stage of rescue operations by divulging the details of our intermediaries right now,” said a source.
Sources privy to the negotiations said External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made at least 18 phone calls to her counterparts and others in the region over the last few days, making “personal requests” on behalf of the Indian government. These include phone calls to the six Gulf countries — Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.
It is reliably learnt that Swaraj also reached out to the top levels in the US administration and several European governments for information on the Sunni militants, their capabilities and intentions regarding the hostages. At least two of these channels provided support to the ground level negotiations being carried out by India’s former ambassador to Iraq, Suresh Reddy, who is currently stationed in Baghdad.
While the information about who actually helped is not being divulged, it is quite clear that the government was talking to both state as well as non-state actors — through the intermediaries at first, and even directly during the crucial stages.
Government sources said at least 25 meetings were held in the last fortnight to deal with the crisis. Among those who attended these meetings were Swaraj, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, Secretary (East) Anil Wadhwa, Joint Secretary (Gulf) Mridul Kumar, Joint Secretary (West Asia and North Africa) Sandeep Kumar and officials from the Intelligence agencies. Swaraj also held separate meetings of Indian envoys in Gulf countries and Gulf ambassadors in Delhi, asking them to reach out, not just through established diplomatic routes but through groups which could have access to the militants.
The nurses, most of them in their 20s, were stranded in Iraq after their hospital in Tikrit was taken over by Sunni militants on June 12. They were forced to move to Mosul on Thursday, before finally being released on Friday.
Their happiness at being back home on Saturday, however, was clouded by a feeling of despair as many of them had not received their salaries for the last few months. Thirty-six of the nurses who joined the Tikrit Teaching Hospital in February this year were yet to receive any salary. The others, who joined the hospital in August last year, had not been paid for the last two months.
“We have pleaded with the Indian Embassy to negotiate with the Iraq government to pay our salary arrears… We did not even have money to recharge our mobile phones,’’ said Lashmol Jacob, a nurse. All of them vowed never to return to Iraq. Among the nurses were two siblings from a family in Kottayam which has another daughter working as a nurse in Bagdad.
Almost all the nurses narrated the same story: they completed their general nursing diploma in low-cost institutes in other states, worked in Delhi for a year or two before going to Iraq, for which they had to shell out Rs 1.5-2 lakh. They all belong to economically backward families living in rural areas of Kerala.
Within half-an-hour, the nurses were taken to their homes in Kottayam, Idukki, Pathanamthitta and Kannur districts. The state government had arranged special vehicles for their transport.
Chandy attributed their safe return to an orchestrated effort by the state and central governments. He said the issue of helping the nurses would be addressed later.