FOR Mangalore-based Francis D’Souza, who landed at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai Friday morning after being stranded in terror-hit Brussels, what transpired over the last three days will remain “hard to forget”. He was one of the 214 Indian passengers at the Zaventem airport when the twin blasts struck Tuesday, killing at least 31 and injuring hundreds. Three days later, D’Souza has only a back-pack to bring home. The rest of his luggage remains stashed in the belly of an aircraft in Brussels, where the airport is still shut for operations.
D’Souza, who spent hours after the strike trying to establish contact with the Indian embassy, claims it provided no support the first day and arrangements for food and shelter were looked after by the Belgium government. “There was just one embassy official but he kept asking the airlines to handle us,” says D’Souza.
He had landed in Brussels at 7.30 am Tuesday from Newark airport. Fifteen minutes later, he saw people running towards his direction at terminal B40, followed by a single urgent command on the public address systems: “Evacuate.”
“There were Indians, Chinese and a lot of European passengers. We were first taken to the runway for an hour. Then we were asked to leave through parking where I remember seeing a suitcase unattended. The commandos immediately took us to a military base camp in Brabanthal. I saw people bleeding, several lay injured while most ran without any direction at the airport,” said D’Souza.
According to him, the embassy started communicating with passengers Wednesday by when airlines had made arrangements to rescue passengers and ferry them in buses to Amsterdam for onward flights to Delhi and Mumbai. He could never return to claim his luggage.
Like him, Afshah Rajkotwala, 22, ran out of the airport with only a handbag, carrying her passport, money and some basic utilities. “With complete chaos and no official word from the embassy, she checked into a hotel in Brussels,” said her father Amin, a Bandra resident. He was talking to her over a WiFi call at Zaventem airport when he heard panic in her voice. “Something has gone wrong at the terminal,” she had said. Though she did not hear the blasts, moments later she saw people running.
After a day, her parents were able to establish contact with the Indian embassy who then took her to Amsterdam. “But there was no contact from Indian officials at all the first day,” Amin said, adding that helpline numbers were not working either.
Even as Afshah returned to Mumbai Friday morning, exhausted, her luggage is at the Brussels airport, which will reportedly remain shut until March 26. “I am told our luggage will come in two weeks or so,” she said. In her two suitcases were gifts for her family from the United States where she was visiting her aunt.
Jaideep Karande, 24, and his friend Prasad Patil, 24, were also on their way to India via Belgium after completing a one-year training course in hotel management in Kentucky, USA. This was his first visit abroad, which turned into a horrid memory for the entire Karande family who had come down from Pune early Friday morning to receive him. The family had been worried since Tuesday due to lack of proper communication with Jaideep. They were able to establish contact with him only six hours after the blasts.
“We see it in news when terror attacks happen somewhere else, sympathise and forget about it. Now I know how it feels to be in the middle of this,” said Jaideep’s father Digambar Karande as he kept peering over the crowd for his son to emerge from the airport.
As Jaideep appeared through the departure terminal, his parents, brother, uncle, aunt and their children surrounded him with joy. For his mother, who kept crying, allowing his son to stay away for a year was the hardest decision. “Thank God, he is alright,” she said.
Friend Prasad too left behind his luggage when people around him started running at the Brussels airport.
The passengers were told the luggage left behind would now be identified and arrangements to return them made in two weeks.
The passengers said a Red Cross help desk for medicines and first aid had been set-up in the military camp in Brussels for two days.