A NATIVE of Kerala and based in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, for the last six years, Arjun Kottai had weathered the civil war in 2013. The epicentre of the trouble then was outside Juba, and most Indian expatriates, being based in the capital, were not really affected.
But it was different when fighting began between rival tribal groups last Friday. “The conflict erupted in the heart of Juba — we were in direct risk. So we decided to flee…there was no other option,’’ said Kottai, who landed in Thiruvananthapuram with wife Anjali and their two-year-old daughter on Friday morning.
Kottai could well have been speaking for the first batch of 156 people, evacuated from the war-torn African nation. Of the 156 evacuees, including two Nepalese citizens, 71 landed in Delhi, and the remaining in Thiruvananthapuram, where the C-17 Indian Air Force plane had made a brief halt.
At New Delhi’s Palam Technical Airbase, Sumit, an employee of Chinese MNC Huawei, was simply “thankful” that he was brought home. “I had gone there for a client meeting and was staying very close to one of the UN building compounds that was attacked. It was a terrifying experience…I am just glad to be back,” he said.
“The fight would start early morning and continue until evening. We would huddle together inside (homes)…. For five days, none of us dared to venture out even at night, when there would be a short break (in fighting),” said Kottai, who worked as a senior management executive.
The reason Indians and other foreign nationals remained unhurt was because they lived near the US Embassy, a fortified zone in Juba, Kottai explained. As provisions in most households got exhausted, some local shopowners helped them with supplies, Kottai said. But it may not remain that way for long. “Locals will start looting any time if the war carries on,” he added.
Originally from Kolkata, Gokul Debnath, who worked as manger of an Indian restaurant in Juba, said although he is “happy to be home and thankful that the government was able to arrange this so fast, I feel I will have to start from scratch now.” The business, he said, was bringing good money.
While Debnath took up the offer to leave his business and return, MoS, External Affairs, V K Singh, who escorted the evacuees, said of nearly 550 Indians there, about 300 were reluctant to be evacuated due to their business concerns.
Kottai said he would consider returning if normalcy returns in Juba. Chandrakant Singh, who worked with ONGC in Juba, said the same. “I fled out of fear but I hope I am able to return when the situation eases. It is not easy to just wind up everything and leave at a moment’s notice,” he said.