Exclusive Pics by Rons Bantwal - Daijiworld News Network - Mumbai
Mumbai, July 22: Surangani was asleep when his home in a southern Lebanon town was hit by an Israeli bomb attack. Terrified, he jumped up and ran despite his injuries.
Surangani is one of the four injured Indians who were brought back home from Lebanon on Air India flight AI 410 late Friday. He, along with the others, was whisked away for medical attention.
Two Air India planes arrived in India - in Mumbai and Chennai- carrying 604 Indians evacuated from strife-torn Lebanon.
Most Indians who arrived in Chennai by the flight did not carry any luggage and passports with them. They said their employers held their passports and told them there was no danger.
‘The government of India intervened and got the Indian workers out safely. They gave us identity cards in Cyprus,’ said M. Palanisamy, who worked in a shoe factory and was evacuated from near Beirut.
Most of the 341 people who were brought in at the Chennai airport at about 10.30 p.m. Friday by the Indian authorities were blue-collar workers.
Many worked with the corporation of Beirut as sanitation staff. Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi, deputed to facilitate the return of the evacuees, told IANS: ‘A majority of those evacuated in the first phase were Tamil workers in Lebanon.’
The minister said the government was aware that many Nepalese and Sri Lankans too were stranded in Lebanon and were waiting to be evacuated. ‘Surely we will extend assistance, first let us evacuate all our people who want to come back,’ he said.
Indian navy ships brought the evacuated in a six-hour journey from Lebanon to Cyprus where they had to wait for a day. Two Air India special flights brought the first batches over to India in another six-hour flight.
In the flight that came in at Mumbai, there were 53 people from Delhi, 42 from Mumbai, six from Punjab and two from Haryana. The evacuated were identified with an orange ribbon tied at the wrist.
In Chennai, they were welcomed with roses. The Tamil Nadu government had deputed two ministers Thangam Thennarasu and M.R.K. Paneerselvam to look after the Indians.
Among those who arrived at the Chennai international airport were 10 people from Kerala as well as two women.
The flight to Mumbai also had 119 Tamils, who were airlifted to Chennai early Saturday.
Suganthi Rajagopalan from Thanjavur was working in Ashrafi in downtown Beirut as a housekeeper for nine years. She has three children studying in India and an elderly mother. Her sister Malathi too is working in Lebanon. ‘But Malathi chose not to leave,’ a tired Suganthi said.
‘I was not afraid of the fighting. I did not experience any bombing myself, the house I worked in was in a safe area but since our government decided to evacuate us, I thought of returning. I have not seen my family for a long time.’
For Vanitha Suresh, her holiday to Lebanon was cut short abruptly. She had joined her husband Suresh, an engineer at an aluminium factory in Halad, just two months ago, hoping to see the country before his contract with the firm came to an end.
‘There was no bombing in north Lebanon but it is very intense in the south. But we heard that six Sri Lankan women workers were killed in the north. We decided to leave,’ said Vanitha.
Suresh told IANS, ‘I will go back when the fighting is over.’
Balakrishnan, Suresh’s friend, had gone to join the same Halad aluminium factory just two weeks ago. He too said he ‘would like to return. I am not afraid’, adding sheepishly, ‘actually I have never been anywhere near such incidents and I have no experience of war. But when the government said it was evacuating Indians, I thought it best to come back.’
K. Santakumar, 31, from Ramanathapuram, a corporation worker in Beirut, however, does not want to return. He has been away for seven years and says he now wants to look for a job in India.
None of those who arrived in Chennai had their families present to receive them as the evacuation was sudden. But the central and state government officials more than made up in hospitality.
Minister Ravi was a beaming man as those returning home had an unexpectedly smooth arrival. And the smiles were back on their faces.