New Delhi: After escaping from Sudan and through Jeddah, Baruba Sabir was hoping to finally reach home on arrival in India. But he got a rude shock after landing at Bengaluru airport on the evening of Friday, April 28.
Till now, passengers of the first two flights that had landed with Indian nationals from Sudan at Delhi and Mumbai had had a smooth journey back to their homes. But the next two flights – which landed in Delhi and Bengaluru – on Friday had a different reception. Several passengers had to stay at the airport for more than six hours, with airport officials insisting that they had to furnish their yellow fever certification.
The Wire has learnt that after a six-hour wait, those in Bengaluru without the yellow fever certificate were taken to a hospital for a six-day quarantine. However, this was done for only around 25 people in Bengaluru. Some of those who landed in Delhi and could not furnish a yellow fever certificate were also taken to quarantine centres, although some others may have been allowed to leave after negotiating at the airport for hours.
The evacuees were forced to navigate violent gunfire to reach the designated pick-up points for buses, making their journey perilous from the outset. Following a gruelling 20-hour bus ride to Port Sudan, they then travelled across the Red Sea to Jeddah, either via an Indian warship or military plane. From Jeddah, they then boarded commercial or military planes for the final five-hour leg of their journey
According to health ministry guidelines, passengers travelling to and from yellow fever endemic countries have to show a vaccination certificate to immigration officers. However, the evacuees on the first two flights from Sudan to Delhi and Mumbai which landed on Wednesday and Thursday did not report such insistent demands from airport officials, as per passengers who spoke with The Wire.
Most of the passengers are on multiple WhatsApp groups created for coordinating the evacuation process from Sudan. This means that most of them were usually in the know what would be needed during the journey and upon arrival.
Therefore, when one Supriya landed at the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru with her husband and one-year-old son at around 5 pm, she hoped to leave soon and finish their long journey. Seven hours after she landed, she and her family were taken to the hospital to quarantine, at around midnight.
“We had left many of our documents at home as we moved to a friend’s place for safety, thinking that the war will continue for only a couple of days. But, we couldn’t go back and had to go straight for evacuation from the place where we all were staying in one room,” she said on phone from the airport, explaining why she did not have her vaccination certificate. Supriya has been living in Sudan with her husband for six years.
Similar to Supriya, there were scores of others who were forced to leave Sudan on short notice, with several losing their passports and certificates. The Indian embassy’s camp office at Port Sudan issued several temporary travel documents to Indians who did not have passports with them.
Baruba Sabir, who worked as a technician in an oxygen plant in Khartoum, had left his vaccination certificate behind. “I had just got it only four months ago in December. That’s what hurts more. I had forgotten to get it, but when we heard that passengers in the earlier two flights were not asked for it, I was a bit more relaxed. But, now after landing here, they are not letting us go till we show our certificate”.
Sabir too was taken to the hospital to quarantine.
In the same flight to Bengaluru, there were around 100 members from the Hakki Pikki tribe, a semi-nomadic group in Karnataka. The Hakki Pikki members travel to various countries with their families to stay for months at a stretch to sell medicinal oil.
Delighted to see off 362 Indians evacuated from Sudan on a flight bound for Bengaluru from Jeddah. Good number of these are from Hakki Pikki tribe.#OperationKaveri pic.twitter.com/z3DEj4Vnjd
— V. Muraleedharan (@MOS_MEA) April 28, 2023
Their plight in Sudan became well-known when Congress leader Siddaramaiah tweeted about their situation. This provoked a rebuke from external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, who accused him of “playing politics.”
The Indian government has named the operation for evacuation of Indians from Sudan after Kaveri, a major river that flows through Karnataka, where Congress and BJP are campaigning for next month’s elections.
It is learnt that the Hakki Pikki members on the flight were separated on arrival and their clearance was done on priority.
Another passenger who landed at Delhi airport at around 4 pm on Friday said that he got immigration clearance only after five hours. He was also questioned about their yellow fever vaccination certificate, which he didn’t have. But he was finally allowed to leave after having been made to run from official to official. “Nobody knew what to do and we have been called many times to the gate and returned back again,” he said.
When the news about vaccination certificate began trickling into the WhatsApp groups, there was a lot of confusion, especially for those waiting to board a flight to India at Jeddah. Many of them contacted the Minister of State of External Affairs, V. Muraleedharan, in Jeddah through political connections. Muraleedharan is learned to have assured them of a resolution.
When contacted, MEA officials indicated that they were aware of the problem with the certificate at the airports on Friday but insisted that the health ministry had to take the call.
By Friday, 1,360 Indians had returned to India on four flights from Jeddah. In total, around 3,400 Indian nationals had registered with the Indian embassy for evacuation after the start of the fighting on April 14.