|Marina Jose, one of the 46 nurses who returned from Iraq, holds her daughter after arriving at the airport in Kochi on Saturday. (Reuters)
Kochi, July 5: Twenty-three days in confinement in a war zone would have been harrowing but the 46 freed Indian nurses who arrived here from Iraq today had not one word of blame for the militants behind their ordeal.
Each of the women invariably described the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgents as “friendly”. Some of them objected when journalists referred to the militants as “terrorists”.
“They are the local administration there and we cannot call them terrorists,” said nurse Sinimol Chacko, a native of Kannur.
If the militants had turned “administrators” in Tikrit, where the nurses were holed up in their hospital, it was because they had overrun the city.
But the nurses The Telegraph had the chance to speak to would not call the militants their “captors” or describe themselves as “hostages” — although they agreed the rebels continued to enter and leave the hospital at their will.
The nurses, who looked in good health, said they were provided food and water by humanitarian bodies like Red Crescent as well as the militants, who never misbehaved with them.
They downplayed reports about some of them suffering injuries following a blast in the hospital. Glass shards from broken panes had hit a couple of them, the nurses said, but could not pinpoint what had caused this.
It wasn’t clear whether they were being diplomatic keeping in mind the welfare of the many Indians still in Iraq, about whom the government is concerned.
Some of the nurses might also be hoping to return to Iraq some day — job prospects at home are bleak and, to send them abroad, their families had taken bank loans that need to be paid off.
A few nurses, though, said they never would return to Iraq and hoped the state government would provide them with jobs.
Chief minister Oommen Chandy, who was at the Nedumbassery International Airport with a few cabinet colleagues to welcome the nurses back, told reporters the matter of the nurses’ rehabilitation would be dealt with later.
As the plane touched down at 11.47am, one could almost hear the assembled parents let out a collective sigh of relief. Soon, the nurses emerged from the arrival area.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am. These 23 days felt like 23 years,” said Sandra Sebastian, who is from Kottayam district.
Sandra said: “There was only us in the hospital besides two cleaners. We could hear frequent gunshots and bombs going off all around us.”
Most of the nurses are from Kerala, with Kottayam accounting for 16 and Kannur for 8. One nurse left for home state Tamil Nadu with her family.
The women said there was some initial confusion when the rebels took them out of Tikrit on Thursday. It had led to angry outbursts from some of them who felt the Indian government had abandoned them.
“Twice earlier, Indian embassy officials had advised us not to go with the militants. But the third time, the ISIS people who came to the hospital told us that leaving with them was the only way if we wanted to survive,” said Sumi Jose, who is from Kothamangalam.
“We then talked to chief minister Chandy, who too advised us to go with them. Many still had their doubts as we did not know we were actually being taken to safety.”
She said the embassy officials had been very helpful. “They were in touch with us almost every day, enquiring about our condition, and recharged our mobiles whenever we asked.”
Sandra said the nurses left the hospital at noon on Thursday and reached Mosul at 7pm.
“In Mosul, we were herded into a big hall. It was dark but we had already been told we would be freed,” Sandra said.
“By 8 the next morning, we headed to a check-post where Indian embassy officials were to meet us. But we could not reach the place because of the difficult terrain. So we were taken to a spot closer to Erbil from where the Iraqi military and our officials took over.”
The nurses’ families had begun gathering at the airport since the early hours after reports said the Air India flight, AI-167, would arrive by 6.40am. But the wait got longer as the flight made a detour through Mumbai.
As the families waited, the media interviewed them. Most told the same story of being driven by poverty to send their children to a war-ravaged country and of bank loans they needed to pay off.
But there were also tales of fortitude like that of Linu Baby from Pathanamthitta.
“Till she had boarded the bus to Mosul, we never knew she was among those stuck in the Tikrit hospital. We were under the impression she was working in some other hospital. Maybe she hid the fact from us so we wouldn’t panic,” her mother Lali said.
“Thanks to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj; thanks to all embassy officials,” Chandy said. “Only with their joint effort, we have been able to arrive at this happy situation.”