When South Africa declared one of the toughest lockdowns to flatten the deadly coronavirus curve, now a runaway catastrophic scenario with 3 000 deaths and 187 000 casualties, shutting down all transport hubs and restricting travelling, thousands of Indian nationals – ranging from elderly and sickly people visiting their economic migrant families to students, entrepreneurs and tourists, were stranded in the draconian Covid-19 curfew. Gradually hundreds were flown back home, with the latest batch of almost 430 ferried safely back on two chartered jetliners at the weekend. Marlan Padayachee shares the behind-the-scenes human drama that has been unfolding over the past 100 days.
‘’Kudos to the Indian government, diplomats and the travel agency’’ a greatly relieved Abhilash Reddy tweeted from his seat on board the Air India jetliner that landed smoothly at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai early hours of Sunday morning.
Flight AI 1902 took off from the OR Tambo International Airport at 2.15 pm on Saturday, carrying 247 stranded Indian nationals and landing in the early hours of Sunday in Mumbai.
On Sunday, a total of 183 were sent back on board a chartered Ethiopian Airlines jetliner to New Delhi.
More than 50 Indians are still stranded in SA and attempts are underway to repatriate them this month.
Passenger Reddy’s ecstatic exclamation on the WhatsApp group that was especially created for the Indians across South Africa summed up weeks and months of the anguish, anxiety, fear and uncertainty more than 1 200 nationals locally – and almost 10 million worldwide – endured and experienced thousands of kilometres away from their native India since the lockdown level 5 was imposed by the government in March.
On the other hand, Indian diplomats and government officials and the Air India-appointed travel company is working closely with the South African embassy and consular offices in New Delhi and Mumbai to repatriate hundreds of South Africans – including citizens of Indian origin – to the country.
The repatriation flights from South Africa was part of the Indian Government’s rescue mission, code-named Vande Bharat (Salute India), to repatriate 10 million of its nationals located around the world from the USA, Caribbean, Dubai, Morocco, Sudan, South Sudan Congo DRC, Tanzania, Kenya, Cameroon and Mozambique.
Hundreds of diplomatic staff and volunteers worked around the clock to ensure that their ‘’brothers and sisters’’ were sent back home. ‘’We are greatly humbled by this humanitarian work. The hand of God has guided us throughout these difficult months,’’ said Laxman Reddy of the South African Telugu Community.
The Indian High Commissioner Jaideep Sarkar and his consul-general in Johannesburg, Anju Rangan, have been coordinating all the repatriation flights. The consular office in Parktown is the assembly point for processing all returning Indians before they were bused to the landmark airport on the East Rand.
Added Ashish Sharma, regional director of the official Indian Government global rescue mission, Satguru Travel: ‘’Just simply receiving the WhatsApp message was a great relief to know that the first batch of passengers had touched down safely. Not in eight years of my work in South Africa have Experienced an unfolding human drama of untold proportions in the history of India, South Africa and the travel industry.’’
“God is using us as a medium to get these anxious people back home to face uncertain times as India itself battles the coronavirus pandemic.’’
Among the Covid-19 hit passengers on the Air India mercy mission flight was Lopa Mudra, who according to Indian embassy officials, had made two unsuccessful attempts to fly back home to Mumbai in the past 100 days of the lockdown.
Mudra and her colleagues were in the country on an international work project. However, Mudra, a diabetic sufferer, could not accompany her co-workers when they departed for India before the lockdown on 26 March.
Later, her first chartered flight was cancelled and she could board the second flight because she fell ill and could not travel.
She was third time lucky when she took her seat on the Air India aircraft and later confirming that she had reached Mumbai for the start of a mandatory seven-day quarantine along with all the fellow passengers at various hotels in India’s bustling economic hub.
‘’All 427 passengers will be subjected to stringent quarantine once they reach their destinations in half dozen cities,’’ said Sharma.
‘’The human stories had many faces. There were the elderly people who were visiting their children working here. Many of these young professionals were retrenched and they wanted to get back home to start their careers all over again after working in South Africa for several years.
‘’Many Indians were left without food and accommodation and the consular offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg provided financial support for these destitute people. Many were sick and could not afford medical treatment. The elderly were worried and stressed,’’ said Sharma.
‘’Then there were the seven students who had been to CapeTown and Durban to learn diving tactics in the seas. They were all relieved to board the mercy flight.
‘’There were tourists and business people, and including those whose travel permits had expired, who were also caught in the lockdown and for each and every one of them it has been months of anxiety and struggle to keep their spirits up. They were largely homesick and were yearning for their homeward bound journeys. They just wanted to get back home, whatever the prospects awaiting them,’’ recounted Sharma as the passengers filed through the waiting areas to board the aircraft.
Six shuttle buses carrying the second batch of passengers were escorted to the airport after midday on Sunday.
Sharma said his company has 48 agencies across Africa – with its corporate head office in Dubai – and operate in 65 countries worldwide. The company has been integral to arranging and processing the repatriation flight missions on behalf of Air India. ‘’I hardly imagined that the travel industry could play a crucial role in this historic event of a global pandemic that touched millions of hearts around the world.’’
As the gleaming Ethiopian Airlines jetliner stood on the tarmac at the Johannesburg airport, a total of 183 passengers had their temperatures tested and passports processed by health and home affairs officials.
They boarded their home-sweet-home Flight ET 808, many looking pleased to leave behind their experiences in chilly Johannesburg. By 3.30 pm, the jetliner took off and soared into the skies for the 10-hour, nonstop flight to New Delhi.
Speaking from her residence in Johannesburg, Consul-General Mrs Rangan confirmed that a total of 491 passengers had travelled on both flights chartered by the Indian government and the travel agency.
‘’All round we were greatly relieved to bid farewell to them. Our experience has been very gratifying and humbling to see our fellow citizens finally get to travel back home,’’ said.
She arrived early this year to take up her new diplomatic posting directly from Scotland weeks before the lockdown was imposed and has her work cut out, handling the flurry of requests from her nationals to return to India.
She confirmed while many passengers were able to pay their airfares, several others struggled during the lockdown and their R15 700 fare per passenger was raised by well-wishers, businesses and volunteers: ‘’The humanitarian mission has been one of the most humbling and unforgettable experiences in my career. I am satisfied and relieved we have played a role in sending back the homesick people and we hope that they will be safely homeward bound and undergo the stringent measures of the quarantine and get back to their lives.’’
‘’Many were stranded here with tourist and visitor’s visas and it was not easy on them to survive here. They were all anxious to get back on home soil.’’
The Air India flight landed in Mumbai where passengers disembarked and the rest if the passengers were dropped off during the ongoing flights to Hyderabad, Chennai and Bangalore, completing yet another mercy mission.
There are still scores of Indians in SA and flights are to be chartered to send them back to India, Mrs Rangan said.
However, Ethiopian Airlines flew directly overnight to New Delhi where all the passengers disembarked and were taken into quarantine at various graded hotels at the cost of up to R200 per day.
Both airlines had also brought South Africans, Zimbabweans and some from Botswana en-route through Africa to Johannesburg.
Meanwhile, hundreds of South Africans – mainly visiting scholarship students of Indian origin – are stranded in cities in India with little prospect of returning home, according to family sources. Academics from Durban universities are known to be stranded in Canada and the USA as well for longer than six months.
* Marlan Padayachee is a veteran journalist who had previously covered political, diplomatic and foreign news for Independent Newspapers and works as an independent media, communications and research consultant.