Kochi: As many as 183 Indians stranded in strife-torn Iraq, including the 46 nurses from Kerala who were freed by Iraqi insurgents, arrived here Saturday to a grand welcome, ending days of tension and uncertainty.
The special Air India flight from Erbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region, landed here close to noon as Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and his cabinet colleagues, legislators, Lok Sabha members and state government officials received the nurses at the airport.
Arrangements were made for three family members of each nurse to go inside the airport to receive them. A special immigration desk was set up for them.
It was a mad scramble, with anxious family members hugging and kissing their dear ones.
While some cried in happiness, others were seen clutching the hands of toddlers, most of them children of these nurses, who for the past nearly three weeks never imagined such an arrival.
Sandra Sebastian, one of the nurses, told the media at Kochi airport that she was very scared when they were taken away by the insurgents.
"... very afraid... will not go back," she said in broken English.
Chandy earlier said that at one point of time, he had lost all hope as the plane did not get permission to land in Erbil because of strong winds.
He thanked External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for all her efforts to bring back the nurses to India.
Reports earlier said many nurses protested at Erbil airport, saying they won't board the plane unless they are paid their four months' salary arrears.
Indian officials persuaded them, and they finally agreed.
Seena, a nurse from Kannur, said for 23 days they lived in isolation at Tikrit, their workplace.
"Our patience was running out... gun-toting men came to our building in the hospital campus Thursday. All they gave us was 15 minutes and asked us to pack our things.
"We were told to enter one of the four buses parked outside... and in a few minutes, we saw the first and third floor of our building go up in flames," Seena said.
Another nurse said, "never in our dreams, we thought that these armed men would be our saviours".
"We had no clue... whether they were going to kill us or they would be our saviours.
"On our eight-hour drive to Mosul, the kind behaviour of these people surprised all of us.
"They stopped at many places, gave us water, biscuits and food. When these things happened, we also were relaxed. In our bus, there was the driver and another man and both had firearms," the nurse added.
Another nurse could not hide her happiness on being back with her family.
She said they came to know that the armed men represented the newly-formed 'government' of Mosul and that the nurses were a bit taken aback when they said many of the men with guns were doctors.
"Once in Mosul, they put us in a big room and we were given beds and food. We feel that the new government there helped us reach here safely. We thank each and everyone who prayed for our return and also all the authorities who helped us," she said.
The Kerala government made arrangements for the nurses to travel in hired vehicles, while the lone nurse from Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu was provided with a railway ticket to her home town.
The plane had earlier landed in Mumbai for refuelling and for taking aboard food for the passengers.
Meanwhile, a UAE-based Indian businessman has offered the 46 freed nurses jobs in hospitals he owns across the Gulf country, Nepal, Bhutan and India.
BR Shetty made the offer through advertisements in Kerala newspapers. He asked the nurses to contact his office if interested.