‘Our government saved us’: India brings back nearly 400 from Afghanistan on three special flights

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India on Sunday brought back from Kabul nearly 400 people, including 329 of its nationals and two Afghan lawmakers, in three different flights as part of its efforts to evacuate its citizens and vulnerable Afghans after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in a military blitz.

A special repatriation flight by the Indian Air Force — carrying 168 passengers, including 107 Indians — landed at the Hindon air base near Delhi on Sunday morning.

From Kabul, the evacuees were first taken to Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, on board a military transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF). The group was brought back to Delhi in the early hours on Sunday, External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said.

Another group of 87 Indians and two Nepalese nationals were brought back in another special Air India flight from Dushanbe, a day after they were evacuated to the Tajikistan capital in an IAF aircraft, officials said.

Union Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia too tweeted about the Air India flight bringing home the 87 Indians.

Separately, a group of 135 Indians, who were evacuated from Kabul to Doha in the last few days by the US and NATO aircraft, were flown back from Doha to Delhi on a special flight, they said.

India carried out the evacuation missions in coordination with the United States, Qatar, Tajikistan and several other friendly countries.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Bagchi posted pictures of the evacuation efforts on Twitter. He also posted a short video clip where the evacuees can be heard chanting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, adding more evacuation flights will follow.

On board the IAF aircraft that brought back 168 people were at least 72 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, including two Members of Parliament representing the minority community in Afghanistan.

An Indian Express report stated that these members were stopped by the Taliban outside the Kabul airport on Saturday.

“Taliban fighters stopped them from boarding the IAF plane and said since they are Afghans, they must go back,” Vikramjit Singh Sahney, president of the World Punjabi Organization, told Indian Express.

He added that they had been waiting outside the airport for over 12 hours since Friday.

However, this group, including Afghanistan MPs Narinder Singh Khalsa and Anarkali Kaur Honaryar finally boarded the IAF aircraft and reached Hindon air base on Sunday.

The evacuees who landed at Hindon were not immediately allowed to leave the aircraft, news agency ANI reported, as they were to first undergo the RT-PCR test for the coronavirus disease.

People wait for their RT-PCR tests at Hindon Air Force Station, Ghaziabad after being evacuated from Afghanistan's Kabul, amid a takeover of power by the Taliban. ANI

Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya also tweeted that Afghanistan returnees would be provided with free vaccine against Wild Polio Virus.

He tweeted, “We have decided to vaccinate Afghanistan returnees with free Polio Vaccine – OPV & fIPV, as a preventive measure against Wild Polio Virus. Take a look at the vaccine drive at Delhi International Airport.”

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only two countries in the world where polio is still endemic.

Upon reaching India, Afghanistan MP Narender Singh Khalsa broke down when asked about the situation in his country. “I feel like crying… Everything that was built in the last 20 years is now finished. It’s zero now,” he was quoted as saying to ANI.

A sense of relief and gratitude was palpable among the evacuees from Afghanistan as they landed at Ghaziabad’s Hindon airbase.

Alladad Qureshi, an Afghan national whose wife hails from Kashmir, expressed a sense of relief as he interacted with media persons at Hindon.

“I have two daughters. We thank the government of India, Modiji, MEA and air force for saving us,” he said.
Manik Mandal, a young jeweller who had gone to Afghanistan six months ago in search of livelihood, smiled as he said, “We faced a lot of problems in Kabul, but our government saved us.”

Two infants were also among the 168 people, including 107 Indian citizens and two Afghan senators, evacuated from Kabul on the special IAF flight.

Visuals shared by news agency ANI showed one of the infants in the arms of the mother, while a young girl (presumably the older sister) smiles happily and kisses the baby, who seems rather bewildered by the many new sights and sounds.

According to a government source, the Afghanistan Special Cell has received more than 2,000 calls in the last five days. The foreign ministry has answered over 6,000 messages on WhatsApp and over 1,200 mails in the past five days.

Before Sunday’s missions, India had already evacuated 200 people including the Indian envoy and other staffers of its embassy in Kabul in two C-17 heavy-lift transport aircraft of the IAF.

The first evacuation flight brought back over 40 people, mostly staffers at the Indian embassy, on Monday.

The second C-17 aircraft evacuated around 150 people including Indian diplomats, officials, security personnel and some stranded Indians from Kabul on Tuesday.

Foreign Minister S Jaishankar this week said the government is “very carefully” monitoring the situation in Kabul and Afghanistan, but that the immediate focus is on safely evacuating all citizens.

The latest evacuations are part of the central government’s efforts to bring back hundreds of Indian nationals to the country from Afghanistan, as the situation deteriorated from Kabul following the lightning-fast Taliban offensive.

The Taliban seized Kabul on August 15 after sweeping across Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan. The forces will leave the country by the end of this month.

— Inputs from Agencies

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