About a month ago I wrote a blogpost about a group of 46 Indian nurses trapped in the sectarian civil war in Iraq, working at the state run Tikrit Teaching hospital in the city of Tikrit and how India's foreign office sprang into action and tried each and every way to bring them back using both formal and back end diplomatic channels. The efforts did succeed and the militants controlling the Tikrit city decided to free the nurses. The nurses were asked to get into the bus and were moved to an undisclosed location near city of Erbil-the Kurdish regional capital. India's foreign office people were already there and were waiting at the border point of Autonomous region of Kurdistan and Iraq. After some confusion and misunderstanding, the nurses finally reached safety, where Indian officials were waiting for them. The nurses along with some other Indians, were planned to be evacuated from Erbil international airport and foreign office had entrusted this task to Air India, India's national carrier.
No one would have ever imagined that the foreign office would have to repeat this exercise within a few weeks again and again to bring back more nurses home, not from war torn northern Iraq but this time from another country in the African continent; Libya. Fighting has erupted in this north African country recently between rival militias controlled by rival factions - one established by the outgoing parliament and one controlled by the defence ministry – and has spread northwards in the capital in recent days. More than 1,000 Indians work in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and Benghazi. Forming part of this group, a large number of Indian nurses also are working at various hospitals in this country. Out of this group of Indian citizens, a number of nurses and other Indian workers had found themselves trapped in the fighting engulfed parts of Libya and wanted to come home.
Foreign office has brought back another group of 40 nurses safely to shores of India from this group. They were first moved to neighbouring Tunisia and were flown home from there by Emirates Airlines. Sheena Varghese, a nurse from Kannur, is one such nurse, who has come back. Her story is probably a typical one. She says that she could hear the sounds of explosion, but things were not complicated inside the hospital. Sheena has not received her full remuneration. The nurses had opted for Libya as most of them had taken huge loans to get a job.
Within days of the first group returning, ten more Malayali nurses, employees of the Tripoli Medical Centre, returned home. Even though these nurses are happy to have reached home safely, most of them are worried at the loss of income and would like to return to some other country for working at earliest. After reading about the stories of the return of the nurses, I had formed an impression that only Indians wanted to come back. However it is just not true.
Libya has been gripped by instability and a power struggle among rival groups since the overthrow of former leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Since then, the situation has progressively deteriorated. Several countries have evacuated their citizens from Libya and others have advised against travelling there. Britain has used a Royal Navy ship to evacuate its citizens from Libya to Malta. Last week, the US evacuated its embassy in Tripoli, citing a "real risk" because of the fighting. The UN too has withdrawn all its staff from Libya.
I am afraid that India's foreign office may have to repeat this exercise in future also. The lure of jobs that look attractive because of the pay offered, means that more and more Indians would keep continuing going to places abroad for work and if there is instability, they would have to be brought back as it is the fundamental duty of any state, to look after the welfare of its citizens. There is just no escape from that.
15th August 2014