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Covid-19: An Eid homecoming in Ladakh for Indian pilgrims stranded in Iran

Away from home during the pandemic, five Ladakhis have lost their lives in quarantine across Iran and Rajasthan. The last 313 of over 800 pilgrims to return home share their ordeal

A Ladakhi man holds a placard demanding evacuation of the pilgrims.
A Ladakhi man holds a placard demanding evacuation of the pilgrims.

On 11 May, 26-year-old Shamima Nabi shared a post on her Facebook timeline –a video featuring three elderly women with tears rolling down their cheeks as they voiced their concerns in Ladakhi, sitting in a hostel room with their hands on their knees.

“On this mothers day many mothers from #Ladakh who are stranded in #Iran for almost three months are eager to come to their home," read the post. “Mother(s) are crying, they are waiting for evacuation since 3 month(s)."

When Nabi, along with her mother Razia Bano, 62, left Ladakh in December for ziyarat, a holy pilgrimage to Iraq and Iran, she had no idea it would be nearly half a year until she saw her 15-year-old brother again. They were to return to India on 10 March, but Iran suspended flight operations on 26 February as covid-19 gripped the country’s epicentre of Qom, leaving Nabi, Bano and over 800 pilgrims from India stranded. As of today, there are 1,18,392 cases reported in Iran and 6,932 deaths.

Bano was terrified as she started hearing the numbers grow and longed for the safety of home in India, where the virus had not yet caught on. In the first week of March, a team of doctors dispatched from India began testing Indians in Iran – over 6,000, including pilgrims, students and fishermen. Bano and her family were part of the 254 Indians who tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

“I was very tense, but I had no symptoms except for a mild headache, I wasn’t sick. So I thought we will get to go home soon. Then one week passed, two weeks, one month. And now over 2 months," says Bano, whose husband had also tested positive, which was particularly worrying since he is diabetic.

Over the last 3 months, Bano watched special flights leave for India, ferrying those who had tested negative back to various quarantine facilities back home, while she spent her time at a dormitory in a youth hostel in Iran, quarantined with 313 other pilgrims.

There was peace in prayer, Bano says. She would get regular check-ups from Iranian doctors who came to monitor them once a week, chat with others and spend time with her 26-year-daughter and husband to pass the time.

Finally, on 14 May, she called her son to tell him she was coming home. “He burst into tears, for the first time in 2 months. He had been so worried and alone, eating meals at the neighbour’s home. He said he couldn’t believe it," says Bano. She got on a Mahan Air flight to New Delhi on Saturday night, and then one of two Air India flights to Ladakh on Sunday, where she will undergo institutional quarantine for another two weeks until she can go home.

“The arrangements for payments for the flights from Delhi to Ladakh have been coordinated by the Autonomous Hill Development Councils of Kargil and Leh," says Saugat Biswas, Divisional Commissioner, Ladakh. “Till the time they were in Iran, all the arrangements were made by the government of India. We were constantly in touch with the Iran returnees and the Indian embassy in Iran to look at their well-being and communicate and coordinate things here, where we were speaking to the ministries for evacuation."

Dealing with fear

Every year, thousands of pilgrims, largely from Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, set out for a pilgrimage across Iraq and Iran for ziyarat, which literally translates to “visitation". These are typically two-month long tours, undertaken in groups and batches between November and April.

But 2020 was no ordinary year.

When lawyer Mustafa Haji heard that flight operations had been suspended in Iran, he became worried. He was in Delhi at the time, watching videos of distressed Ladakhis in Iran, pleading to be brought back home.

“We were very scared. Those who reportedly tested positive were being kept in the same hotel as everyone else. And there was a lot of contradictory information – the Minister of External Affairs said they were working on bringing people back from Iran, but the people back in Iran were telling us a different story," he says.

On 21 March, Haji filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court, praying that a writ be issued ordering the government to evacuate those stranded in Iran, including his relatives.

Around the same time, three flights returned from Iran with Indians, eventually quarantined across Ghaziabad, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur. One of his uncles, Ghulam Hussain, 60, was in the facility in Jodhpur from 25 March until 6 May, and is presently in institutional quarantine in Kargil – a total of 56 days in quarantine. He has tested negative every time.

A Ladakhi woman undergoing a health check-up.
A Ladakhi woman undergoing a health check-up.

Back in Iran, those who tested positive were finally moved away from the hotel and into a youth hostel around 20 March. The District Collector, Kargil, Basheer ul Haq says this facility was hired by the government of India, and the embassy there provided rations and supplies, even as many pilgrims maintained that this assistance came initially from the Iranian government and it was only a few days later that the embassy stepped in to help.

The aid was particularly important as many of the pilgrims had run out of money – having budgeted and paid for only a two-month long journey.

Asgar Ali, 44, runs a diagnostic centre in Leh, and was one of the group leaders stranded in Iran until he finally reached the quarantine facility in his hometown today. “Many of the pilgrims who come here are illiterate. They come from remote parts of Ladakh, gather all their savings to be able to do this pilgrimage at least once in their lives. They don’t know anything about this virus," says Asgar.

He says approximately 190 of the 254 pilgrims who tested positive were senior citizens. He would monitor their sugar and blood pressure in the mornings, particularly as fasting for Ramzan began – 23 patients, he says, developed a sugar problem during their time there.

“Three people have died in Iran so far, and 2 in quarantine in Jodhpur. And since we are in the middle of a pandemic and have mostly been worried about bringing people home, we have not been able to investigate why or how these people died," says Haji, who returned to Kargil from Delhi by bus 3 days ago and is presently in home quarantine. “It’s really disturbing. So many of those who were stuck there have now developed mental health issues, so many have developed high sugar and blood pressure problems."

A festival in quarantine

On testing positive, Ali did not let fear and anxiety overwhelm him, since he had dealt with the H1N1 pandemic a few years ago, given his line of work. Instead, he instructed people on sanitation, masking and social distancing. He worked on the forefront with the Pilgrims Co-ordination Committee of Ladakh, an unofficial organization with volunteers among those who were stranded in Qom.

Ali dedicated nearly all his time over the last two months in making sure there was a dialogue with the embassy and that patients are taken care of and occupied. “We would have gatherings for prayers, the religious scholars here would give lectures on how to stay strong through periods of strife, and we would encourage the women to go for walks," he says.

Through all this, uncertainty has loomed heavy on many counts. Haji has been suspicious of the test results and Ali of the nature of the virus. Several families, they say, had certain members testing positive and some negative, even though they shared the same room and common spaces. One such case is that of Ali Mohammad, 72, from Kargil. His wife was evacuated from Iran on 25 March, nearly two months before him, since she had tested negative and he had reportedly contracted the infection.

“It is worrying since we are elderly and we hear that the virus affects senior citizens the worst. Being away from home with money running out made it even more stressful and unbearable," says Mohammad. Their two sons have been worried about both parents – one stuck in a foreign country and another in Rajasthan, where the soaring temperatures do not agree with Ladakhis, particularly the elderly.

Co-ordinating the return of all 313 pilgrims was not easy. Initially the plan was to evacuate only 260, but they stood their ground and demanded that everyone be taken home together. Eventually, with the help of the Union Territory administration, special flights from Iran and the support of the government of India, they have all found their way home.

Their last few days in Iran were filled with celebration. The night before they left, a dinner was organised by the Pilgrims Co-ordination Committee for the embassy officials in Qom – a note of thanks communicated and sweets handed out.

While most have found the ordeal harrowing and return distraught, Razia Bano is thinking only about the thrill of being able to see her son, while her daughter Shamima Nabi says the experience has transformed her in ways she could never imagine.

“I have learnt to be patient, I have learnt the value of staying positive and dealing with mental health issues – not just your own but of those around you. I was never like this, but this situation has changed me." She is annoyed about the additional 14 days of quarantine, but is willing to overlook all that since she is finally home.

With 21 active cases – 19 in Leh and 2 in Kargil – Ladakh is geared to welcome pilgrims back home. According to local authorities, institutional facilities are ready in both districts. One of the greatest blessings, the pilgrims say, is returning to India for Eid this weekend. The celebration will not be quite the same but even a quarantine facility back home is better than being thousands of kilometres away.

“We understand Eid won’t be the same this year given the pandemic and lockdown but we are organizing whatever little we can at the facilities," says Ali. “We find comfort in the fact that those from homes around the centre come and see us, even though they stay outside and don’t enter. I can’t explain the feeling."

The overall feeling among those returning today has been conflicting – there is simultaneously gratitude, grief and even a sense of betrayal.

“I was a war volunteer in 1999. All Ladakhis – Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or Hindu – they’re patriotic. We don’t think twice if our country needs us. But now when we needed our country, the government left us because we had the virus," says Ali. “Only we know what we have had to face before returning home."

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