LAHORE: The dreadful experience of 214 Pakistanis including women and children, who had been stranded in China since July 29, came to an end on Monday when they were finally brought back by the same airline that was responsible for their agony.
Looking tired and irritated, businessmen, tourists, students and other passengers, including around 30 children, heaved a sigh of relief upon their arrival at Allama Iqbal International Airport from Guangzhou (China) on Shaheen Air International flight (NL-891).
Despite having confirmed return tickets, they had been told at the Guangzhou airport last month about the cancellation of their flight by the SAI reportedly due to technical issues.
“Though I had a return ticket with confirmed reservation for returning Lahore, the staff first told me that the flight is delayed. Next day I again reached the airport after covering a long distance, it told me that the flight has been cancelled as the Shaheen Air plane could not get there. Since my visa was to expire on Saturday I was extremely worried that I might have to overstay,” says Bilal Ilyas, a resident of Model Town.
Talking to Dawn, he said he just wanted to go home. “Finally I have returned to my country. Thank God and the Supreme Court for bringing home all those stranded there,” says Ilyas who had gone to China to learn the Chinese language in a five-month course at a university.
After repeated visits to the airport, he says along with other stranded passengers, “I first planned to hold a protest demonstration at the airport but then decided against it for the sake of Pakistan’s prestige.”
He explains how exchange of heated arguments between the stranded passengers and the airline staff had become a routine during the period. “We asked the staff to refund our tickets. It agreed with deduction of 50 per cent cancellation charges. We also tried to avail flights of some other foreign airlines but most of us couldn’t. Finally we all stationed at the airport and remained there for about 16 hours. We were just provided a simple meal (cooked rice and pulses, water etc) and nothing more,” he added.
Most of Pakistanis had gone to Guangzhou or its surrounding towns for the purpose of education, trading or holding business meetings with the Chinese. Similarly, some had proceeded to China as tourists. A majority of them were scheduled to return to Pakistan on July 29 since they had confirmed return tickets for Lahore on the same day. However, when they reached the Guangzhou airport they were told about cancellation of the flight by Shaheen Air reportedly because of technical issues.
The stranded passengers said they didn’t know what would happen to them after being told on every visit to the Chinese airport. Since every passing moment was testing their nerves, the Pakistani authorities in Lahore reportedly covered various issues related to non-issuance of plane fitness clearance by the civil aviation authority. “We really remained under severe stress and we continued praying for a safe return to our country,” Dr Rukhsana, a student who had visited China for her studies. “You imagine that when your visa is about to expire and you have no way to return to your country, what you will feel in a foreign country. But anyhow thank God we are in our country now,” a visibly relaxed Dr Rukhsana added.
As soon as the flight landed at the Lahore airport, officials of the airports security force, civil aviation authority, immigration and customs adopted a fast-track procedure to clear and enable them to go home without any hassle. However, some passengers appeared to be irritated after the immigration officials tried to stamp ‘overstay’ at their passports. “When an official told me to stamp overstay on my passport due to expiry of my visa for China, I said it was not my fault, he got my point,” Aftab Ahmed said, adding there were several passengers who had similar issue.
Passengers complained that respective Pakistan’s consulate officials didn’t cooperate with them despite knowing about the situation well. “The time we passed at Guangzhou was a hard one, as no one at the airport or the Pakistani consulate rendered any help towards resolving the issue. And such pathetic attitude caused making our trip to China a terrible one,’ Sheikh Bashir, an elderly person who went there for business purpose, deplored.
An official source told Dawn that after the replacement of an old spare part, the SAI aircraft was examined and declared airworthy. He said the CAA was investigating the issue in depth, it would soon submit a report to the authorities.
Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2018