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'We were kept in 4x4 cells and questioned separately'

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Mumbai
Last updated on: August 26, 2006 15:10 IST
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Northwest Airlines flight NW042 to Mumbai, which was cancelled mid-way when it was in Amsterdam due to a perceived terror threat, reached its destination two days behind schedule with the 12 Indian passengers who were mistakenly suspected to be terrorists.

As the passengers walked through immigration after a brief interaction with the officials, there was elation all over.

Most of those who arrived were hesitant to speak to the media.

Even those who spoke divulged very little, and it was mostly about how relieved they were to be back home and with their families.

Mohammed Iqbal Batliwala, who initially refused comment, later said a communication problem led to the entire fracas.

"There was a language problem. That was the reason for all the trouble. We were treated well," was all he would say.

Abdul Qadir Chappalwala, another trader, would not say anything more than, "Everything was perfect. We were treated well and there was no problem over there."

Shakeel Chottani said: "There was a misunderstanding, leading to all the trouble. I don't want to discuss what happened there now. I am glad to see my family."

As media persons jostled to speak to the passengers, a passenger's father, 70-year-old Abdul Kadar Kholsawala, fainted in the ensuing melee.

While the group did not speak much at the airport, a few opened up in the relaxed environs of Memon Colony, Jogeshwari, where the entire locality was awake to welcome the passengers with fireworks.

Sohail Abdul Aziz, 24, the youngest of the lot, said the crew suspected them not because they used their laptops and were passing cell phones around, but because they were exchanging seats.

Recollecting the arrest, he said, "It was very humiliating. They handcuffed us and took us for interrogation. We were kept in 4x4 cells and questioned separately. We  were given only milk for the first day and sandwiches on the second day."

Ayub Kholsawala, another passenger, said he was not even sure whether he would leave the place alive.

"We suffered a lot. We thought we would die there in an unknown country. We did not know what was happening. One diplomat Ms Rhea Ganguly was very helpful. We are very thankful to her for her efforts," he said, adding that they have not decided how to proceed against the treatment meted out to them.

"We are now very tired. We haven't slept for 72 hours. All we need is some sleep," he said.

Asked whether he thought the group was targeted because they were Muslims, Kholsawala said, "I think may be we were targeted because we were Asians, because only four out of the 12 sported beards."

Earlier, relatives of the passengers waited at the airport with bated breath, as the arrival was delayed.

The flight was initially slated to arrive at 11 pm, Friday, but arrived only at 2:30 am Saturday.

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Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Mumbai