Dressed in a blue denim shirt with sleeves that reached just slightly past her elbows, and adorned with a pair of black jeans trousers, she re-adjusted her black fez cap for the umpteenth time to further conceal her face as she made her way out of the aircraft that night.
In company of her son, Cynthia, 36, and 187 other returnees from South Africa had voluntarily submitted themselves for evacuation following the series of xenophobic attacks on them in the rainbow nation; their sense of loss-cum-relief could be felt even from a distance.
The crowd waiting to receive them at the cargo area of Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) Lagos as they disembarked from the aircraft was massive, literally comforting as well as understandably unsettling, what with the cameras and lightings.
In fact, a feeble mind could quietly drown in the atmosphere of pity around the (tarmac) as well as the empathy boldly written on the faces of the relatives, government officials, airport staff and journalists all of whom had spent hours awaiting their arrival.
Descending the Aero Bridge that was rather slow – they were many – but Cynthia, who seemed undisturbed by the deep emotions that had rented the air, kept calm and she led her son down the bridge.
While some managed to flash some smiles, like those who came back into the warm embrace of relatives and friends, Cynthia, with her little son, wriggled her way through the crowd to head for the registration point. Her thoughts could best be imagined.
Like some others, her reluctance spoke volume and one could tell that she must have wished for anything else than to come back under such circumstances.
Approaching Cynthia wasn’t exactly exciting, but after a brief hello and soft approach by our correspondent, she reluctantly agreed to a chat, but not without the caveat that her photograph would not be used.
“What do you want to know?” she asked as she dropped her bag and placed her son on a chair close-by.
In a conversation that eventually lasted just few minutes, Cynthia revealed that if she had known that she would return in such a manner, she would have stayed back in Nigeria.
“My shop, my house, all my goods and belongings were razed in one night – things that took me years to build,” she started.
“It seems like a dream but I am thankful to God that I am still alive” (sobs). “I can’t say more than that”,” she said as she muttered the words out.
Frustrations of returnees at OR Tambo Airport
The returnees, who had faced more frustration at the point of departure from the OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, said the South African authorities frustrated them by delaying their flight for over seven hours as a result of strenuous documentation process.
Investigations show that the aircraft was taxiing to leave the airport in the morning when they were stopped by the South African authorities.
Informed Nigerians at the High Commission in Johannesburg said that after the Commission had prepared the first 320 Nigerians for the first evacuation, the South Africa Immigration started causing problems by arresting Nigerians due to travel, demanding papers and accused them of travelling without the right document.
The Nigerian High Commission had prepared travel documents for Nigerians but Immigration wanted to know how the Nigerians came into the country and began to arrest them, the official disclosed.
“South Africa is frustrating Nigeria. The Air Peace aircraft has been there since 4:00 am. Their Immigration started giving our High Commission problems. They said some Nigerians didn’t have papers. Immigration is arresting them, asking them to explain how they came to South Africa.
“Only 187 Nigerians were allowed to board the flight; the rest were barred by South African Immigration. They frustrated the Nigerian High Commission, taking the passengers away. They want to frustrate the airline and the Nigerian government. The aircraft has been on, burning fuel since 4:00 am. They are not happy that Nigeria is evacuating its citizens. They don’t want the world to know that a Nigerian airline and Nigerian government is evacuating them.
“Our high Commission is having tough time with South African government. They are stopping and arresting Nigerians, saying they should explain how they came into the country,” the official said.
Aliu Saheed, one of the returnees who confirmed the development, said after verifications at the airport, Air Peace flight was on ground to evacuate them but the South African authorities gave them serious problems.
“They delayed us for several hours, saying they wanted to check our documents and their system wasn’t working well. But we know this is a big lie. They delayed the flight because they know Air Peace will pay landing and parking fees as long as the plane was on ground.
“They are doing this to punish Nigerians. Some people are currently in South Africa without food and water. They asked for finger print documentation and that immigration has to check us in case we have criminal record. These are all in a bid to frustrate us,” he said.
Returnees count their losses
Saheed, who has stayed at Pretoria city of South Africa for five years, said the experience in the past weeks has been traumatic, as lives and property had been lost in the xenophobic attack.
“The police can’t control the callous South Africans who kill our people. They just come to an area and start shooting and killing innocent people. It is only the white police men that came from a far distance to help. When the North Pretoria police station was contacted, they did not respond until when backups came from outside the country.
“The South African police released rubber bullets to the perpetrators of the act; which won’t hurt them because the bullets are rubber. The fire fighters came to quench the fire at some point but the taxi drivers chased them away. They kept bragging that there is nothing anyone can do to them since this is their country. They kill us the way they like,” he said.
He however, called on the president to save Nigerians who are still in South Africa, adding that they plan to kill them. “As I speak to you now, they are not allowing Nigerians work. All our shops have been shut down.
Uche Victor Nwaocha, another returnee, also shared similar experience with BDSUNDAY. “I have been in South Africa since 2007. I built my business in South Africa and everything has crumbled today. They burnt down our cars. All my achievements are gone. I don’t want the shame again.
“Those ones there must come back. They are taking people out systematically and their government can’t speak the truth to their people. Their problem is simply poverty. Nigerians are not barbaric and we don’t kill people. South Africans burn people alive and while these people are feeling the pains from the burns, they keep hitting them with instruments till they die,” Nwaocha said.
For Jude Anthony, another returnee, the situation in South Africa is one he feels is orchestrated by South African government.
“The American president has to speak out; he has to send a strong message to the South African people because this is a policy orchestrated by the South African government. This was also happening during the eight years of Zuma’s reign; they enjoy shedding blood.
“So much blood has been shed in South Africa, especially during elections. It pains me when I see my brothers being slaughtered by this wicked people that should be locked up for life. We made a mistake by freeing South Africa.
“These people are very brutal. When they come after you, even the police cannot save you. We thank God we are alive today but a lot of people did not make it. Nigerians were driven out of their homes, dragged out to the streets and killed for nothing. I have travelled to many countries and lived among white people and this has never happened,” Anthony explained.
Air Peace: Moved by love of country
It was with joy that Nigerians in South Africa received news of the philanthropist move by Air Peace to evacuate those who wish to come back to Nigeria free of charge.
The airline said the evacuation of Nigerians from South Africa would cost the airline about N300 million, which include the payment of passenger service charge, aeronautical and other charges in addition to the cost of operation.