COVID-19 | Save us, say Indians stuck in Iran’s epicentre Qom

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Claiming that a number of Indians in Iran are facing extreme difficulties, a group of pilgrims from Kashmir and Kargil has urged for immediate intervention from the government.

Nadeem Yaqoob Hussain Bhat of Kashmir’s Budgam left with a team of 33 Shia pilgrims on January 31 to visit Iraq, Syria and Iran but is now stuck without food and money in Iran’s Qom. The team visited shrines of Imam Hussein, Bibi Zainab and Imam Ali in Iraq and Syria before reaching Qom as the city became the epicentre of the COVID-19 crisis in Iran prompting cancellation of Iranian flights to India.

After 16 days, Mr. Bhat says he is on the verge of a mental breakdown. “Iran is cracking down on the emergency and in Qom especially there are many hard measures but our biggest worry is that the longer we stay here the greater is the chance that we could all fall sick if left here any longer. We are scared and have no money. We are risking our own health and if we fall sick then there is no scope of getting treatment here as there is no space in Iran’s hospitals that are overrun with their own patients,” said Mr. Bhat painting a dismal picture.

Mr. Bhat is a team leader of a large group of pilgrims who carry out frequent tours to Najaf, Karbala, Mashad, Qom and other holy places in West Asia. The number of pilgrims stuck in Qom from Kashmir, Ladakh and Kargil is around 850, according to him. Asghar Ali, a team leader of another group of pilgrims from Kargil, is among those who are trying to control the worsening situation.

“We are unable to get food as restaurants have shut and hotels are asking us to get out but where do we go? We request the Indian government to urgently help us,” said Asghar Ali speaking over phone.

The pilgrims said there are many among them who are elderly and require regular medication because of diabetes and other disorders but are not getting them as they carried stock to last till January 31 and Iran’s stressed medical field is unable to cope with any extra demand. The pilgrims have reached out to Kashmiri leader Imran Reza Ansari who has been mobilising resources to help the Indians in Qom. In view of the difficulties that the pilgrims are facing in Qom, Anjuman-E-Sahib Zaman of Kargil has appealed to the government of India to help them with the medicines that some of them require and evacuate them to India as soon as possible.

“If the embassy of India extends its helping hand, the people on the ground can hire two locations where we can house the entire group of pilgrims and take necessary measures immediately to help anyone who could be sick,” said Mr. Ansari who is the general secretary of the All Jammu and Kashmir Shia Association. Another pilgrim Rehan Sahib of Kashmir said as Iran tightens control, they are even finding it difficult to coordinate essential movement within the group as there is a total ban on meetings and small gatherings.

India has allowed a limited number of commercial flights to evacuate nationals from Iran but the pilgrims allege that the government has been slow. Officials said India has a declared position that it would not evacuate those who are found to be positive in the test being conducted by the Indian medical team and quarantine facility along with necessary care would be ensured by the embassy in Tehran.

But Mr. Asghar has alleged that they are not getting timely feedback from the Indian mission regarding their requirements.After reaching out to the Indian embassy for a response on the allegations but the officials declined to comment. At a press conference here on Monday, Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary, Union Health Ministry, also declined to elaborate the plans to help the Indians saying the matter is being coordinated by the Ministry of External Affairs. Pilgrims are upset as they had valid tickets but missed the flights as they were cancelled.

“We ran out of money and now we are pooling in resources. How can we ensure our treatment in a foreign land if we fall sick. In Kargil we are highly patriotic and we have fought as part of the Ladakh Scouts during the Kargil war but now our country has abandoned us,” said Mr. Ali sobbing over phone. In view of the worsening crisis, Hamid Arabnejad, top officer of Mahan Air, has written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposing to fly all Indians including the pilgrims of Qom without commercial considerations to India as a “humanitarian initiative”. The letter also argues that Indian carriers have been unwilling to fly to Iran because of the U.S. sanctions.

The pilgrims in Qom are one part of a large group of Indians stuck in Iran including around 5,000 nationals who live in Tehran and Bandar Abbas and the Mahan Air’s offer of free passage is meant for the entire community as per the letter of Mr. Arabnejad. Mr. Ansari said 44 students are also stuck in Tehran which is in a state of lockdown and frequent curfew. “They arrived in Tehran from Kish on Monday and we have sent them some money to take care of immediate needs. The need of the hour is generous official assistance from India.”

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