Heart-wrenching scenes were witnessed at the Imphal airport which is overcrowded with passengers young and old, many of them ailing and wailing, eager to flee from Manipur which has been shaken by violence since last week.
Patients with catheters just out of ICU, newborn and premature babies with mothers, women with advanced pregnancy, bed-ridden cancer patients, besides people with worry writ large on their faces – all thronged the airport in the past few days to take flights for places outside the state as soon as possible, officials said on Tuesday.
Some of these passengers with bullet injuries have also been seen in the airport.
“You would feel like crying if you see the scene at the Imphal airport,” an AAI official told PTI over the phone from Imphal on Tuesday.
Close to 2,000 passengers are stranded at the premises of the airport, the terminal building of which can handle only 750 passengers -- 250 for arrival and 500 for departure -- at a time.
Airline companies have put in additional flights to take the passengers, with their queue getting longer gradually as the ethnic violence broke out a few days ago and army men have to be deployed.
Doctors of the airport, employees of the Airports Authority of India and staff of different airlines have been working hand in hand round the clock to make the distressed people a bit comfortable.
The AAI has been providing all stranded people with food and water.
The airport now is being run with bare minimum support.
Since all shops are closed outside the facility, the AAI officials in Imphal had sent SOS messages to nearby airports such as Guwahati, Agartala and Dibrugarh to get supplies -- food, water, essential medicines and others for both staff and passengers, another official said.
A special ticket counter has been opened at the airport. A Local Area Network (LAN) network is being used for the purpose as internet services have been suspended since last week in the state, said the officials who refused to be identified for fear of getting targeted.
Sources at the airport said that the gates of the airport have been attacked twice by the rioters but they could not succeed in entering.
An employee said that his colleagues and officers have been staying on the airport premises since the violence broke out.
The handful of AAI employees have not been getting enough rest, an official said.
The Imphal airport used to handle 14 incoming and the same number of outgoing flights a day and the number has shot up, he said. On Monday, the airport operated 80 flights -- 40 incoming and 40 outgoing.
The Regional Executive Director (RED) of AAI's North East region, S Jugani said, “The AAI has coordinated with the state government to provide police escort to the people going outside from the airport.”
“All our employees are working round the clock in three shifts. The total number of flights (scheduled and additional) operated to and fro Imphal between May 4 and May 6 was 216,” the RED said.
A help desk has also been set up at the Imphal airport to assist passengers.
People have been allowed to stay at the airport premises on humanitarian grounds, Jugani said.
Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh on Monday said that 60 people were killed, 231 injured and 1,700 houses including religious places burnt in the ethnic violence.
Violent clashes broke out in the northeastern state after a ‘Tribal Solidarity March' was organised in the 10 hill districts on May 3 to protest against the Meitei community's demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, leading to the deaths of at least 54 people.
Meiteis account for about 53 per cent of Manipur's population and live mostly in the Imphal valley. Tribals -- Nagas and Kukis -- constitute another 40 per cent of the population and live in the hill districts.
The clashes were preceded by tension over the eviction of Kuki villagers from reserve forest land which had led to a series of smaller agitations since February this year.