Monday, November 23, 2009


Our flight from Ndola reached Lusaka international airport at 10 AM exactly. The Bombay flight was scheduled to depart from there at 5 PM. Check-in was at 2 PM and so my wife and I had about four hours at our disposal. Since our two suit cases were tagged for Bombay at Ndola airport, we had our hand luggage only along with us.

The date was 23rd December 1989. Christmas was just two days ahead. As the Bombay flight was a weekly flight, we knew the plane would be crowded. While we sat in the main lounge idly watching people arriving by flights from Livingstone, Kasama and other places, we could see suit cases labeled for the Bombay flight. The vast parking area in front of the main building which was visible through the glass walls had many empty slots that would soon be filled up.

It was not only the thought of going on vacation leave that excited us but also the fact that our daughter, the eldest of our three children, was getting married within 10 days' time. The arrangements had already been made and the people at home were waiting eagerly for our return. As my wife and I had many things to talk about, we did not notice how quickly the time passed. It was about 12.30 PM when we decided to have a bite of lunch at the restaurant on the second floor. Instead of taking the elevator, we used the stairs and reached the restaurant. We occupied two seats in a corner and ordered our lunch. After lunch, we spent some time in the duty-free shop, looking at the various articles on display. We found the prices were too high and refrained from spending our foreign exchange on such items that could have been bought from the second class trading area in the city at half the price. However, I bought some Duracell batteries for my 8 mm. movie camera that I used to carry with me during my journeys.

We returned to the main lounge and found most of the seats occupied. The clock above the check-in counters showed five minutes past two. A few people had already lined up in front of the economy class check-in counter of flight QZ 951 to Bombay. We waited until the initial rush was over to collect our boarding cards and hand luggage tags. There were a number of empty seats at the far end of the main lounge where we decided to sit and wait until the call for customs, immigration and security check came.

It was nearing 3.30 PM and we knew the call for immigration and customs would come soon. While my wife went to the wash room, I got busy installing my movie camera with the new batteries and pulling the trigger to see if it worked well. As my attention was on the camera, I did not notice the policeman who was approaching me. He came straight to me and asked whether I had taken some pictures of the airport. I told him the camera was not loaded with film and I was just trying if the new batteries worked well. He said I could explain everything to the magistrate on Tuesday (as the next two days, Sunday and Monday were holidays) and the device that I called a "camera" could be examined by experts to find out whether it was some sort of a secret weapon. In the meanwhile he was detaining me.

While we were talking, my wife returned from the wash room and was startled to learn what was happening. The policeman led us to a small office at the far end of the main lounge and asked for our passports and tickets. He placed them in a drawer and locked it. We told him again and again that we did not violate any rule and we should be allowed to proceed as we did not want to miss our flight which was secured by making reservations a month in advance. We told him about our daughter's wedding which was scheduled to take place within ten days' time and how important it was for us to reach home without being held up. He said that my wife was free to go as he had no case against her but I had to remain behind. Any amount of pleading fell into deaf ears. We were quite desperate.

While we were frantic with anxiety, the policeman was behaving as if he had all the time in the world. He decided to make a few lengthy telephone calls, speaking mostly in Cibemba (pronounced "chibemba") with some occasional words in English. It was quite evident that his fake calls were to prevent any further dialogue between us. I checked my watch for the umpteenth time and found it was nearing 4.30 PM. All the passengers would be seated by this time inside the plane. Now anything short of a miracle would not be sufficient to save us from our predicament. We prayed silently.

Then it happened. The policeman apparently concluded his phone calls and talked to me: "you said you are going for your daughter's wedding. There will be a big party and a lot of enjoyment. What will you give me if I allow you to go?" This was the opening I was waiting for. I told him to take everything we had in our possession except the tickets and the passports, but he was not interested. He asked me how much foreign currency I had in my wallet. There wasn't much, less than a hundred dollars or so. He did some mental calculations and said he would accept that money in exchange for our freedom and I gave him the whole lot without any hesitation. As we gathered our hand luggage and departed hurriedly, he called from behind to tell us to bring from India if possible, a pair of size ten shoes on our return and send them to the name and address he mentioned. We did not bother to reply but kept running to the Immigration & Customs.

There was not even a single passenger in sight. The immigration officer stamped our passports without wasting any time and directed us to go straight to the Security check, by-passing the Customs. The security man just waved us through his office to the Departure lounge which was quite empty. We traversed the whole length of it and reached the door opening to the staircase that led down to the tarmac. One of the ground staff stood there chanting the words "hurry up! hurry up!" and pointed to the aircraft.

At a distance, the Bombay flight stood on the tarmac, in readiness for take off. The "Nkwazi", the wide-bodied DC 10, wearing the green and silver colors of Zambia Airways appeared magnificent in the evening sunlight. Some ground staff standing at the bottom of the massive staircase were waving frantically at us to hurry up. We ran like some runners in a race and reached the top of the staircase. Air hostesses relieved us of our cabin baggage and showed us to our seats. The door swung shut behind us.

Soon we realized that the aircraft was moving and we could no longer control our emotions. Tears were streaming down our cheeks and we did not care if the other passengers were watching. The "Nkwazi" was air-borne, reaching to higher and higher altitude while the Lusaka international airport became a dot in the postage stamp scenery far below and soon lost from sight as the huge aircraft settled in its course to its final destination- Bombay.