Witnesses recount stranded maid's desperate struggle

The Indian woman who died while stuck in diplomatic limbo at a Muscat airport for five days went from days of silence to talking to herself, then refusing food before succumbing.

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MUSCAT // After waiting quietly for three days, the Indian maid stranded in a Muscat airport last week finally lost her patience.

Beebi Lumada, 40, began to pace back and forth in the transit lounge, talking to herself, witnesses said. "Why can't I go home? Why am I here?" she said time and again.

Lumada lost her passport on October 3, presumably at Doha airport, on her way to India on a Qatar Airways flight originating from Muscat. Without the passport, she could not continue to Chennai. Officials at Doha sent her back to Muscat the same day, a Sunday.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Lumada endured a bewildering limbo in silence, said airport workers who saw her each day. Omani airport and Qatar Airways officials repeatedly called the Indian Embassy in Muscat to get her a travel document so she could fly home. The embassy said it was working on obtaining the documents but did nothing beyond that, according to the officials.

On Thursday, she refused to eat. "She seemed highly stressed. I don't think she believed me when I said that her passport was on the way. A minute later, her questions got louder. We got her into an empty room, away from the crowd. With the help of other airport workers, we managed to calm her down," an Oman Air employee said.

The airport let her sleep in the room that night. But on Friday, Lumada became increasingly agitated and then had a seizure in the lounge. She died in an ambulance on the way to hospital.

Lumada's body was sent home on Monday and handed over to her relatives, according to an Indian Embassy source, who did want to be identified. She was cremated and an anonymous donor gave her relatives 10,000 rupees (Dh828) to help with the funeral costs.

"We contacted her brother, who is asking for compensation otherwise he might sue the embassy for negligence," the embassy source said. In a telephone interview on Tuesday, India's ambassador to Oman, Anil Wadhwa, squarely blamed Qatar Airways for Lumada's death.

"Nothing in writing was sent to us by the airline," he said, though he admitted that Qatar Airways had notified the embassy by telephone about Lumada's lost passport.

"If we had to issue an emergency [travel] document, we needed her passport number. We needed the police report for her missing passport. None of that was sent to us."

When asked if the embassy had independently attempted to help Lumada, he said there was no way to contact the maid, who had been fired by her Omani employer after two months on the job. "She was kept in a cordoned-off area at the airport," he said. "'Can she be brought to the embassy?' we asked the airline, but we didn't hear back."

But airport authorities could not let Lumada - who the embassy claims is from Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh state - leave the airport without a passport.

"Neither the airline nor the airport could have issued her a new passport," said Suhas Chakma, the director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights. "The buck stops at the embassy."

He said he is "appalled and ashamed" at what he calls the embassy's "sheer negligence and indifference towards its own people".

"Losing a passport - that can happen to anyone," he said. "It is the responsibility of the embassy to react with alacrity and issue a new one within 24 hours. How did this woman end up languishing at the airport for five long days?"

Foreign diplomats are normally exempted from protocols and procedures at airports, Mr Chakma pointed out. "An ambassador is a VIP," he said. "If he [Mr Wadhwa] wanted to help, he could have easily met with Ms Lumada without seeking any special permission," even if she was quarantined in an area out of bounds for normal passengers.

Meanwhile, SM Krishna, India's minister of external affairs, announced on Monday that he was despatching a senior official to Oman to "conduct an enquiry".

* Anuj Chopra reported from Mumbai