In tears, they kissed the ground. Some of them could not talk for a while. Others fell on chief minister Oommen Chandy's feet, thanking him for their release.
Emotions ran high in Cochin International Airport on Saturday as 46 Indian nurses briefly held hostage by ISIS militants arrived in a special Air India (AI) flight around noon.
They had no idea what prompted the Sunni insurgents, who have waged a bloody war in Iraq, to let them go. But, some cursed themselves for casting aspersion on the authorities.
"The entire nation prayed for us. The prayers helped us return unscathed," said Marina Joseph, one of the nurses.
For Ninu Jose, another from the group, the homecoming was a special gift. Her relatives brought a cake to celebrate her birthday on Saturday. "It seems it's a second life. It is my best birthday gift," she said, wiping her tears.
Since Friday night, relatives, mediapersons and workers of political parties had thronged the airport, where the authorities faced a tough challenge to control the teeming crowd.
Interestingly, emotions swept away rivalry, as workers of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) raised slogans for Chandy and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.
Both Chandy and Swaraj are believed to have been instrumental behind the diplomatic push that eventually led to the release of all 46 nurses.
"This is the result of the collective efforts of the state and the Centre," a visibly relieved Chandy said.
Marina said the captors — whom many in the group termed "bearded boys" — never misbehaved with them.
"What really scared us was they always covered their faces. They often changed the guard (who kept watch on the nurses). So, it was tough to be friendly with them.
"Besides, language was a big problem. There was a Bangladeshi employee in the hospital (in Tikrit where the nurses worked) who knew Arabic. We used to travel with her," she added.
Watch: Freed Indian nurses reach Kochi from Iraq, welcomed by Kerala CM
Read: Nurses head home, but what of 39 workers still in Iraq?
According to her, the "bearded boys" were polite to them initially, but later they changed their tone. Marina also said five of the nurses sustained injuries in a blast when they were taken out of the hospital, where they were holed up when Isis insurgents closed in on Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
Isis militants had taken them to Mosul on Thursday. They were released a day after and reached Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, and boarded a flight to India.
After a three-week ordeal, the nurses reached Kochi in a special plane carrying 183 people, including 23 crew members and three government officials, at 11:57am. The plane then left for Hyderabad, where more than 70 rescued Indians disembarked. Its last destination was Delhi, where it arrive around 6pm.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin had said on Friday that the release of the nurses took enormous efforts both within and outside Iraq as "conventional tools" of diplomacy did not work in the conflict zone.
Sources said Swaraj was in constant touch with her counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE to leverage their influence over the Sunni insurgents to seek the release of Indians being held captive.
Full coverage:Iraq on the brink