RUSSELL, New Zealand >> About 25 residents from remote Easter Island who have been stranded far from their loved ones for more than six months because of the coronavirus will finally be able to return home this week on a French military plane.
The group has been stranded on Tahiti in French Polynesia. Many arrived in March planning to stay for just a few weeks, but they got stuck when the virus swept across the globe and their flights back home on LATAM airlines were canceled.
A second group of about 15 Tahitians have also been stranded on Easter Island because of the flight cancelations.
French authorities announced Tuesday they would use an Airbus A400M Atlas turboprop to repatriate both groups in a flight that would take about six hours in each direction.
Also named Rapa Nui, Easter Island is a Chilean territory located midway between Polynesia, in the South Pacific, and South America.
The French state department said it launched the mission following a request from Chilean authorities, and it was being conducted in close coordination with the French embassy in Santiago, Chile. The plane is currently deployed with the French military in Tahiti.
The group of Easter Islanders had been begging authorities for help for months — in Spanish, in French, and in English. They had even written to Chilean President Sebastián Piñera. The Associated Press first wrote about their plight last month.
“I’m so happy!!!” said the group’s unofficial leader, Kissy Baude, in a WhatsApp message to the AP. “We are very happy and relieved to finally be able to return home and to know that the Tahitians stranded in Rapa Nui will also return home in the same mission.”
Baude thanked authorities in France, French Polynesia, Chile and Easter Island for putting the logistics in place, including airport management and a 14-day virus quarantine they will undergo at a health center when they arrive back on Easter Island.
Among those stranded is a 21-year-old mom who gave birth to her second son just a few days ago without her husband by her side, because he was back home. It was unclear whether she and her newborn would be ready to return home on Thursday’s flight.
Home to about 8,000 people, Easter Island is a tiny speck in the vast Pacific Ocean renowned for its imposing moai — giant heads carved from volcanic rock by inhabitants hundreds of years ago. For Easter Islanders, Tahiti has long been a stopping-off point, a connection to the rest of the world.
Until the virus struck, LATAM airlines ran a regular return route from Santiago, Chile, to Easter Island and on to Tahiti. LATAM said it suspended the route in March because of the virus and doesn’t have a timeline for restarting it. No other airlines offer a similar service.
“The resumption of this flight is subject to the development of the pandemic and travel restrictions in place,” the airline said in a statement last month.