Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman received a rapturous welcome at the Attari border as the IAF pilot in Pakistan's custody was handed back after Islamabad's needless delaying tactics.
"Good to be back in my own country. I am fine." These were Abhinandan's first words after crossing the border, according to an IAF official present here. Just as the IAF pilot crossed over, he received a hug from Indian security officials in scenes which were emotional and highly-charged. Chants of 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' echoed in the night sky over the border.
The wait at the border for the hero to come back home lasted several hours and well into Friday night. It is reported that Pakistan delayed the paperwork for the official release of the IAF personnel with the suspicion that authorities there wanted maximum international spotlight on their 'goodwill gesture.' Ironically, there was no goodwill in keeping an entire country waiting to welcome its hero back home - one whose release was made possible due to India's firm position and strong message to Imran Khan.
Hundreds of people had gathered at the Attari-Wagah border on Friday to catch a glimpse of Abhinandan. This included several politicians, top-ranking Indian Air Force officials and - most importantly - his family. Crackers were burst, the tricolour waved and patriotic slogans raised with unending zeal.
The time of Abhinandan's handover, meanwhile, was changed twice by Pakistan. This despite Indian authorities keeping their side of paperwork at the ready.
Eventually, the valiant air warrior officially crossed over to India after clearing customs, immigration and medical checks.
The scenes of celebration were not just at the border.
The entire country united in hailing a hero's comeback.
Abhinandan had been captured by Pakistani forces in PoK on Wednesday after he chased off a Pakistan Air Force F16 which had violated Indian airspace. In the ensuing air duel, Abhinandan managed to down the F16 but his Mig-21 Bison also crashed. The pilot ejected but landed in PoK.
India made it clear almost immediately to Pakistan that it expects its pilot to be returned immediately and safely - as per Geneva Convention. India also made it clear it won't strike any deals for his return.
Cornered, Imran Khan announced on Thursday that the pilot would be released. He called it Pakistan's 'goodwill gesture' although he once again maintained a stony silence on terrorist organisations in his country that have compelled India to take a firm position.