A FATHER-OF-FOUR is finally back home with his family after being locked up "like a criminal" when border officials refused to believe who he was.

Atterbell Maplanka fell to his knees as the relief was too much when he was released from Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre near Heathrow Airport.

The Maplanka family thanked The Argus after we exclusively revealed the housing officer’s plight and called for his release.

The 36-year-old father of four was detained at the airport after returning home from his mother’s funeral in Zimbabwe – despite living in the UK for 15 years, having a job and a family here.

Border force staff did not believe who he was as he has gained nine-stone since his original passport photo was taken.

Mr Maplanka said he was getting ready for bed in his cell on Thursday night when he was summoned by the detention officers - saying he "fell to his knees" when they told him he was going to be released.

He said: “When I got to the main office they were all clapping their hands and told me I was to be released – but I said I was not going to believe until I am out.”

After being ferried to and from the centre in a prison van while being detained, Mr Maplanka was allowed to walk out of the gates – asking the officers where the nearest bus stop was.

He made his way to London Victoria and caught the train back home to Eastbourne to be with his wife and children again after nine days.

Mr Maplanka said: “I was absolutely elated when I got home. Seeing my kids again, I woke up my daughter and gave her a kiss.

“She thought she was dreaming, I thought I was dreaming, you can hardly believe it. I thought I was going to wake up and be back in that cell.”

He described being in the detention centre as “the worst thing I have ever gone through” and said he felt “like a criminal”.

He said: “It was a very nasty experience. I am so sad to have gone through it after losing my mum and I thought I was going to lose my family and my life.

“It invokes emotions you only read about and wouldn’t feel until you actually go through a process like this – you feel your life is not worth living.

“I am glad to have been released but I have asked myself a million questions. I have asked myself how many people have been deported after investigations like this, how many people’s lives have been ruined.”

His wife Bibian, mother of two of his children Lilly-May, 6, and Prince, 14, were sweethearts when he still lived in Zimbabwe – they rekindled their relationship when she moved to Eastbourne as a refugee.

Mrs Maplanka, 33, was praying with the family when she was informed Atterbell had been released by her uncle – saying she initially thought she was “so stressed to the point I was hallucinating”.

She said: “I spoke to him on the phone but I was ready to see his face. When he opened the door my life finally changed back to normal.

“I was convinced they were going to take him away. When I saw him I was so happy, so excited, but at the same time I was in shock.

“The emotional scars will never go away, just seeing him back home and having everything normal again is a bit strange.”

She added the family were “very grateful” to The Argus after we broke the story.

The case has now been thrown out by the Home Office, who said “further checks have established that the travel document Mr Maplanka held had been issued to him and he has been granted entry to the UK”.

Eastbourne MP Caroline Ansell also called for his release and said she “could not be more pleased” after ensuring all decisions about his case went “straight to the top”.

“What a waking nightmare it must have been for them. I cannot imagine the distress,” she added.