Invasion of Kuwait

I had resigned from Agartala Project ONGC in the first week of 1990, and returned to Ahmedabad, where my family was residing at that time. Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) had already offered me a job as Petroleum Engineer to have a peek at their Thermal EOR Pilot in Ratqa Field, in North Kuwait. I joined KOC on 27 January 1990.

The new atmosphere of workplace was great. I had several friends like BB Singh, PR Sarkar, P Viswanathan, Mohammad Idris, MM Huda, KZN Ahmad, JR Singh, KP Chandrashekharan, UB Acharya. Many of them were from ISM, some from ONGC, and the rest new friends. All of them were very helpful to integrate me to the new working environment. Almost the same time, my residence formalities with the civil authorities were completed.

Some of the Kuwaiti Friends I met those days were Ealian Al-Anezi, who was posted in Ratqa Field, whom i used to meet and discuss while at the WHI of Ratqa. He had his education in US (Most probably, Marietta College, Ohio, USA) and quite fluent in English. I had also almost daily interaction with my boss, Mr Mahmoud Milhem, a Palestinian National, from Egypt. He was a classmate of my other Egyptian friend in IFP, Mr Ayman El-Naggar, but Ayman had pursued his higher education and got a doctorate before he joined KOC, while Mahmoud joined directly after passing out, and rose to the level of Superintendent. There was also a pro-palestini factor in KOC which helped him to go up faster. Another Palestini Superintendent who was very helpful and kind was Mr Ahmed Saleh.

My probation period was for 90 days, thus ending on 27/04/1990. However, Mahmoud was kind enough to declare satisfactory completion so that I could bring my family to Kuwait. He also was happy about the work I was doing. As soon as my probation period was declared complete, I could ask KOC to allow me bring my family. However, my wife and daughter had to wait for their present academic sessions to be over before they could join me. As soon as I had the probation completed, I was offered KOC accommodation. I took accommodation in the KOC Rented Flats in Jabriya. After that I had asked KOC to arrange me family visa, & passage for them to rejoin me, and finally they joined on 24 June 1990.

As soon as they arrived, I could apply for their residence permit. This was being done through KOC for my new residential area in Jabriya. I was told that the process would take about 3 months. Till then, they had to move around with me along with their passports, which were returned after my applications were verified, pending the approval of the residence permit. I didn’t have a driving license and car, so we were dependent on others, Mr PJ Vincent, my neighbor was very helpful. Besides there were two buses in Jabriya and although I didn’t know the route, we soon figured out that it covered our basic necessities. My friends in office, Mr P Vishwanathan, Mr ESS Menon, and Samuel was also very helpful and introduced us to the Malayali crowd. Time flew very fast, and the month of July was over, during which we had furnished the house with TV, Washing Machine, and the like. We also had a dining table, a few chairs, a second-hand sofa, all essential cooking utensils, and a big double-bed by then.

As most of our friends told us that my daughter would have to pass a school exam in Arabic, we thought it would be better to get her some private Arabic Tuition from a Keralite teacher. This person used to reside in Abbassia, and told us that twice a week he came to Jabriya to give private tuition to a student in another family and we could join that class. So we had been to that family, who was also from Kerala, and strangely enough, my wife could trace them to one of our relatives!

And then came the fateful day of August 02, 1990 of Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait. The previous day, a Wednesday, August 01, 1990, I was in the office, and was not even aware of what was going to happen the next day. The morning newspaper of that Wednesday, did not contain any news report about the possibility of a war or invasion of Kuwait. We used to get “Kuwait Times” those days.

On the fateful day, my friend Viswanatnan called early in the morning (unusual, as most people stay in bed longer as it was a holiday (Thursday and Friday used to be our weekly holidays in KOC). He announced that we are in Iraq overnight! I thought it was a joke, told him so, and he said if I didn’t believe, asked me to look out to see any battle tanks on road.  We then did so, and found a couple of (kuwaiti) police cars at a fierce speed, being chased by a larger number of military jeeps. We also heard loud sounds of fire from somewhere far, and could not know where it was. It was clear that something has gone wrong. We realized that something has gone wrong, and decided to call home to tell our people that Iraq seems to have overrun our area in Kuwait. By noon, we understood that the previous night, while Kuwait and Iraq representatives were having a discussion on the monetary compensation that Iraq wanted from Kuwait had failed, Iraq decided to invade Kuwait. Knowing this, the entire government, royal family, army, police and majority of Kuwaitis had fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia. The population of Kuwait at that time was essentially expatriates. Expatriates didn’t have an option to leave like Kuwaitis.

Those days we only had Kuwait TV, which would start only much later in the day. Some foreign channels covered the news of Iraqi Invasion, and Arabic channels were showing a picture of Saddam Hussain, and people were discussing in Arabic. We couldn’t follow what they were talking in that channel. Kuwait TV was silent. Soon there were others who spoke to us about the Iraqi Invasion that had happened the previous night.

Our first attention was to ensure that during our stay at home, get informed about the status around us through TV, have enough food and water, stay safe from the Iraqi Army, and find when and how to leave Kuwait under occupation. One day we were told that KOC was to issue cash to its employees and went along with friends in one of their cars. We got KD 10 per employee, which was not a very big amount, but was a great gesture by the company, a decision made by one of the very senior Kuwaiti Employee who could not leave the country.

Supermarkets, particularly those owned by Indians were open, and we tried to stock as much of food, wheat flour, fruit juices, dry fruits and nuts, and drinking water as possible. By that time, some of those who were staying in Ahmadi, KOC headquarters came to our rented houses in Salmiya, and Jabriya, as Ahmadi had by that time a large presence of Army, with their tanks, heavy artillery guns and military vehicles. The residential areas near Kuwait City were safer, and had mainly expatriates. Many of them were Arab nationals from Egypt, Syria and of nationality Palestinian.

One day we were told that banks were to disburse cash from individual accounts to the tune of KD 300. We went to the branches which were open for such operation. My bank, Bank of Kuwait & Middle East (BKME) had a branch in Fahaheel which was to be open. When I reached, there was already a big crowd, but in the end we had the money. There was one more money disbursal during my stay under occupation. Meanwhile there was a feeling that the Iraqi Army was not hostile to Indians in particular, and we also heard stories of them asking for food from Indians who obliged such requests without question (perhaps out of fear or by our culture of providing food to those who plead, probably both). We realised that things were not so bad any way.

One day, we were told that the Indian Community leaders were to explain to the General Indian Public ways to stay alive under Iraqi occupation. They told us the need to minimize journeys, the importance of having food and drinking water, and basic emergencies. There was Dr Narayanan Nampoori among this group and said he was ready to help, and offered us his phone number, to be used in any emergency. Then one day we were informed about the visit of Mr I K Gujral, India’s foreign affairs minister to Kuwait, to negotiate safe repatriation of the sick, women and children among the Indian Community. We were told that he would carry with him any letter to India that we wished to send. I think almost all Indians made use of this opportunity and left the letters in Indian School, Salmiya, to be picked up by Indian Ministry Officials. On among the rich Indian merchants had also agreed to provide Rice, Pulses, and wheat flour to us, as a means to clear his stocks. Within days his stocks were converted to cash. We later learnt that he was among the important people to leave with Mr Gujral to India. I think the only person who remained in Kuwait wasDr Narayanan Nampoori, who later became our close friend.

Soon after this, a ship full of Food for Iraq had arrived in Kuwait, and returned with some 500 women and children to Mumbai. The month of August went of quite fast, and  towards the end, we heard of many leaving Kuwait, mostly through Iraq and Turkey. However, by then we heard that Jordan allowed refugee camps near border. The life of refugees was not quite nice, as the hostile summer weather in desert was bad. Those who went towards Turkey were not that lucky, as the Turkish border had not permitted refugees. However, after the Indian Embassy in Ankara intervened and offered to keep one of their staff near border, the border guards started allowing indians who were given temporary permits to enter Turkey and were promptly sent back to India. I am told that those numbers were not very large.

By first week of September 1990, we were told that Iraqi Airlines were offering air passage to Amman (from Baghdad) against payment in US Dollars. By that time, Iraqi currency was devalued thoroughly and the running rate was USD 1 = 20 Iraqi Dinar. Also One Kuwaiti Dinar was worth 10 Iraqi Dinars. We decided to tell or household items to Iraqi merchants, but insisted that they give us only Kuwaiti Dinars or US Dollars. Finally we got Enough Kuwaiti Dinars in exchange of our Television, VCR player, Washing machine, dishwasher, Vacuum Cleaner etc. Then we had them exchanged to US Dollars (which we later learnt as an illegal transaction!). We also did not have any idea of counterfeit currency those days. Sometimes, ignorance becomes better.

With the US Dollars, a few of us went to Baghdad for Air Tickets to Amman, with which we also got a visa for Jordan from the Jordanian Embassy (This was on a piece of paper, just the names and passport numbers and a stamp of the Embassy official along with his signature) We also had booked a bus to take us from Kuwait to Baghdad a day before on 18/09/1990, to catch our flight on 19/09/1990. We were still unaware whether we would be admitted to Jordan at Amman Airport with the Group Visa we had been issued.

We had plenty of Sugar, Oil, Milk & Milk Powder, Plain Flour, and other food items. With these, we decided to make a large quantity of biscuits for our way to India. We knew we cannot have except small baggage. We had kept the biscuits in a number of carry bags, which we could finally discard after finishing the contents. We also had sugar, coffee, milk powder, and condensed milk besides the biscuits.

Then the due departure day came of 17/09/1990, when we thought it would have been better if we could leave a day before. The bus contractor agreed to take us at dusk, on 17/09/1990, instead of dawn of 18/09/1990. But Iraqi police had different designs, and stopped us even before the bus had left Kuwait City, and escorted us to the nearest police station (Manned by Iraqi Police). We had no idea why they stopped us, but later we came to know that those days many of bus convoys were robbed by miscreants at dark on highway, and Iraqi Police didn’t want such a thing to happen. The night was not very cold as we were in the bus, and the winter had not set in. The day journey was quite OK, too, and the way was pleasant as we went through many ancient cities. We also had seen many Air Coolers, which was a common sight in Ahmedabad and Delhi. No wonder why Iraqis were buying window AC units in large numbers just as they were doing with Color TV Sets and VCR.

By early afternoon we arrived in Baghdad, at the Hotel where we were planning to stay. The Hotel reception informed us that there was no food with them. But of course we had quite a lot of food with us, and later we had offered them to the hotel boys. Most of them were from India, particularly, Kerala. They were extra courteous to our Group. We left with the Hotel workers, the remaining food stock that we did not take, like Packaged milk, water, pulses, and wheat flour. The same bus which had brought us to Baghdad was to take us to Baghdad Airport the next day to catch our flight.

The night was quite peaceful. As there were more people in our team than our booked numbers, some had to sleep in a few rooms with extra beds. The next day, we decided to go to the airport a bit early. Thus we had arrived at the airport a few hours before time.

Airport had a deserted look, as the only airline “Iraqi Airlines” was flying only between Baghdad and Amman. They were not allowed to land in any other neighboring countries. Our only wish was to escape Iraq before any fight between NATO led forces and Iraq, which was beginning to materialize.

Iraqi border police were frisking passengers and some of us were asked to leave behind money and gold ornaments they had, but for some reason that I still don’t know, we three didn’t face any such action. The policemen were correct with us. And at the scheduled time, the flight took off and in about an hour and half, it landed in Amman. I don’t even remember if there were Air Hostesses in that flight. The only fact I realized was why Indian Airlines had the code IC, as Iraqi Airlines was already allocated the Code IA!. Of course, after the merger of Air India and Indian Airlines to a single entity Air India, Indian Airlines has become almost irrelevant.

There were Indian Embassy officials at airport, who told us that they would not take us to the refugee camps, but instead, repatriate us in one of the 20 or so flights between Amman and India, both direct flights as well as via Dubai. Indian Airlines had pressed into service their grounded A-320, into this service. (These were the aircrafts which were grounded after the air crashes at Ahmedabad and Chennai in 1989, and it was evident that those accidents were probably due to human error, rather than equipment failure. However, the Government was not willing to accept their stand earlier!)

We were happy at this, the embassy officials had taken our passport to stamp it for issuance of the tickets, which we had not had for a long time. We were also able to provide some of our biscuits to the batch of Indian passengers who had been coming from Refugee Camps. Finally our time came, and we found that the Airline didn’t have boarding cards, but let us into the flight on the strength of the passport with the stamp of Embassy. (The ticket jackets and Boarding cards were all exhausted by then). In the flight, I found almost everybody had fallen asleep after the crew had served hot dinner. Perhaps a sound sleep after a bit of anxious moments. Finally, after a flight that lasted for 4 or 5 hours, we arrived in Mumbai.

Most of us had tears in our eyes on touching Indian soil after a short period of uncertainty. And the surprise was not yet over. The newly constructed Haj Departure facility had been utilised even before its inauguration, as the Mumbai Airport Could not have handled the large number of flights between Amman and Mumbai. The Emigration & Custom officials were also nice, and after the passports were stamped, they had placed a crisp Rs 500/- in it for us to reach home. How thoughtful of Government of India, who knew that there would be many without even a rupee in hand. There was also special trains, free to our destinations, free food and newspapers from social organisations. We had called our people that we all have arrived in India, and after a brief halt in Mumbai left to our homes. Most of the stations en-route to Bangalore was aware of this train, and vendors were quite eager to provide us food and water.

The experience of living under occupied Kuwait for over a month was an experience: no two-way communications with outside world, seeing so many guns with young soldiers (who should have been studying in High Schools or College, rather than being deployed in war!), constant threat to life by a possible air-born war, starvation, in case our food and water stocks depleted too fast, getting ill and having little or no options for medical treatment, having money but not being able to use, and so many other issues, which are difficult to imagine in a free society. Nevertheless, the happy fallout from this is that all three of us became stronger to face similar realities.