A veteran journalist who enjoys looking at the quirky side of life

R K Nair

An Arabian nightmare

| Updated on August 03, 2013

The 23rd anniversary of Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has just passed. On the intervening night of August 1 and 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein's forces crossed over to the tiny emirate in a surprise move that caught the Kuwaitis and expatriates unawares.

The Iraqi sabre-rattling had begun a fortnight before, but local newspapers, including the one I worked for, described it as "merely a passing summer cloud". But the ominous clouds would not pass, because the Iraqis always thought they had Kuwait on an oil barrel.

On August 2, I woke up to the report of distant guns that sounded like Diwali-eve firecrackers. "The Iraqis are here," my neighbour said mournfully. It took me some time for the news to register.

I tuned in the BBC in my transistor set and listened to a statement from Baghdad that the Kuwaiti Government had been overthrown. When attempts to contact the Indian Embassy failed, I rang up a colleague who was on night duty. "What's happening?"

"Nothing much," he said. "Except that the Iraqis have moved in."

"I can hear explosions," I said.

"They are capturing the Dasman Palace," he replied.

I remembered that my rented flat was just 2 km away from the Amir's palace. I rushed to the balcony and watched the Iraqis staging a flag march in armoured carriers. Iraqi warplanes hovered overhead, firing an occasional missile at select targets.

Later I learnt that Sheikh Foud, younger brother of Amir Sheikh Jaber, had died defending the palace. The rest of the ruling family and prominent citizens had fled to Saudi Arabia.

The FM station of Radio Kuwait remained off the air. Simultaneous messages in Arabic, transmitted from Saudi Arabia, on the AM band and Kuwait Television exhorted "patriotic men" to take up arms and defend their country. Throughout the day, old pictures of Kuwait's former rulers and happier events in Kuwaiti national life kept appearing on the TV screen to the accompaniment of martial tunes and Arabic messages. It is indeed sad to watch the end of a regime.

I had landed in Kuwait just eight months before the invasion. In my late 20s, I was an unmarried free spirit who just wanted to see the world. During those dark days that followed the invasion, I grew terribly homesick and desperately wanted to get out of there.

It was suffocating to stay closeted in the tiny flat. On August 5, the third day of the invasion, I ventured out. The telephones had gone dead and I longed to contact friends and colleagues. For a dinar, a Bangladeshi offered me a lift to Shuwaikh, where The Kuwait Times was situated.

In three days, Kuwait looked like a ghost of its former self. The glitzy glass emporia and flashy shopping malls had been broken into, looted and, in some cases, set ablaze. The roads were littered with glass pieces and vehicles abandoned after collisions. But for military convoys and Iraqis roaming the streets on seized vehicles, the volume of traffic was very low. Doleful Iraqi volunteers in ill-fitting uniforms stood guard at vital installations.

As days went by, my frustration swelled. Food was scarce and water and power supply became erratic. There were long queues outside what once were supermarkets that now served little more than loaves of bread and flour. The UN embargo on Iraq was clearly having its effect.

Rumours and speculations were rife, but there seemed no viable escape route. Indian Embassy in Kuwait had been shifted to Basra, the southern Iraqi city. Though some Indians had organised themselves to get the 1.70 lakh-strong Indian community evacuated, their efforts did not bear fruit initially. I mostly remained indoors for fear of getting caught in the crossfire between Iraqis and Kuwaiti resistance groups.

A month after the invasion, someone from Kuwait Times called me to say that I could get my passport back. When I reached there in the afternoon, most of my colleagues were present. Everyone was visibly depressed. We bade goodbye to one another and expressed the hope that we would meet again. I'm yet to see many of them.

In the second week of September it was confirmed that Jordan had opened its borders. During the long journey through Iraq, I could not escape the feeling how foolish Saddam Hussein had been. Unlike the other West Asian countries I had seen, Iraq was rich not only in oil but other resources as well. It was greener and much more fertile than its neighbours but the people were clearly leading a miserable life.

Baghdad was one of the most impressive cities I had seen. The harmonious blend of the ancient and the modern lent it an air of dignified grandeur. I wondered whether Saddam would get it destroyed. Alas, he did!

As the bus entered Jordan, I heaved a sigh of relief. Three days in a refugee camp in the middle of a rocky desert seemed a small price to pay for freedom -- freedom from fear and starvation.

Many broke down when the flight landed in Mumbai. An uncertain future awaited the majority of 1.50 lakh Indians who had fled Kuwait.

Published on August 03, 2013

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