When I was 13 years old, I spent 3 days in the hold of a converted cargo ship, escaping a war zone with nothing more than what I could carry in a backpack. This is how it happened.
Exactly 30 years ago, on August 2nd 1990, Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Kuwait. I remember it clearly; I was there.
My family was part of the massive Indian expat community. My father worked for the Kuwaiti ministry of health; my mother was a teacher. We had lived in Kuwait for 6 years.
We woke up that morning to an unusual sight: a line of tanks, moving down the highway.
As fate would have it, the main training camp of the Kuwaiti National Guard was across the highway from us. The tanks stopped, and started lobbing shells at the camp; the camp returned fire. Soon we were witnessing a full-pitched battle.
We didn’t watch for long; we took refuge in the basement of our apartment complex, hoping it’d be safer than above ground.
We spent 36 hours in that basement, among boilers and electrical machinery. An apartment on the 8th floor was hit by a shell and caught fire; fortunately, the fire didn’t spread. (Ours was on the 4th floor).
On day 2 we went up to get food and water. There was a hole in the metal frame of my bedroom window. I recovered a melted, misshapen bullet.
That was enough; we decamped to a friend’s house in a less strategically important neighbourhood.
(The drive across town was tense).
We sheltered there for several weeks; 8 people in a 1-bedroom apartment, entertaining ourselves with endless card games.
International phone calls were blocked, and there was no TV or radio; all we knew was from word of mouth, and the occasional BBC or VOA broadcast.
But eventually the news spread. Kuwait was under new management. The “invasion” was over and the country was in a new phase: “occupation.”
It was a strange and surreal time – in many ways, reminiscent of the covid lockdowns of 2020.
Money was meaningless. Kuwaiti currency was worthless. Some banks reopened, but would only disburse Iraqi dinars. We sold our TV and VCR to get hold of US dollars.
Food was a worry. All the shops were closed. After exhausting our pantry, we spent nearly 2 months living on, essentially, pita bread with the occasional onion.
Water was even more of a worry. Many neighbourhoods depended on water supply trucks, and prices increased ten-fold. Sabotage or destruction of the desalination plants that Kuwait depended on was a constant fear.
Every now and then we’d hear a rumour of a supermarket with supplies, and head there to see what we could scrounge. Usually, it wasn’t much.
More troubling were the rumours of roadblocks and roundups and firefights and lockdowns. Public order was maintained, but it was the order of an occupied territory. Control was tight, and curfews were strict.
The borders were sealed. Troops were everywhere. US and British citizens were rounded up as hostages. Indian passport-holders like my family were too numerous to round up, and perhaps less valuable as hostages, so we were mostly left alone.
The handful of Iraqi soldiers we met at close quarters seemed just as scared as us. Many of them were kids just a couple of years older than me: 14- and 15-year-olds pressed into service by a military dictatorship, their guns bigger than they were.
From what I could tell, they had no personal enmity for me or indeed for anyone. They were just scared kids forced into a war they didn’t ask for.
A few foreign government aircraft were allowed to land with emergency supplies, and allowed to evacuate “those most in need”. This turned out to mean diplomats and businessmen and other VIPs.
Life settled into a weird new normal. People were asked – told – to return to work. Not many did. Hospitals reopened, and my father went in to see patients who needed care.
Behind the scenes, negotiations continued. Finally, 60 days after the invasion, the Iraqi government made an announcement. Third-country nationals were free to leave. But how?
To the south was Saudi Arabia, where US-led coalition troops were already massing. That border was sealed tight.
To the east was Iran, with whom Iraq had just fought a ruinous 8-year war. No exit that way either.
To the north was Kurdish territory, mountainous and volatile, followed by another closed border, with Turkey this time.
That left the western route: 500km north to Baghdad, and then 1000km west across almost completely barren desert to Jordan, where one could – hopefully – get a plane ticket out of Amman. Not a journey for the faint of heart.
And another, equally uncertain path – north to the port city of Basra, and then by boat through the Persian Gulf, skirting Saudi and Iranian waters until reaching the relatively safe harbour of Dubai.
That’s what we decided to do. We joined a car caravan – a convoy of trucks and buses that drove through the desert into Iraqi territory. At Basra we were “processed” in a refugee camp – really, just a bunch of import-export warehouses, denuded of all goods.
Finally we boarded the merchant vessel Tipu Sultan, a converted Greek cargo ferry that used to run trade routes across the Arabian Sea. Several 100 people crowded onto a ship that wasn’t really set up to handle more than a dozen or so crew. We found room wherever we could.
The next few days were … not pleasant. It was hot, and crowded. There wasn’t much water, or food. But we were on our way home.
On October 4th, or maybe 5th – I don’t remember the exact date – we docked at Jebel Ali port in Dubai. Buses organized by the local Indian community took us directly to DXB, where an Air India plane waited to fly us to Bombay.
A volunteer at the airport gave me a fresh red apple. It was the best thing I had ever tasted.
Post script: My family were extremely fortunate. My parents had “portable” careers, as a doctor and a teacher; we had savings to tide us over the dislocation; and we had extended family that we could return to in India. It’s true that in some ways we had to start over again after leaving Kuwait, but we were (and are) immensely privileged. Many others had to deal with far worse than us, and lost far more; I have nothing but respect for them, and for all who have had to face adversity in their lives.