How the actions of a few, meant so much to so many
On 2 August, 1990, as the marauding Iraqi occupiers began their systematic ransacking and ravaging of Kuwait, as well as the maiming, kidnapping and killing of its citizens, the large expatriate community in the country suffered an equally dismal fate. Overnight their lives were turned upside down, their livelihood was destroyed, and for many the tranquil life they were accustomed to in Kuwait suddenly became a baptism by fire.
In the ensuing days, weeks and months, the general breakdown of any semblance of law and order, and later the absence of an embassy and consular representation, many among the large Indian expatriate community turned to the newly formed Indian Citizens Committee (ICC) for food and sustenance, as well as security and a way out of the increasingly alarming and dangerous situation. The ICC, which was formed and as early as 6 August, 1990, took the initiative in assisting the vast Indian community to cope with the crisis by providing food, shelter and a means of communication and transport. It was a mammoth and often perilous responsibility that members of the committee willingly took upon themselves.
The ICC comprised 51 members with the late H.S. Vedi acting as convener and secretary of coordination and included Narindar Singh Sethi, N.V.K. Warrier, Riy Abraham, Thomas Chandy, K.K. Nair, Ali Hussain and M. Mathews who remained on the committee until substantial members of the Indian community were evacuated. With the support of the government of India and in coordination with Indian embassies in Kuwait and Iraq, the ICC managed to safely repatriate over 143,000 Indians by land, sea and air by the middle of November 1990.
The logistics of evacuating over 5,000 people each day was a staggering operation by any international standards, and it must be mentioned that Air India, the national carrier, did a sterling eightweek long evacuation of stranded Indians from Amman airport in Jordan and from Dubai in the UAE. Air India, in association with Indian Airlines, operated 477 special flights to airlift a total of 109,388 stranded Indian nationals and entering into the records of international aviation history.
At the height of the evacuation, the national carrier was operating up to 15 flights per day from Amman airport, in addition to ferrying essential cargo comprising of food grains, medicine and blankets totaling 587 tons and over 12,000 bottles of water. In the meantime, back in Kuwait, the Salmiya Indian Community School served as a base providing food, shelter and medical assistance to the needy.
Indira Sharma, the head mistress of the Indian School at the time, transformed the basement of the Salmiya School into a shelter, where food was prepared and distributed to the many left homeless and destitute by the invasion. Madhavan, an ICC member, then head of the Microbiology department at Jahra Hospital, treated Indians suffering from ailments, or caught in the crossfire. Shaji, a ham radio operator, assisted by another ICC member, Kuruvilla, ignored the grave dangers involved in such a venture and used the Indian Ambassador’s car to smuggle his equipment into the school.
The radio was vital as committee members could from then on contact Delhi to keep them abreast of events in Kuwait and to receive instructions. The radio also provided Indians who either chose to stay in the country or were simply unable to leave with an outlet through which to communicate with their worried families. On several occasions, ICC members, at the risk of being thrown in prison, beaten up, or even shot, intervened when Iraqi soldiers looted apartments still inhabited by Indians who were cowering in fear of the soldiers’ Kalashnikov rifles.
The bravery of these committee members was remarkable, especially because they were civilians and the situation was as foreign and terrifying to them as to the people they were helping. The ICC also kept in close contact with the Indian Ambassador in Iraq, Kamal Bakshi, and informed him of Indians who had been arrested by Iraqi authorities and whisked off to Iraq. The embassy officials then attempted to trace and provide whatever assistance possible to those prisoners.
ICC members also successfully resisted at gunpoint attempts by Iraqi officers and soldiers to confiscate buses and cars from the Indian School premises, even though Saddam Hussein had declared these vehicles state property. Myriad other more prosaic, yet equally important tasks had to be performed, not the least of which was the collection and distribution of food.
Meanwhile, the Indian Red Cross (IRC), which was given permission to send a vessel, the Vishwa Siddhi, loaded with over 5,000 tons of rice, flour and pickles, arrived in Kuwait. Members of ICC played a key role in assisting Ajit Bhowmick, the IRC’s Secretary General, to issue these supplies among the remaining Indians, as well as among Vietnamese, Russian, Bulgarian, Sri Lankan and Filipino communities. Despite the ICC’s stellar work during the crisis, their responsibilities were not over once Kuwait was liberated by Allied Forces.
In conjunction with the Kuwait Red Crescent and the US Task Force for Civil Affairs, the ICC continued to work for a few months more after Kuwait’s liberation to ensure Indians in the country did not go without food or medical help.
George Z. Padar, the US Army colonel, in a congratulatory letter to the committee commended the ICC for their “caring, selfless attitude”, and the “efficient distribution of donated food to numerous needy members of the community.” Another major ICC humanitarian effort was the allocation of buses and drivers to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to transport almost 3,000 refugees from the Abdaly border to the Kuwait International Airport.
The committee also provided transport for volunteer medical personnel to the Handicapped Children’s Hospital. In a letter to the Indian Ambassador to Kuwait, the IOM expressed their gratitude to the ICC “for their altruistic efforts without which this humanitarian resettlement of refugees would not have been possible. Similarly, the continuing support to the Handicapped Children’s Hospital has been of inestimable value in providing timely and critical care for the hundreds of malnourished and neglected children at the hospital.”
In a personal note of gratitude to Mr. Vedi, the Chief of the IOM division for Asia and Oceania, D.G. Whittlesay, wrote: “I want to very quickly thank you and all the members of your committee for everything you did to make possible the first IOM flights from Kuwait City. It was quite an effort and a great success.” Even twenty four years on, the actions of the Indian Citizens Committee, in the months during and after the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait, remain inspirational.
The committee members’ response to the crisis is a reflection of their courage, integrity and unquenchable reserve of dignity and spirit. The services rendered by ICC to the Indian community has gone down in the history of Indians living in Kuwait and remains etched forever in the minds of those who benefited from their altruistic actions. “Courage, Kindness, Friendship, Character; these are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” Anon