Nita Bhatkar Chogle was fourteen when the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. Having lived in Kuwait since she was born, this was the only home she really knew. Here she shares extracts from a journal she kept about her escape from Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation.
Being a resident of Kuwait, I was one of many that experienced the horrible occupation of Kuwait by Iraq. It was like a bolt out of the blue, shattering the cocooned comfort that Kuwait offered since I was born. My life went through a drastic change in a matter of hours. In the middle of our summer vacation, we went to bed without a care in the world and woke up to hear the news of the army taking over Kuwait.
Being so young, my little brother and I couldn’t comprehend the seriousness of the situation at the time. The worried reaction of our parents was so confusing to us. My father who had gone to work as usual on 2nd August 1990 called to give us the news.
The whole incident had an air of excitement for us as children. But the reality started sinking in when our Palestinian neighbors advised us to stock up on food and water urgently. They had experienced such conditions in their country and knew its consequences.
Khaitan, the area where we lived was generally quiet but we kept hearing of people being killed and buildings coming down in several other areas. My brother and I accompanied a neighbor to the co-operative to pick the necessary provisions while our mother worked on securing our windows and stocking up on water.
The scene at the cooperative (jamaiya) was one of chaos! People were snatching anything and everything in sight. The shelves that used to be
forever packed now stood almost empty. Practically all of the non-perishable food items were gone. In the rushing and pushing, the two of us managed to take whatever we could and returned home.
The next couple of days passed in just waiting. The Kuwait television channels now aired only patriotic Iraqi songs and news. In the evenings we would go down to play, and very often watch firing in the distance. Military tanks used to pass by sometimes and I faintly recall having some of the young soldiers chatting with a couple of boys from our building as well. We continued to hear reports about the killing and torture elsewhere but fortunately we were still safe. However, it wasn’t difficult to see that the conditions were going from bad to worse and things were really unpredictable.
Getting nervous about rumors of rape and abuse, my parents
realized took the decision of sending me to India as soon as possible. They wanted to wait and watch for some more time themselves. I was shocked when they told me of their decision and every time we spoke about it there was little I could do but cry.
Having lived here all my life, Kuwait was very dear to me. We very rarely visited India so though we were close to our family there, our friends and neighbors here were just as important. I would be going to India after six years to live with my maternal grandparents. I was hysterical; I just didn’t want to go, not without my parents at least. But nothing could change their mind. I begged. I pleaded, but they were firm in their decision. Of course they too had a tough time adjusting to the idea. I never spent one single night without them and here I was going all the way to India but then there was just no alternative.
So, I was set to leave Kuwait travelling with a group of families, under the guardianship of a very close family friend. His wife and young son were also with him. Even the thought of leaving made me cry uncontrollably but then I had to be brave and face it. All of my friends in the neighborhood gave me a grand teary-eyed farewell party. At least as grand as it could be in those circumstances. Who knew if we would ever meet again? Life could be so cruel. How I cursed Saddam Hussein.
On 20 September 1990, I began one of the most memorable journeys of my life and I must say each and every day was an experience of a lifetime.
Sept 20 (Day 1): This morning came after a very long sleepless night. I still couldn’t believe I was really leaving Kuwait. As I left the house I wept non-stop and I took a look at our home, hoping that it wouldn’t be my last. The whole group was supposed to assemble near the Indian School in Salmiya from where the buses were leaving. With a heavy heart, I said goodbye to my parents and brother and boarded the bus. As the bus started, I waved out to them, but my vision was clouded with tears. We were headed towards Baghdad and took many breaks on the way. After journeying for four hours, we stopped for lunch which we had brought along with us. This stop helped me get acquainted with my fellow travelers. There were around fifteen families with us.
At 5.30 pm we took a break again and after freshening up travelled continuously for four hours. Our final destination for the day was the Baghdad Tourist complex where we reached later that evening. Here we were divided into four groups and accommodated in single storey bungalows. We ate the leftovers from lunch for dinner and went to sleep. It was quite comfortable save for the mosquitoes that we had for company and almost never experienced in Kuwait.
Sept 21 (Day 2): We woke up at about 5 am and went to have tea at the bar in the complex. Here they did not have milk for the tea and so we had to use some of the milk powder we had carried along with us. We were scheduled to leave at 8 am so after loading our luggage into the bus we whiled away our time playing on the swings in the garden.
Our next stop was a camp, which we reached again at night. This camp consisted of roughly constructed shelters and a few good tents. We found two decent tents and moved in, prepared to spend a night without sleep. It was a chilly night; luckily the women and children were accommodated in a tent which was closed on all sides.
Sept 22 (Day 3): This day again started off pretty early. Everyone was awake by 4.30am and we just sat chatting in the cold tent. We then feasted on a breakfast of stuff we had carried with us. Later on, a huge truck came and distributed khuboos and yogurt to everyone. For this, another girl from our group and I had to patiently stand in queue in the hot sun. After this we again had to walk further to get water from the water distribution area for drinking.
Towards noon there were signs of an approaching dust storm but it was very mild. A few of us went exploring the area around the camp site and met the volunteer doctors there. They advised us to go back to our tents as the dust storm would worsen. And in a little while we discovered it was true. We sat safely in our tents playing cards and listening to music, while it was blowing outside. The people in the other tent were not as lucky. When they came in after the storm was over; they were covered in dust from head to toe. It was unbelievable.
Around 3.30pm that afternoon, we packed our stuff and left for the next campsite. It was another long journey riding in a filthy and uncomfortable bus. Before we left, we heard the good news that this camp had wooden houses and facilities like shower areas. What’s more, they even gave packed food to everyone. The anticipation of all this made our difficult journey easier. We finally reached there late at night and were divided into two separate tents.
We took a look around and realized there were no wooden houses just well made tents. Ok not a major issue! Maybe the shower rooms and packed food would come soon. Since all of us were really tired, we just fell off to sleep.
Sept 23 (Day 4): The next morning we arranged all things inside our tent and made it as comfortable as possible knowing that we would be spending a long time here waiting to hear about our flights from Amman to Mumbai. Here we patiently waited for the packed food. We did get food but just not what we had expected. We got cucumbers, tomatoes, apples, tins of sardines and khuboos.
Well, whatever it was we were thankful for it. As for the water facilities, we had to walk some distance to an area where there were rows of taps and collect the water. Taking a bath was really funny. There were separate tents reserved for ladies and we had to carry buckets of water to take a bath. By the time we took a bath and reached back to the tent. We were all covered with dust again.
The whole piece of land that the tents were constructed on was with sand and stones. But this was better than the earlier camp. It was a long wait and we experienced very cold nights and very hot days. Of course we face the heat in Kuwait but that was in the comforts of our homes and offices or schools.
One thing that really amazed me was that no matter how much physically demanding work we did, we never really felt tired. We had to pick huge bags, lift water buckets for long distances etc. The will power we all had was tremendous.
Sept 24 (Day 5): This was one of the usual mornings we had during our stay at the camp. Everyone woke up by 6am and another girl and I were given the duty of making tea for everyone.
We had a small stove we got from one of the people who left the camp before us and we used to it to do a little bit of cooking.
Then it was a walk up to the water station to fill buckets of water and back. Till our much awaited stock of food arrived, we had breakfast consisting of things we brought with us like biscuits and snacks.
A few of the group members roamed about collecting useful stuff from people who were leaving like rice, spices, etc. Thanks to this we, enjoyed an excellent dinner of spicy Indian rice and Kuwaiti ‘dakkus’. This was cooked not on the stove we had, but one which was constructed by a few of us by digging a hole in the ground and coal.
Sept 25 (Day 6): This day passed off in the usual manner waiting for our tickets. In the evenings we played games like Antakshari or just lay down in the open air staring at the sky, watching the stars. Each one preoccupied with his own thoughts about the future.
Sept 26 (Day 7): Today, we met some people who were leaving for India and wrote letters to be sent with them. It’s amazing how people become so helpful to strangers in times of need.
Sept 27 (Day 8): The much awaited day finally arrived. We got our tickets around noon time and were asked to be ready to leave at any time. We waited patiently the whole day, prepared to leave at any hour, maybe even at night.
Sept 28 (Day 9): Today, finally at 3.00pm we boarded an overcrowded bus to Amman Airport. We reached the airport late in the evening and hoped to get on an immediate flight. We had the big job of arranging all the baggage on the pavement outside the airport where we were supposed to wait in line to enter. The women and children all entered the airport to wait while the men waited outside with the bags.
Hardly did we settle down in our seats when someone came in to say that our bags had been kicked off the pavement by the soldiers managing the crowds because they were a little out of line. Again we had the back breaking task of arranging all of it.
Then our names were called and the person who I was travelling with had to go in so all the bags had to be put back in place by me. Since people were leaving from Kuwait with no hopes of return, no one really travelled light! When we finally got in, we had another long wait till our baggage was taken in. We spent the whole night at the airport. People were sleeping all over the airport waiting for their flights and ultimately boarded a flight the next day in the evening.
Sept 29 (Day 10): As luck would have it, we were the last people to enter the plane and got seats in first class of the Air India flight. But by then we were all so exhausted that we didn’t care what seats we got. Thanks to the Indian government and the staff of Air India we got excellent treatment. When the hot food was served, it felt like heaven. We had real food after such a long time; all of us relished every morsel of it.
We landed at the Mumbai (Bombay back then) airport late at night and as we got our baggage heading to different homes, there was definitely just one question on all our minds - what next?
But as we walked towards the exit of the otherwise empty airport we also heaved a sigh of relief. Those ten unforgettable days were finally over.