On 2 August, as Kuwait quietly memorializes the 25th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion, people who endured those harrowing days and months of occupation still poignantly remember their traumatic experiences. Among the Indian expatriate community in Kuwait at that time, many who went through those dark days still have fearful memories: of days when no one felt safe and everyone feared for their lives; days when sights of Iraqi soldiers stealing goods, expropriating property and violently enforcing their brand of justice were common sights.
I was too young at that time, about a year and a half, and my memories of those days come from listening to the narratives shared with me by my parents. I can only imagine what the situation was like for them, especially the hardships they had to endure, from the many stories I listened to while growing up. Riveting stories that were repeated many times over the years as new aspects were remembered, and which helped add new dimensions to the stories I had already heard.
Aside from reminding me that my family had been brave and strong enough to survive the awful experience, these stories also emphasized to me about how lucky we were to have escaped relatively unscathed from the ordeal. Many others had not been so lucky; some lost a lot, including loved ones who are commemorated every 2 August.
On the morning of that fateful day in 1990, my family was enjoying a normal day, awaiting the arrival of my baby brother. My father recalls getting ready for work and going out to buy a packet of cigarettes on his way to office. On the way he found the streets to be empty except for a few people here and there. However, the thought that something terrible had befallen the country did not cross his mind.
On his way, my father met a soldier who inquired where he was going and then told him that there would be no work on that day. The soldier then gave him a cigarette and instructed him to return home immediately.
My father followed the soldier's order and returned home to find my mother in labor pains. As there were no taxis available at that time, my father called on a friend of his who drove them to the Al Sabah Hospital. My father remembers how the road to the hospital was riddled with barricades and checkpoints manned by Iraqi soldiers. My parents’ fears about the invasion were reiterated on hearing from a clandestine radio broadcast of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The difficult experiences of the days and weeks that followed are forever etched in their minds.
It was a scary enough scenario for my mother to give birth in the midst of an invasion, but what made matters all the more worse was discovering that the hospital did not have proper supplies and all the nurses had been rounded up and taken away to care for wounded Iraqi soldiers. My mother ended up giving birth to my young brother with the assistance of hospital helpers.
On returning home, my parents discovered that there was very little food supplies available and food and clothes for new-born infants were almost non-existent in the market. For the next couple of days my mom and dad remained indoors as they were afraid to venture outside. Iraqi soldiers were patrolling the area and were knocking on doors demanding food and looking to arrest people to hold as prisoners or hostages.
When the Iraqis came to our door, they took pity on my new-born brother and seeing the fear on my mother’s face luckily left us alone. However, as the days ticked by and the occupation progressed into months, the overwhelming fear for our safety created memories that continue to haunt my parents to this day.
Hungry, afraid and anxious, is how they spent the following days looking for food wherever available and trying desperately to get by without raising suspicion. Many of our neighbors had vacated their flats and moved to other areas, such as Salmiya or Farwaniya, where the Indian congregation was larger. But my parents decided to stay at home as they had to care for two small children.
Finally, in the last week of September, my parents took the difficult decision to return to India with a small child and a new-born baby. The agonizing journey from Kuwait to India took over a week and involved a convoy by bus to Basra, a stay at three camps, including one in no man's land between Iraq and Jordan, and at the Al Andalus and Al Asraq camps in Jordan, and then a long wait for a flight from Amman to Mumbai.
In the temporary camps that had been set up, my mother had to sleep on the cold dirt floor as there were no tents available. My mother recollects that sleep was the hardest thing to come by, as fear and worry kept her awake all night. In Jordan, my parents repeatedly tried to evoke the sympathy of officials, hoping that the sight of a small baby would give them preference in the evacuation process.
One day, on hearing rumours of special flights being operated for the sick, my parents too joined the long queue that had formed in front of a tent. Eventually, the sheer kindness of one Jordanian soldier, who felt pity on hearing my mother's desperate plea, allowed us to board a flight to India. After having lived traumatic and desperate months in occupied Kuwait, suffered the hardships of refugee camps in Jordan and gone through the anxious wait for evacuation, our family finally landed in Mumbai on 3 October.
Following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, my parents decided to make their way back to Kuwait and start life anew. Unfortunately, when they returned to Kuwait they found that the person who they had entrusted the keys of their home had ransacked the place, taking away everything from the refrigerator to the children’s toys and clothes. Nevertheless, my parents with courage and indomitable will-power began the slow and arduous task of rebuilding their life from scratch.
As we mark another 2 August, though my dad still fondly reminisces of his large collection of music CDs that he lost, and the toys he brought me on special occasions, my parents hold an optimistic view. They keep reminding me that things could have been far worse for our family, and, aside from a few bruises, we were able to rise stronger and more resilient from the invasion.
And, like the Kuwaiti people, who despite the atrocities and human tragedy of the occupation are committed to looking ahead to the future, my parents too remember those dark days with sorrow, but they also recall small acts of kindness by strangers; kindnesses that reaffirm their faith in humanity and allow them to look forward to the future with hope.