The Times Kuwait Report
The months just prior to Kuwait’s liberation in February 1991 were particularly tense. The mass exodus of people out of the country meant that many apartment buildings and private residences were rich pickings for plundering Iraqi troops. For those Indians still living in Kuwait, either through choice or circumstances, the sight of heavily armed soldiers indiscriminately looting uninhabited flats remains one of the more traumatic memories.
The late Mathew Kuruvilla was one of those Indians who remained in Kuwait. A key member of the Indian Citizens Committee (ICC), he had to deal with many perilous situations. One of the more unusual and dangerous ones involved a frantic 2am phone call from three frightened women, who were cowering in front of marauding Iraqi soldiers armed with AK 47s.
Woken by the incessant sound of his phone ringing at 2am, Kuruvilla picked up the receiver and heard the voice of Leelamma, an acquaintance and a nurse at Sabah Hospital, screaming hysterically for help. Through her panicky words, he managed to understand that Iraqi soldiers were shooting at her door and trying to get into the apartment. The only other people in the flat, she said, were her sister and her teenage daughter. Kuruvilla asked Leelamma her phone number and address, and aware of the gravity of the situation, decided to quickly drive down to her place.
His brother implored him not to risk his life by driving out there at that time of night, but Mathew felt it was his duty to help this woman, so he drove to her place immediately. On arriving he found the scene was absolute pandemonium. Leelamma’ s cousin, who was living a few buildings away but was too scared to come to her aid, had advised her to call Kuruvilla. On seeing Kuruvilla’s car, the cousin came out of his building and led him to the soldiers.
At great risk to his own life, Kuruvilla posed as an official of the Indian Embassy and told the soldiers that he personally knew the women, and requested that they should not be harassed any further. The soldiers replied that all they wanted to know was who owned the car parked outside. Mathew then went up to the flat to try and calm the women down. They had obviously been through an ordeal and Leelamma asked Mathew to ensure that they were not harmed and that their apartment and cars were not looted. He went back to the soldiers with the car keys and said the vehicle belonged to the women and that they were nurses at Sabah Hospital.
Continuing to pose as an embassy official, he requested the soldiers not to move the car, enter the apartment or bother the women anymore. Convinced and mollified by Kuruvilla’s smooth talking, the soldiers assured him that Leelamma, her sister and daughter, and their possessions would be safe.
Kuruvilla recalls that after the soldiers had given him their word, they coolly continued ransacking and looting the surrounding empty apartments but left Leelamma alone. The irony of the soldiers’ actions, on one hand keeping their promise and on the other thieving and looting, did not escape him. The courage of Kuruvilla, especially as he was an unarmed civilian untrained in the handling of such situations, displayed that night is a rare commodity. His bravery and quick thinking saved three lives.