The Kuwaiti National and Liberation Day celebrations bring back a flurry of memories of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, especially for those, like me who experienced it first-hand. In this special interview with The Times Kuwait, we speak to two doctors, Dr. Riaz Khan and Dr. Tahseen Khan, who has been in Kuwait for over 40 years and have experienced two crises in the span of a decade.
Dr. Riaz and Dr. Tahseen Khan, veteran doctors with the Kuwait Ministry of Health, arrived in Kuwait in 1980, after a short stint in Iraq. During their stay in Iraq, the couple experienced their first war with the outbreak of hostilities between Iran-Iraq in September 1980.
Dr. Tahseen explained, “The war was in Kut and we were literally in the middle of the war with bombing all around us. So with my elderly mother-in-law and an infant in my arms, we packed into a bus and reached the border with Kuwait. We spent a day there on the roadside like refugees, with no place to go because the borders were closed.”
They finally made it to Kuwait by road and eventually joined the Kuwait Ministry of Health. Dr. Riaz reminisced, “This was at the end of 1980 and new hospitals were coming up in Kuwait, including hospitals in Jahra, Farwaniya, Adan, Mubarak Al Kabeer. The infrastructure was ready and they had begun staffing. So Tahseen joined the Jahra hospital and a year later when the Ibn Sina super specialty hospital came up I joined there.”
Talking about Kuwait back then, Dr. Riaz added, “Life in Kuwait was booming during that time. New projects were coming up, new roads were being laid and it was a great time to be in Kuwait.” He fondly recalled buying his first car — a Chevrolet Caprice Classic at a time when there were no bank loans and when you needed a guarantor or ‘kafeel’ to buy a car. You had to also ensure that it was paid for within a year. Foodstuff was cheap and government rations or ‘tamween’ was plentiful and lasted for months at a time. High-end shopping included Grand Stores and the Union Trading Company on Salmiya High Street.
In late July 1990, rumors began to surface about a Kuwait–Iraq dispute brewing over oil fields, but the Khans did not think too much about it. Kuwait was a stable and secure country, which gave them a sense of security.
On Thursday, 2 August 1990 Dr. Tahseen was on overnight duty in the neonatal intensive care at Jahra Hospital. Around 2 am in the morning she heard something that sounded like bursting firecrackers. Tracking the sounds that were growing louder she reached the casualty section, where she saw scores of people being rolled in on stretchers with gunshot wounds, burns, etc. That is when someone informed her that Iraq had invaded Kuwait.
She immediately called Dr. Riaz who was asleep at home and informed him of the same. All the doctors and hospital staff were running helter-skelter and those that were at home were called to the hospital immediately. Speaking of her emotions at that time, Dr. Tahseen said, “My biggest worry was that Jahra would become a part of Iraq and that I would be separated from my family.”
Around 11 am, she decided to head back home to be with her family. Along with a colleague, she started driving to Riggae but all the roads were packed with vehicles, including a long convoy of military tanks and trucks. They tried various roads but they were all congested with similar traffic and so eventually along a desert track that took them to Road 55 and reached home hours later.
When she reached Riggae she realized she had entered a war zone, as the Iraqi troops were launching multiple rocket-propelled grenades from the Sabah Hospital area into the National Guard training school. If the grenades missed their target, it was bound to land right into the Khan’s residential area. “I was looking through the window and I could see lines of tanks coming to 4th Ring Road from Jahra side.” said Dr. Riaz, adding, “We couldn’t think straight. How do we escape and where do we go? We tried our best to think of how to stay safe, and gathered the whole family in the middle of the living room just in case something landed through the windows.”
In the days and weeks ahead rumors were rife and no one was sure about what was evolving. Throughout the invasion, the couple relied on BBC Radio for news and information, using a homemade antenna extender by twisting a wire-cloth hanger at positioning it at different angles to help catch frequencies from UAE and Bahrain TV channels.
Friends and families got together and began living five or six families in an apartment for safety and a sense of comfort. Their first concern was how to get food and then thinking about what to do next in terms of getting out of the country. Salaries were in Iraqi dinars and only that currency was accepted everywhere.
A few days after the invasion Dr. Riaz went to the hospital only to find the entire hospital turned upside down. There was total confusion with no proper management and available doctors and nurses were doing the best they could. The management and admin offices were occupied by soldiers. Eventually, these soldiers were replaced by the Iraqi People’s Army who was totally clueless about the purpose of their presence in the hospital.
Soon supplies and medicines at the hospitals started dwindling. The central stores were all looted as things were taken to Baghdad and nothing was being replenished in the hospitals. As a neurologist at Ibn Sina hospital, Dr. Riaz was ordered to treat only Iraqi soldiers and patients. Dr. Tahseen in the meanwhile continued to work for around ten days after which the couple stopped going to work.
Dr. Tahseen also highlighted that the other niggling worry was that as doctors, they might be taken to Iraq to serve there against their will. Gradually, they had to accept that the situation was not going to end anytime soon. While the United Nations kept their hopes up with ongoing talks, the couple felt like their dreams were all shattered and the future looked bleak. They had to think about starting life somewhere else all over again.
When it came to traveling out, fortunately, they had arrived from their vacation and had their passports with them. However, they were advised not to use the passports for travel since their profession might risk them not being allowed to leave the country. So they were issued travel documents by the Indian Embassy where they were listed as teachers.
By September 1990, most people began leaving Kuwait and camps were being set up in Jordan. People left by road through Iran and Turkey while others were waiting for ships to carry them back as refugees. Since they had an elderly person with them, Dr. Riaz opted to travel by air.
“A group of us went by car to Baghdad to buy air tickets to Amman and then to Delhi. We also booked a hotel in Baghdad that was ironically enough called New Kuwait Hotel, and then returned to Kuwait to arrange for a bus to take us to Iraq. With tears in our eyes, we said sad farewells to Kuwait and proceeded on our journey back home.
The Indian Embassy staff in Amman was of great help. We waited at the airport in Amman for around 8 hours and then boarded a flight to Mumbai.” said Dr. Riaz with the relief still reflecting in his voice despite the passage of over three decades.
On landing, in Mumbai, they were greeted outside the airport by the local community who had gathered in large numbers to welcome us repatriates, which was very emotionally touching, said the Khans. Months later, in February 1991, they were at their home in Chennai, eagerly following the news to watch Kuwait being liberated. When Kuwait was liberated, they actually sang the Kuwaiti National anthem in celebration.
In April 1991, Dr. Riaz received a call from his Kuwaiti boss Dr. Jassim Mulla Hussain, asking him to go to Mumbai and get his permission to return to Kuwait from the Kuwaiti consulate. At that time due to the oil fires and general environment in Kuwait, children were not allowed to return so Dr. Riaz decided to return alone.
Arriving at an empty airport in Kuwait, Dr. Riaz described how passengers had to stamp their own passports on arrival. Roads were desolate and it was very emotional to see Kuwait’s destruction. He headed straight to the hospital which was also equally destroyed. No machinery or equipment was left intact, said Dr. Riaz, adding “Our hearts were brave so we jumped into it and began re-establishing everything.”
When Dr. Riaz went to his apartment, it was another horrible sight. The army had broken the doors and made a mess of everything. There were bullet holes in the doors, burnt Kuwaiti currency lying around, maggots in the freezer, and filth in bedroom drawers. Nothing could be salvaged out of the home so he stayed with an Egyptian colleague till the flat could be cleaned up and refurbished. Help was also difficult at that time so getting things done was a huge task.
Slowly and steadily Dr. Riaz recalls building up the neurology department at the hospital. The family returned after two months. The kids missed school for a year but the country developed very fast and within a year Kuwait regained its past glory.
In their opinion, what was the main difference between pre-invasion and current Kuwait? Both Dr. Khans agreed that the social bonds formed pre-invasion and the social life was very different back then. New, younger people came in with temporary plans and the mindset was very different.
The Khan’s have spent 42 very happy and peaceful years in Kuwait and regardless of all their experiences, they are grateful to the country and the government for the quality of life, a platform for their children, and the prosperity it brought to them. There were hitches but no regrets at all. They learned a lot from the invasion and the liberation about personal relationships, humanity, and community service. They also feel pleased to have been in Kuwait as a melting pot of different Indian states, the cultural exposure through the Indian Embassy and so many other things that have been the experience of a lifetime.