‘Airlift’ may be an entertaining film but the increasing number of dissenting comments have prompted this Leader.
Just as Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait on August 2, 1990, the Amir of Kuwait (the late) Jaber Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah fled to Saudi Arabia (he remained in Taif until liberation on February 28, 1991) and soon obtained the sympathy and support of the five other countries of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), which in turn sought the support of the United States of America.
The Grand Alliance of many powerful countries (led by USA and Great Britain) began, although the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and France had their reservations. It was this group of allies that imposed strangulating sanctions against Iraq, stepped their military presence in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and prepared for ‘Operation Desert Shield,’ and later ‘Operation Desert Storm.’ Interestingly, many other countries including India followed their policy of ‘Non-Alignment,’ although New Delhi had to strike a deal with Iraqi President Saddam Hussain (see our stories in this issue) to prevent him from using more than 170,000 Indian expatriates in Kuwait as ‘human shields’ (a threat that he issued openly) and close the Indian Embassy in Kuwait.
Saddam’s argument was simple: Kuwait was not a sovereign country – it had become the 19thProvince of Iraq – and hence had no place for diplomatic missions. Most other countries including the United States of America and United Kingdom refused to shut their embassies but simply asked all staff to return home or relocate to Baghdad or Jordan.
There were many developments that occurred following the arrival of the Iraqi troops at 2 am on that fateful day in August (2.8.1990). Minutes later, a British Airways commercial aircraft landed with American and British passport holders, many of them of Indian origin. They could not leave Kuwait since all commercial flights were banned by the allied forces. Fearing for their lives, many of them destroyed their American and British passports to join the exodus that later came to be known as ‘the Greatest Human Evacuation in History.’
Throughout the occupation of Kuwait, there were no reports of the Iraqi troops harming foreigners, although Saddam constantly threatened to do so. A few lost their lives, mostly caught during cross-fires or openly defying the trigger-happy Iraqi military that was roaming the streets.
Although Kuwait was totally destroyed (the Editor of this newspaper is an eyewitness to the massacre), there were no mass executions. Hundreds of Kuwaitis used to hold secret meetings to discuss the possibility of electing a more powerful Parliament (Kuwait was the first country to have an elected House of People’s Representatives in the Arab Gulf but was forever at loggerheads with the government) but they did not yield the desired results.
India’s External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral visited Iraq and met Saddam at his Baghdad Palace in September 1990, about a month after the Kuwaiti occupation. That visit paved the way for the ‘Greatest Human evacuation in History,’ with Mr Gujral himself taking about 120 Indian expatriates in his special Indian Airforce aircraft. Among them were a few people of Indian origin who were holed up at Al Rashid Hotel.
While thousands of Indians left Kuwait when the Indian government commenced its evacuation operations, it is wrong to assume that it involved all the 170,000 Indians estimated to have lived in the oil-rich Gulf State at that time. Thousands preferred to stay back and carry on their lives. Since evacuation through Saudi Arabia was not possible, the Indian government decided to do so through Amman, the Capital of Jordan. There were no direct flights from that city to India, and as an offline station, Amman was serviced by Air India, Bahrain.
Again, the fear complex was not restricted to Kuwait. Hundreds of Indians living in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were also allowed to leave the respective countries (it was their choice) terminating their employment contracts and taking all benefits including leaving indemnity, one-way air ticket and other allowances.
While the first batch of evacuees who accompanied Mr Gujral did not have any time to even pack their belongings, those living in Kuwait had sufficient time to do so. It was undoubtedly a harrowing experience for Indians but their safety was assured by Saddam and his military. In fact, as Captain Zain Juvale mentions in his articles appearing in this Section and under Homelink, Iraqi soldiers were empathetic towards Indians even during the early days of occupation.
To those of us who have witnessed the developments in Kuwait and other neighbouring countries during the months that ran from August 1990 to March 1991, ‘Airlift’ would be betrayal of the worst kind.
We will carry more of these and an opinion piece that appeared in leading Indian newspapers in our next issue.