‘Airlift’ controversy continues
Suresh Mal Mathur –
I am a retired officer of Indian Foreign Service (1982 batch).
I was posted as Second Secretary in the Indian Embassy, Kuwait when Saddam Hussain attacked Kuwait on August 2, 1990.
I witnessed the traumatic period with the focus on evacuation of about 150,000 Indians from Kuwait which was completed by the end of November 1990.
‘Operation Airlift’ by Air India from Amman was a major component of the evacuation operation. However, apart from a few thousand Indians who fled Kuwait on their own via Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Turkey, a large number of Indians were evacuated by 10 Indian Air Force special flights from Kuwait and Basra, three passenger ships of Shipping Corporation of India which sailed from Basra and more than 100 international migration organisation flights from Amman.
The evacuation of 725 Indians by the cargo ship ‘MV Safeer’ (Indian Newslink, February 15, March 1 and March 15, 2016) was also a heroic act of a private shipping company. I have knowledge of the entire operation as I was the only officer of the Indian Embassy in Kuwait who was involved in evacuation work in Kuwait, Basra and Amman. I was also the only Officer of the External Affairs Ministry, involved in the evacuation of Indians from Uganda, when Idi Amin decided to expel all Indians from his country in 1972.
In the aftermath of Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, thousands of Indians visited the Embassy seeking help in their evacuation. On August 5, 1990, a Palestinian Radio official came to me and conveyed the message from the Captain of Cargo ship ‘MV Safeer’ berthed at Kuwait seaport, asking for an Embassy official to visit the ship as the Indian crew was in distress. He wanted to help us since his son was studying in Baroda.
The Iraqi army had taken over the Kuwait seaport. As I went aboard ‘MV Safeer,’ the faces of Captain Zain Juvale and other crew members beamed with happiness.
Captain Juvale narrated his woes from the early hours of August 2, 1990. The Iraqis had dismantled the communication system of the ship and asked the Captain and crew to line up against a wall. They had no information about what was happening outside.
Captain Juvale made two specific requests: Inform the ship’s owners and the families of the crew of their plight; and request the Iraqi authorities allow cargo to be unloaded and permit ‘Safeer’ to sail from Kuwait. He also suggested that the cargo ship carry as many Indians as possible from Kuwait to Dubai.
I told him about the uncertain scenario in Kuwait but assured that the Embassy will try to help to the extent possible. I submitted a report to the Ambassador on my return to the embassy. Necessary follow up action on the captain’s requests was also taken.
Inder Kumar Gujral, who was India’s External Affairs Minister, reached Kuwait on August 19, 1990. He told the Ambassador that one of his priorities was to meet the Captain of the ship. The situation at the seaport had changed and it was more difficult to take the Captain out of the area. I met the Port Director, a high-ranking Iraqi army officer and requested for permission, explaining that Mr Gujral had met Saddam Hussain in Baghdad and had arrived in Kuwait with arrangements made by the Iraqi government.
The Port Director, who spoke good English, readily granted permission saying that India and Iraq were friends. He however cautioned that Captain Juvale should return to the ship after meeting Mr Gujral at the Indian Embassy.
Captain Juvale met the Ambassador and Mr Gujral to discuss the possibility and modality of rescuing Indians on ‘MV Safeer’ to Dubai. A formal proposal in this connection by the Ambassador to External Affairs Ministry.
Intensive discussions were held with the concerned ministries of the Indian government. The owner of ‘MV Safeer’ was also involved in the discussion.
They offered to carry the passengers and equip the ship suitably for their safety.
Eventually, the Ambassador got the green signal. Passengers for this journey were selected carefully by the Indian community in consultation with doctors (for medical cases) on the basis of priorities already decided.
‘MV Safeer’ sailed from Kuwait on September 4, 1990 and safely reached Dubai after a journey of about 48 hours. Further arrangements for the onward journey of the passengers were made by the Consulate General of India, Dubai.
This is the factual version of events known to the embassy.
Captain Zain Juvale has not given due credit for the role played by the Indian Embassy in Kuwait. His ship did not carry the first evacuees. Two hundred persons had left with Mr Gujral on August 20, 2016 in an Indian Air Force aircraft, while Air India had already evacuated more than 10,000 persons from Amman by the time ‘MV Safeer’ sailed from Kuwait on September 4, 1990.
There was no aerial attack on Kuwait and Captain Juvale’s tale of bombardment is rather erroneous.
His contention of being totally out of contact with the outside world during the period of detention in Kuwait seaport is also misplaced in view of my two visits to the ship and his meeting with Mr Gujral.
According to information that was available at the Indian Embassy, the Indian government was in favour of rescuing Indians on ‘MV Safeer,’ which was God-sent opportunity in the grim and disparate situation in Kuwait.
Mr Gujral was keen to meet Captain Juvale precisely for this purpose. The formal permission of the government was also accorded in due course. Mr Juvale’s account about threats from powers in India is not convincing.
Despite the omissions and certain exaggerations in his story, the fact remains that ‘MV Safeer’ played a heroic role in rescuing Indians from Kuwait. The Captain and the crew of the ship as well as its owners deserve commendation for this achievement.
Editor’s Note: Suresh Mal Mathur now lives in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. A related story appears under Businesslink on Page 10 of this issue.
Hundreds of Indians boarding an Indian Air Force jet leaving Kuwait in August 1990