There was nothing like ‘Airlift’

The Hero is also a myth

First of three parts

Captain Zain Juvale – There was nothing-Captain Zain Juvale Web

My mind goes back to that fateful day of August 2, 1990, and the events which unfolded thereafter. I was the Captain (Master) of the Panamanian ship ‘Safeer’ in Port Shuwaikh, Kuwait. On that memorable day, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, and took control of that country. We faced a tense and nervous moment when a fleet of 15 fighter planes flew over our ship and dropped bombs all around us.

Fortunately, none of them hit our ship.

In captivity

On the following day, I and my crew of 25 were captured by the invading Iraqi forces. We were all forced to line up on the wharf in a straight line, with our hands on our heads, and each one of us faced the barrel of the fierce looking guns, barely six inches from our eyes, and with their fingers ready on the triggers.

Additionally, each one of us had a soldier behind our backs with their rifles pointing at our heads. It was like facing a firing squad at point blank range from both sides.

All our eyes were nervously transfixed on the fingers waiting to pull the triggers, with our hearts beating faster, trembling with fear, a prayer on our lips, and thoughts of our families back home running through our minds.

Mercifully, to our great relief, the triggers were not pulled at that time, but still we waited with abated breath pondering about our fate.

35 ordeal days

It was the beginning of our 35 days of ordeal, and trauma of captivity and uncertainty. We lived in constant fear and trepidation with the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

During this period, we had no communication with our families in India, or with anyone in the outside world. The ship’s local agents had run away from Kuwait, and even the ship’s owners were not contactable.

As we were isolated inside the Port from the rest of the world, we had no clue as to what was happening in Kuwait or anywhere else.

One day, escorted by the Iraqi soldiers, I and my Chief Officer went in search of our passports, which I believed were kept in one of the ransacked Immigration Offices on the wharf. While we did so, the Iraqi soldiers were helping themselves to all the electronic gadgets including computers and telephones.

Just then I noticed a phone in a cabin with the door left ajar, and the key in the door.

I quickly shut the door and locked the cabin and kept the key with me.

Only lifeline

This phone was to later become my only lifeline to the outside world (outside the port). At night, under the cover of darkness, I used to sneak out of my ship and tread very quietly to the wharf, (not taking the risk of being seen by the Iraqi soldiers), and try to contact some people in Kuwait.

To my utter disappointment, most of the local phones were dead, and no international calls could be made. However, at a much later stage, after many futile attempts, I managed to establish my first contact with the Indian Embassy in Kuwait, after dialling their number non-stop for over two hours, in total darkness.

A few days into captivity, the stock of water and provisions on board had depleted. The original stock itself was limited since our plan was to sail to Dubai after two days of halt in Kuwait with replenished food and water. No one had anticipated this invasion and our detention. Initially, we had to resort to rationing, so as to be prepared for the worst.

But thankfully, with tactful negotiations with Iraqi soldiers, we managed to get some provisions and water.

I have often wondered thereafter as to how I gathered the courage to stand up to the armed Iraqis (who were in a murderous and plundering mood) and negotiate with them, at times even challenging some of their decisions.

Establishing trust

They must have secretly admired my courage and at times even went out of their way to accommodate my requests. As our captivity came to an end, I had the audacity to believe that I was calling the shots with full cooperation of the Iraqis!

Trust, politeness and courtesy often yields good results, and this is true of even militants, as I discovered with the Iraqis. Persistence and perseverance also helped in our situation. The Iraqis even acceded to my request for us to play Cricket on the wharf, under their watchful eyes.

They surrounded us in a circle, with perplexed looks on their faces, and wondered about this strange game.

However, the entire situation could have changed at any time, had they received orders from the top to just shoot us all. Our main worry was that if a full scale war broke out, the Americans would attack the port area first, and any chances of our escaping would be doomed. We could even be caught in a cross-fire.

(To be continued)

Editor’s Note: Those of us who lived in Kuwait and/or covered the occupation of the Arab Gulf State by Iraq from August 2, 1990 and the ‘Gulf Storm’, the First Gulf War that led to the liberation of Kuwait on February 28, 1991 (after five days of war), would know that the recently released Hindi film ‘Airlift’ is nothing more than a hero-centred imagination and divorced from truth. While the evacuation of Indians from Kuwait through Amman, Jordan and not through Saudi Arabia (which would have been easier and faster) was undoubtedly the single largest human exercise of the modern era, it was nothing like what the film portrayed. I was among those who was in Kuwait in the days following its liberation and what I saw and reported was more heart-rending and tragic than anyone could have imagined. The film has become a topic of discussion and Captain Zain Juvale has written a three-part report (in addition to one appearing under Homelink) which will be complemented by my remarks. If you have been involved in the Kuwaiti Theatre during the Iraqi occupation, please write to

Photo: Thousands of Indians were evacuated from Kuwait in 1990 following the Iraqi occupation. The picture here shows one plane load of anxious Indians.

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