The Air Bridge - 1990

Operation - No name, No heroes

By now most of you would have seen the airlift movie and decided one way or the other about how the hundred thousand plus people were rescued from Kuwait. I watched the movie too and it took me back to those days when I was living in Saudi Arabia, just across the border, right through that war.

It all comes back vividly, starting with the dinner at ‘Rice Bowl’ in Brigade road Bangalore. I was to fly back to Riyadh the next day and the dinner tasted heavenly. But soon I was doubled up with stomach cramps and bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. The flight out of Bangalore to Bombay was at 8 or so in the morning and I was in no shape to make it, but my cousin managed to get find a doctor who was up early and I got a shot which stabilized things a bit. At Bombay, I had to wait until the early hours of the next morning to catch the Saudia flight to Riyadh. As I woke up in the transit hotel room and picked up the newspapers on Friday, August 3rd 1990, I saw the big bold headlines – Saddam invades Kuwait.

At about 2 a.m. local time on 2nd August, over hundred thousand Iraqi forces marched into Kuwait. Kuwait’s virtually nonexistent defense was overwhelmed, and the Kuwaiti populace fled. The Emir of Kuwait, his family, and other government leaders fled to Dammam in Saudi Arabia, and within hours Kuwait City had been captured and the Iraqis had established a provincial government.

Interrogations of Saddam by the FBI interrogator Piro many years later revealed that what really infuriated Saddam was the Kuwaiti Emir Al Sabah’s remark to the Iraqi foreign minister that he would not stop doing what he was doing (overproduction against OPEC recommendations even with the oil price in the dumps at close to $12 per barrel) until he turned every Iraqi woman into a $10 prostitute. According to former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, "every US$1 drop in the price of a barrel of oil caused a US$1 billion drop in Iraq's annual revenues triggering an acute financial crisis in Baghdad.

Back in our office, things were going on as usual, but there was much talk of what was happening in Kuwait. News trickled in from BBC radio, for we did not have any CNN or any kind of international channels in the heavily censored Saudi Arabia. Rumors floated around, of US Ambassador April Glaspie’s meeting with Saddam, Saddam’s anger at Kuwaiti slant drilling into Rumaila oil wells, Saddam’s inability to pay the 14b$ Kuwaiti debt, the low oil price and all that stuff. There was a certain amount of nervousness in the air and many a person thought that Saddam would target Saudi next. Others countered that Saudi was an American ally and so the Americans would protect Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless business continued on as usual, my family returned back after their vacation and life was back to a semblance of normalcy.

Operation Desert Shield was soon put into place, US forces were being sent to Riyadh by the thousands and there was talk of Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait. Across the Border, Saddam defiantly announced that Kuwait was Iraq’s 19th province and settled a no-interference treaty with Iran, by sharing the waters of Shatt al Arab. Saddam then installed Alaa Hussein Ali as the Prime Minister of the "Provisional Government of Free Kuwait" and Ali Hassan al-Majid, as the de facto governor of Kuwait.

In Kuwait life had turned topsy-turvy. Kuwaiti’s became targets for the Iraqi army riffraff, and as the westerners flew out, Filipino and Indian expatriates wondered what to do next. The Palestinian and Yemeni expat worker threw their lot with the invader. Over 300,000 Kuwaitis fled Kuwait. Many of the Kuwaitis reached Dammam and Riyadh and an entire housing complex in Riyadh with thousands of empty apartments, as though waiting for them, was granted for their stay. A Kuwaiti government in exile was established at Taif.

The Indian in Kuwait was in a quandary. They were not targeted by the Iraqi, they did not invite their ire except for the reported rape of many Indian (and Filipina) housemaids who were left alone in the empty homes after their Kuwaiti masters fled. They could walk around freely, though remaining careful and humble of the gun toting teenager and visibly hyper ventilating boy soldiers. For once their color and countenance came to their rescue, and the darker Indian look ensured safety. So what was the expat worker and his family supposed to do? Leave, or stay and work for new masters or what? It was soon clear that there was no way out with a closure of ports and airports and the implementation of UN sanctions.

Many do not know why India and Iraqi’s were on friendly terms at that point of time. Starting with the “Treaty of Perpetual peace and friendship” in 1952 and an agreement of cooperation on the cultural affairs in 1954, Iraq supported the Indian government in almost all global fronts (except the Indian involvement in the Bangladesh crisis). Saddam visited India in 1974 and Indira Gandhi reciprocated in 1975. The trade relationship flourished with huge construction projects carried out by India and deployment of thousands of workers for a while but the Iran-Iraq war brought it down to a crash. The oil workers from India relocated to other gulf countries, but the relationship remained strong. Iraq had supported India’s right to conduct nuclear weapons on May 11 and May 13, 1988. In 2000, the Vice President Tahe Ramadhan’s visit to India and on August 6, 2002 President Saddam Hussein conveyed Iraq’s “unwavering support” to India over the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan.

And so, India was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place over the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2nd 1990. On the other hand, India was dependent on Iraq and Kuwait for 40% of its annual oil imports and in addition to a substantial trade relationship, an estimated 185,000 Indian workers were now stranded in the area of hostilities.Until then, India imported about 22 million tons of crude oil from Iraq, and 1.5 million tons from Kuwait. With the war, India had to approach Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Venezuela for making up the short fall. The sharp increases in the price of crude oil from US $ 14 to $ 30 per barrel resulted in a decline in India’s foreign exchange position and increased its oil import bill up to US $ 100 million. The remittances dropped by Rs 200 crores, exports dropped by Rs 360 crores and the expatriation costs were expected to be Rs 400 crores. The lost contracts worked out to Rs 400 crores and in total the balance of payment deteriorated by 3 billion dollars.

The ministers and bureaucrats faced a difficult situation - at least some of the older staff may have remembered a previous calamity when the government erred and hundreds of thousands of Indians died. That was Burma in 1942, as the WWII’s Eastern was intensified, and when close to half a million Indians died in their flight to India or in the death railway, due to Japanese callousness. The British Indian government led by an errant Churchill was more interested in feeding its army and British citizens rather than the famine stricken masses in Bengal or those in Burma. The death march to the Assam border on one side and the death railway in South east Burma on the other, decimated thousands to disease and malnutrition, let alone fatigue. Most of the victims were poor Indians, mostly from the erstwhile Madras presidency - Tamilians, Malayali’s and Telugu workers and their families.

The 1990-91 Indian government did not perhaps want a repeat of that horrible tragedy. A majority of these marooned civilians in Kuwait were incidentally, Malayali’s. Did they remember all this while preparing to act? I don’t know. If they did, did they do the right thing or wrong? In many ways the situations are somewhat similar. The Indian government was headed by the relatively inexperienced Janata dal ministry headed by VP Singh. IK Gujral was the external affairs minister. Arif Mohammed Khan’s team dealt with civil aviation and the surface transport ministry was with KP Unnikrishnan (with additional charge of Communications ministry). Unnikrishnan, incidentally, was not famed for fast action on any files which reached him.

Suresh Kumar Pillai in his paper mentions the total powerlessness of the Kerala state Government in
the Delhi power corridors, since the leftist party though supporting the central government had little bargaining power. He mentions that K.P. Unnikrishnan, the lone Malayalee member of the cabinet acknowledged to the press that even he, was not able to access the files that he needed from external affairs Ministry. And so, as the ministers and politicians wrangled in Delhi, the situation in Kuwait simply heated up. The rabble rousing Iraqi army made life miserable for the people still in Kuwait. Further problems ensued when Palestinian looters started attacking Indian homes.

Two weeks had elapsed after the invasion. The suave IK Gujral made his visit to Baghdad to secure support for the evacuation of Indians. He passed by Kuwait, irritated people with some unnecessary comments but promised that speedy help was underway and took back with him the very rich and famous Indians in what was infamously known as the millionaires flight, irritating the poor masses who felt horribly slighted. A sufferer recounts - When we asked Gujral what will happen to our investments in Kuwait, he replied, 'I told you for so many years to invest in India. You didn't listen to me. Now you will have to suffer.

A couple of military flights were arranged at first, with leaders in the Indian community working with the embassy to pick out the infirm, elderly, women and children to fly back. But once they had all returned to India, the government realized that military transport – which is much more cumbersome because of air space clearances – would not do the job.

Two sources gave me a reasonable idea of the situation in Kuwait during the next month. One is a book written by O Misbah about those terrible days as well as his flight from Kuwait to Jordan, and the other a very nice blog by Roji Abraham. I will summarize what they experienced and how thousands of Indians moved from Kuwait to Amman. They lived in fear in their own houses, sometimes friends lounging together in one of the houses to minimize cooking and to assuage their fears. Food was not impossible to come by if you could pay and basics like rice and spices were available if you wandered around. Offices shut down, airlines stopped operation, medicines were all gone, most shops and large Kuwaiti homes got looted. The Palestinians who remained professed support to Saddam and the Iraqis started a campaign of destruction of the Kuwaiti identity by organized looting and destruction of government records. Large posters and mosaic frescos of Saddam went up. Some Indians hoped to be rescued from Kuwait but others saw that it was best to join an exodus to Amman where it was perhaps possible to find a flight back to India, as food started to run out and as all the money they had in their person ran out.

The logistics problem was that Amman was directly across Iraq and to reach there the desert road trip transiting Baghdad totaled to some 1800 km. There were quite a few private buses run by Iraqis charging a hefty fee and most families took that route. In the process, they left behind whatever they had, traveling with bare minimum by way of clothes and secreting money (the dinars which they had were by this time were worthless) in their bodies. Some fortunately had dollars in hand and pooled it to help others in the bus. Both the bus drivers and gangs operating on the way boarded and robbed the passengers at will according to some reports. But by and far, the Iraqi soldier did not maim any Indians. The overnight trip brought them to Baghdad where they somehow managed their morning ablutions and picked up some bread and fruits before continuing on to the Jordan border. Their destination was the border crossing points of Jordan. This was the unorganized flight, based on the initiatives of individuals, using their money, courage and resources.

Was there some kind of organization which tried to help the unorganized? Actually there was .Was the Indian embassy closed? Yes and no, for the embassy was shifted to Basra, as ordered by Saddam, while a lone officer named Sen Gupta remained. Was a school used by the committee or some of the refugees? Apparently KTB Menon’s Indian school in Salmiya was. Indians crowded the embassy compound after supplies, especially water supplied by tankers for a price, were slowing down. The only item available freely and in abundance was the Kobus – or the pita bread of the Middle East.

The person who assumed leadership of the Indian citizens committee ICC, was the architect and well connected Harbajan Singh Vedi. He also took over as the defacto ambassador, since IK Gujral had authorized him to issue and sign passports and travel documents, and he played a pivotal role in the later initiatives.  He formed a 51 member unofficial committee coordinating the events related to the organized part of the evacuation. Amongst its members were Sunny Mathews, Narindar Singh Sethi, N.V.K. Warrier, Abhi Varikad, Thomas Chandy, Roy Abraham, K.K. Nair, Ali Hussain and many others. Many of them had large investments in Kuwait and did not rush out, hoping for a settlement which never happened.

Sengupta the representative of the Indian embassy records that 80 buses would roll out every day to Jordan. He explains - We would do the paperwork for undertaking the journey in the morning before getting the list of passengers ready for the next day. The first challenge was to prepare over 100,000 travel documents. Delhi had initially sent two planes to Kuwait for evacuation. Ships began arriving a lot later. With nearly a lakh people stranded, I had to look at the alternative of bulk evacuation by road. Sunny Mathews, an extremely resourceful Indian working in Toyota, did a great job negotiating with private bus operators for evacuation via Iraq to Jordan by road.

Communication was a problem as the telephone network went down. A Malayali HAM radio enthusiast Shaji John Verghese came to the rescue setting up a link in the embassy. Verghese, using the call sign of ek-do-teen tango, called India, often speaking to the Ministry of External Affairs. He spoke through another HAM radio operator in Kerala in Malayalam just in case the Iraqis were monitoring the airwaves. But all he could do was get situation reports to Delhi and get the latest news of the events related to the war situation.  

Buses organized by the ICC after agreement with Saddam, started shepherding those who wanted to leave through Basra, Baghdad and eventually to the Jordanian border. As the buses started their arduous trips to the Jordan borders, a number of people managed to escape through three freighter ships.

In September, 725 Indians managed to leave on the private freighter Safeer which had been stranded in Kuwaiit. Safeer (a freighter meant to carry 30 passengers) carried 722 passengers, including 265 women and children in a 48-hour haul to Dubai, no mean feat and a harrowing tale. While the owners of Safeer - tried to persuade officials in the shipping, defense and external affairs ministries in India for authorizations as it was a Panama registered cargo ship not supposed to transport people, Capt Modak negotiated with authorities in Dubai. Being a cargo ship, MV Safeer wasn’t legally allowed to ferry passengers. Life jackets and life boats were sourced in Kuwait, and temporary toilets made from drums with gunny bags to provide as a curtain around the makeshift toilets. It made the trip safely, followed by the ship Akbar with 1800 people. It was followed by Tipu Sutan which also ferried some 700 or so people to Dubai. Dubai’s Indian leaders organized to receive and repatriate them to India.

Whoever could flee, fled on road and finally some 20,000 Indians chose to remain in Kuwait.  On November 7, after more than two months of bone breaking work, Sengupta relinquished charge of the embassy and left Kuwait. Now we move to the terrible border camps in Jordan where all these people in the bus trips landed up.

The Indian embassy/special office in Amman was manned by Gajendra Singh, a very interesting character whom I met many years later in Istanbul Turkey during a dinner. His own role in the airlift is stated as exemplary by some and circumspect by others. Nevertheless they were deeply involved and participating, all the way. The Indian embassy had moved early to rent out rooms at astronomical prices in order to house refugees at apartments and hotels. While some found refuge in these rooms (30-40 in a room!) till they were ferried out to camps and then out by airlifts, the vast majority went directly to and spent even more time in transit camps in the desert braving sandstorms and fistfights.

These camps, remembered as hellholes by the survivors were, Azraq, Shaalan 1 and 2, Mercy and a few others. The Azraq camp northeast of Amman, built by the International Red Cross, was somewhat OK, but the living conditions in Shaalan near the Iraqi border, were harsh. Initially over 40 percent of the refugees in this camp were without shelter and by mid-September, lacked food and water making the situation critical, with the temperature rising to the higher 40’s and dipping to chilling teens at night. Salil Tripathi and Ramesh Menon wrote about the situation (see linked article) 

Those who have been able to leave have had to brave the desert, marauding greenhorn soldiers en route and scorching 50-degree heat. They have come in thousands: Egyptians in sweat-soaked dishdashes, Bangladeshis in tattered lungis, Pakistanis in dust-smeared Pathani outfits. And, of course, the ubiquitous Indians - Sikhs, Gujaratis, Maharashtrians, Goans, and Malayalees. They haven't eaten properly for days, their hair is rough and covered with dust, their skin parched, their voices hoarse, and their throats dry. Nearly 26,000 people, including around 2,000 Indians, cross Iraq every day and reach Ruwishied. Some camps had primus stoves and gave out sardines and rice to cook, but at others they had to stand in long snaking lines and collect Kobus and water, as and when the Red Cross trucks came. The toilets were primitive with tin sheets.

As the refugees piled into these camps on a daily basis, the pressure to get them out was terrible on both the Indian embassy staff in Jordan as well as the central government in Delhi. Soon the newspapers in Kerala started reporting through their reporters visiting the camps, of the sad plight of their compatriots in the desert, adding to the pressure cooker tight situation. Somebody had to act and the South block fingers pointed at the surface transport minister Unnikrishnan as well as the civil aviation minister Arif Mohammed khan.

Readers may wonder how a surface transport and telecom minister got involved in this international fracas. Well simply because he was from Kerala and because the vast majority of the Kuwaiti refugees in Amman were from Kerala. It was also probably because the ministry of shipping was under surface transport at that time, and the original plan may have been to use ships to bring out the big number of refugees.

In a 1991 interview Unni explained - "There was much anxiety back home about the fate of the Indians in Kuwait, especially in Kerala from where thousands had been working in the Gulf. Initially, there were some misgivings about the logistical and diplomatic constraints involved. But some of us convinced the Prime Minister and got the cabinet mandate to carry out the plans.  I was entrusted with the task of overseeing the operation," he added. Unni was deputed to Amman with Khan, to oversee the situation on the ground.

Unni says "Having been authorized by the Cabinet, the first thing I did was to alert the Indian missions in West Asian countries. The first option was to seek the help of IAF. The Pakistanis and Iranians would not provide air clearances to the air force Ilyushin II -76 cargo and troop carrier planes, Iraq also refused. The IL76 planes fondly called gajraj (elephant king) could have carried large numbers of refugees directly to India, but the plan failed. Ships were not allowed into Kuwait and the UN embargo made it initially impossible and then as recorded by Unnikrishnan there was a bigger problem, some water lanes had been mined by the Allies.

Unnikrishnan and the Delhi think-tank had in the meantime hit upon an idea. Over 14 Airbus 320’s had been grounded after the fatal crash of IA605 at Bangalore just a few months earlier. The VP Singh government grounded the rest of the 320 fleet pending investigation. The evacuation team decided to use these Airbus A320 after necessary checks. But they were short haul planes with a capacity of just 180-190 seats. So the plan was to use them to ferry the Indians from Amman to Dubai and use bigger planes to get them out of Dubai and back to Bombay. It would also provide much training on these fly by wire planes for the Indian pilots with clear desert visibility.

Things did not go well originally at Amman when Unnikrishnan approached the Jordanian regents around the 26th of August, who, while extending moral support, said the country was not in a position to provide logistics. In fact when he went to meet the king and later the refugees at the camp, he was abused, booed upon, pelted with eggs and tomatoes and jeered by the suffering Indians at the camp. Thoroughly shaken but galvanized, he talked to VP Singh from Amman, to hasten the evacuation. KM Abduraheem also visited the camps with Unni to pacify the suffering humanity.

K.P. Unnikrishnan who met Saddam and got the approval for the airlift, termed the camp conditions "unimaginable". Dilip Bobb and Salil Tripathi explain - The situation was becoming terrible at the border camps - The teeming mass of humanity stretches as far as the eye can see. The strips of cloth the refugees have tied together as makeshift tents offer little protection from the hammering heat or the blinding sands. Jordanian authorities have named the makeshift camp Sha'alaan. The refugees, have christened it 'hell on earth'. Fights break out over a piece of khuboos (unleavened bread) or a bottle of mineral water. Here, out in the barren wastes, it is Darwinism in action: the survival of the fittest. Burly sardars surge through the crowds milling around water trucks, elbowing aside undernourished Gujaratis and Malayalis.

Meanwhile Air India’s pilots were wary of the airlift since some of their pilots had been held in Iraq and had no security assuraces. This was cleared up and a field office was set up in Amman with external affairs ministry’s KP Fabien, Air India’s Mascarenhas, others like GK Pillai, C Almayo, Rajeev Sadanandan, Ratan Sehgal and Anand Kumar, while refugees continued pouring into the camps, waiting for transport to India. “It’s not like we didn’t make mistakes," said Mascarenhas later. “We misjudged numbers a lot and, remember, we didn’t have mobile phones there. When people ask me how we did it, I say, I looked up at heaven and said, god help me. When we landed in Amman, there were already 5,000 to 7,000 Indians there and the numbers started swelling immediately.”

Out in the camps, the camp coordinators would publish lists of people who were to head to Amman, from where Air-India did the ‘airlift’. There were other mercy carriers as well, such as Emirates airlines, but Air India flew the maximum out. The first airlift took place on August 13, on the tenth day after the invasion and continued for 59 days until the last Indian wanting to return was back.

Shekhar Gupta records - Queen Aaliyah airport remained open through the war and most international airlines continued their scheduled flights uninterrupted. The then Civil Aviation Minister Arif Mohammed Khan was on board the first Air India flight to land in Amman for the Airlift and Telecom Minister K.P. Unnikrishnan spent almost two months in Amman helping out, particularly as a majority of workers were his fellow Malayalis.

The AI AB 320 flight’s increased their frequencies and eventually, Air India would go on to fly 488 flights over 59 days, carrying 111,711 passengers, still unmatched in the Guinness book of records. It was a stupendous task carried out with so little, by so few and so quickly.

Whatever said and done, ‘Airlift’ the movie brought attention to a sad 6 month period when thousands of Indians in Kuwait saw hell. Just so most people get the right perspective, I suspect that the character played by Akshay Kumar was the late HS Vedi who headed the 51 member ICC in Kuwait, though the individual also represents many others of the ICC such as KTB Menon, Sunny Thomas, KK Nair and so on, each who played his part in creating a semblance of order amidst the chaos of occupation and a desperate need to fly back home….

It is alright to be bitter, especially if you have struggled to save money in the gulf and lost all of it, and for that reason many were and are bitter, even today. They wonder how the westerner flew out while they suffered in indignity. They remember their experiences at the embassies and compare it to the others, and I tend to agree, having been to our embassies scores of times. I too truly hope that Indian embassies of the future become the faces of a proud country and not show themselves to be windows of red tape and corruption. But then again, consider for a moment, which embassy handles the kind of NRI volume like the Indian embassy or consulate, with so little by way of funds?

I met Gajendra Singh, the ambassador to Jordan, whom we talked about earlier, in Istanbul, some years later, but we did not discuss all this, we talked about the influence of Turkic languages on Urdu, a subject which he was a master on.

Nevertheless, we have to contend with the political horse trading in Delhi– even today, Delhi politics is regional and caste based just as KP Unnikrishnan once attested. Malayali’s are remembered in Delhi only when the central coffers need gulf money to prop them up or when somebody wants to bash Krishna Menon (who was actually less Malayali than any Malayali) and his Chinese war handling.

It is veritable horse trading at best. Now you may wonder how horse trading got such a reputation, right? I will tell you that story soon. Maybe AK Antony and Shashi Tharoor will recount their stories too, someday. Unfortunately it also teaches you the sad fact of life – To each unto his own….

As for me, well, I was one of the first civilians visiting Kuwait on the heels of the American and Saudi military forces participating in the Desert Storm. The four of us, a Swede, a Norwegian, a German and myself were sent out from Riyadh, behind the army, to do a damage assessment of Kuwait’s power grid and help get it back on. It was a hair raising trip, spending some two weeks in a city with no power or water, darkened and cold by oil smoke from the burning wells, little food and with arbitrary shooting between the allies and the Palestinians now and then. I did come across an odd Malayali now and then. Anyway, we were indeed lucky to make it out alive, after accomplishing our task. But that is a story for another day….

The Iraqi Occupation of Kuwait: An Eyewitness Account - Shafeeq Ghabra
India and Iraq - Kuwait Crisis - Dr. Md. Aminuzzaman
Strife of Decades – Odayam Misbah
India: A Portrait - Patrick French
At Large in the World: A Memoir - By Harish Chandola
Gulf dreams essays on Migration of Malayalees to Gulf countries– Suresh K Pillai
India today article 1,
Times of Kuwait article


1.    Harish Chandola is less charitable to Gajendra Sigh’s role white testifying to Unnikrishnan’s stellar role. He says that Singh never visited any transit camp and was busy writing reports. He also hints to Unnikrishnan unearthing a certain amount of embassy corruption, as the money sent from Delhi to help the refuges was seemingly misappropriated. I understood that Singh was punished for it, but the ICC in Kuwait testified otherwise (see this letter sent by HS Vedi and posted by Singh in his blog)

2.       Kulbir Singh Babrah’s story is remarkable –He had difficulties boarding the mercy flights since his wife was a Filipina. This brave man then joined a 47 car convoy from Kuwait to Iraq and on to Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and through to India. That must have been quite a tale!!!

3.       India submitted a claim of 3.3B$ to the UN compensation fund relating to these refugees. Originally all the people who boarded the airlift had to sign a bond promising to pay back the ticket amount, but this was subsequently waived.

To see how these camps looked like, see these images