Thursday, 1 August 2013

DAYS OF SORTIES,CNN AND MASKING TAPE!



 
                                          


1 August 2013. By today it is exactly 23 years  since Iraq forces under Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.As the world listened and watched  this surprise move,the incident triggered 7 months of volatile ,uneasy situation in the region.Nostalgic narration of those 'tensed' days in 1990 and early 1991 following the invasion,experienced by an Indian expatriate family in one of the gulf states,Qatar.
 
2 Aug 1990 ,wee hours at Mumbai.
My family and I had just checked in a hotel at Mumbai, thanks to 'Gulf Air.We -Geetha, children and me- were having a short break in our annual 'ritual' journey to Kochi from Doha for a  month's holiday ...for which we used to look forward for the rest of 11 months!! As the TV was switched on, it was flashing a news.Iraq has invaded Kuwait!!This was something  Geetha and I were caught unawares. Oh! What would be the implications ..we were discussing  ...Not only the two countries but also the whole middle east including our life in Qatar could change ....

7 months of uncertainties...
Next 7 months which followed the invasion was a continuous period of uncertainties for us.Probably that was the period I had spent maximum time each day on newspapers and TV news daily.

Initially I thought Saddam has done it for bargaining his position with Kuwaitis and the issue could melt down amicably being Arab countries.When UN Security council imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq on 6 Aug 1990 also it did not sound an alarm for me although it was too fast, I thought .But when the American forces landed in thousands to Saudi Arabia and else where under 'Operation Desert Shield' it did!That was on 9 Aug 1990.'Propaganda' war was already on !

As the whole world watched, Saddam declared Kuwait as a province of Iraq to be followed up with increasing the  troop level to 3000,000 there.In counter action American and Allied troops presence went up to 7000,000 in middle east. All the diplomatic efforts taken by many went without tangible results.Many Indian expatriates in Kuwait had to  return to India and had to go through many ordeals which was well covered in the Indian press and TV for obvious reasons.Malayalam channels telecast  the stories more than real,sensationalizing the actual news.Mine and Geetha's parents were naturally concerned .

That was when our children Vinay and Vishal were 9 and 7 years old. I used to drop them and pick up from the school daily - something I could manage from their KG classes to 12 th grade until they left Qatar for professional studies!In spite of practical difficulties I used to do that for two reasons. First it was an interactive session for me with my children in the car, for nearly 45 minutes a day, since otherwise I was always busy officially , working 10 to 12 hours daily,6 days a week, always running against time, most of the days coming home at 8PM! Second I could take advantage to start my job at 6.30 AM every day after dropping them in the school !While waiting for the children in front of the school at noon, most of the days I will get a chance to chit chat few minutes with Govindan Kutty and Thomachen , two good old friends of mine in Doha hailing from the same home city - Kochi. Since invasion of Kuwait took place, we used to share whatever we had on the subject , updated each other, although subjects of our discussions were never limited to serious topics !We never got tired of talking about the good old school/college gossips....till this day to the utter surprise of our wives !

On 29 November 1990, UN Security council passed a resolution authorizing use of force against Iraq if it failed to withdraw by 15 Jan 1991.The writing on the wall was clear and loud.A war was imminent.Many in the  expatriate community in Qatar started sending family members home especially in the wake of a rumour that Iraq possess chemical weapons and will not be shy to use the same in case of a war! Many Indian parents sent their children to study in Indian schools.School authorities - just two Indian schools here at that time - convened special meetings of parents to explain the situations and try to quench concerns of parents. In Kerala there was a problem of supply and demand regarding school admissions! There was a mad rush for air tickets to fly out of the country ! But otherwise the country was cool to the crisis.Authorities made sure that there is no panic among the public .
 
At Al Balagh,where I work our operations went  normal .Apart from the anxieties I had in  mind, everyday life in Qatar was as usual,contrary to what they thought in India. One late evening when I returned home from work Geetha told me that Vinay has a 'draw and paint' competition in the school next day and the topic given is 'Any new scene in Doha'.I suggested to draw 'sailing boats', a monument which was constructed new in the middle of the roundabout near airport.When he said he wanted to see it at close up in order to draw next day,I decided to take him to the spot.We - Vinay , Vishal and me- got into the car  with some paper and pencils without thinking  the fact that it was already 9 PM and the venue is  near the airport in a ' pre war time'.We had stopped near the roundabout , by the side of the boundary wall of the airport  in a spot where we could see the monument clearly  in the night but without the usual bright lights.As we were drawing few lines a police car stopped behind us and a policeman came out to watch what we were doing.When he saw us drawing a sketch of the monument he signaled to the officer who was in the car who also then got out . I had to do some hard explaining to them to let us go,which they did once they  were convinced of my intentions! Sure they might have thought that I was crazy!


                                                            The dead line...15 Jan 1991
 Geetha and I discussed how to go about it since war was almost sure to take place. Probability of use of chemical warfare by Iraq as suggested by US forces complicated the situation.We were getting the latest news from all over the world since Geetha was working as Foreign Press Reviewer in the Ministry of Information.Many newspapers were churning out articles on chemical warfare and its impact on those would be affected ! Right from cancer to impotency were potential side effects!! I suggested to Geetha that she and children could leave for a while to India like most of the Indian families in Doha did at that time cutting down the risk for the whole family.She categorically objected to that, contrary to her approach in general.Either we all go to India or stay put together in Qatar was her stand. I had to yield to her decision.

Scud and the compass
When it was sure about the  war with us likely to be involved although distantly,I started reading carefully about the weapons each side may use and its implications.For the first time I learnt technical details of Nighthawks,B52 and Patriots!Saddam Hussein's retaliatory measure would be the SCUD missiles , it was predicted. SCUD missile is based on Soviet design with wide range of derivative variants indigenously developed in other countries such as Iraq.Iraq had successfully increased her SCUD  firing range to 900 kms.One day I took an enlarged world map and physically measured with a scaled compass to see whether it will reach Qatar for any reasons if it is fired from Iraq or occupied Kuwait. It did !

The 'trio' of Govindankutty,Thomachen and me decided to keep our cars ready always with full petrol tanks.And keep some good amount of cash with us.Plus I purchased two extra 20 litre metal cans which are also kept with petrol in  store. A road map of the middle east countries also was kept in the car, in case. Good interaction on the subject was always there with our other friends and Ravi and Latha, our good old neighbours.
                                  
                                                         oil wells on fire in Kuwait       

Come Jan 1991....
My appa (father) persuaded me over phone to return to India without taking a risk like any parent of that age. I could always join back PWD in India from where I came to Qatar on unpaid leave,he told. But when I told him that I have tried to send Geetha and children home but in vain,and not me since it is not morally right to leave the staff and workers of the company at that juncture,he advised to remain as a whole family in Doha than sending the rest of the family. He and amma (mother) were understandably uneasy.

Panic has started to increase among the expatriates. Many who could take long leave left the country - even flying on available tickets to anywhere in India!! Domestic air lines were jam packed in India and as such many were reaching destination by bus standing!!! Few left the country for good.There was a scramble for air tickets when the local authorities announced that the airport will be closed soon.I was told that there were so many people who could not catch the flights on the last day prior to closure at the airport and many of them who were left out were crying in the airport begging for tickets!! Scene of frantic passengers left on board when the last life boat also left the sinking ship as shown in the film 'Titanic' later , perhaps could be a close scenario !

There was frenzied purchases of food and water in the super markets.In case of a prolonged war everyone thought there could be severe shortages of  staple food items which are all imported . Many were buying cartons of mineral water and mounds of pulses!!We could see some families buying dozens of cartons of drinking water in the supermarkets. May be thinking of disruptions to water supply or even sabotage! All it seems stocked candles as well in case of power failure!We did not fall short although might have stocked to a minimum, in case.... Interestingly authorities made sure that everything is available abundantly for purchases for the public at the same prices.Absolutely no shortages of whatever or price hikes! There was no shortage for rumours among Indians.Keralites call it 'lungi news', lungi being the homely dress of a 'Malabari'(Keralite) male !!

The most sought after material of the public to be purchased those days was masking tapes.Fearing a chemical warfare,all the windows of apartments and houses were sealed with masking tape.I wish now Al Balagh could have traded that commodity then which we did later. I don't know who started this but soon all in Qatar might have done this exercise . We were staying in an apartment then and  promptly did the same. I was worried about the exhaust fans but could do a mechanism in which the same can also be closed air tight in seconds!!! Some did not take that chance either, they closed the shutter of the fans permanently even in the kitchens!!


                                                                    Nighthawks..

In the middle of the night before Desert Storm was declared to start, before I slipped to sleep, silently I got up and checked once again all the widows and openings of the apartment to ensure that it's all closed airtight with masking tape. Geetha and children were sleeping. I spent some time looking at the main highway from the window. Everything was still. No movement on the road at all.But the street lights are on. Tension was there in me a bit. Did I take a wrong decision staying back?  Action of Saddam Hussein was unpredictable. Or at least it was projected so by the media. The worse scenario expected was firing salvo of his missiles on the first day with chemical war heads to all neighboring countries who have joined allied forces to show his strength! For the first time after coming to Doha, one torch was kept handy within hand's reach by the bed side!!
 Yes, we were ready for the war ....

Desert Storm commences...and ends
On Jan 17 1991 around 3.00 AM local time ,much anticipated operation desert storm is commenced . Ariel bombardment started  on Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. For the first time in the world people watched in astonishment on TV a live war transmitted through satellite. I took the liberty to stay back with family for one hour more in the morning than the usual time,children's school was closed but seeing everything is normal set out for the work. By that time Mr.Sherida,our Chairman had called me "Jaison,Where are you?".
I was expecting a black out in the night at least at the peak hours but did not happen. As usual the roads in the city were flood lit. Not only that day but for the whole period!

On Jan 23,Iraq forces dumped millions of gallons of crude to Arabian Gulf causing largest spill in history to that date, could be to ward off attacks from sea.

Attacks and counter attacks followed . Iraq's trump was expected to be attack on Israel by SCUDs which they did as predicted. The flow of the war events would have changed had Israel retaliated, everyone knew. But Israel did not retaliate although it seems they were on the verge of it. I still vividly remember those tensed moments!Iraq fired a lot of missiles at Saudi Arabia as well .All these events and aftermaths were shown live in the TV for the first time! Another countries Saddam fired the missile was Bahrain and Qatar. One missile landed in Qatar but without any loss of life or damages!! Surprisingly I came to know of this incident only later since there was no mobile telephones those days and it was a day for major concreting in a project for Al Balagh where I was!

Firing of SCUD s-total of 88- by Saddam,commencement of ground assaults by Allied forces on 24 Feb and later pulling down of the statue of Saddam in the central yard in Baghdad are the scenes still live in my mind like anyone else who was in the Middle East then. Torching of hundreds of oil wells in Kuwait,700 of them I was informed later, by the retreating Iraqi forces which produced  vast amounts of smoke and pollution in the region was really concern by all.

On 27 February, Saddam ordered a retreat from Kuwait and Allied forces declared Kuwait liberated.

'Sortie'which means dispatch of aircraft became a new common term used in those days in our life .Each evening Allied forces spokesman used to brief in TV how many sorties they conducted each day . We used to joke among very close friends enquiring about how many 'sorties' he had that evening  meaning 'pegs of liquor' !Another term which hit my mind those days is 'friendly fire'.

On 28 Feb 1991 Kuwait is liberated and cease fire is declared. Having said about the whole 'tensed' days in general Qatar was cool and safe for the whole period.When I look back , the incidents during these 7 months , gave all the expatriates shots in arms for more confidence in the ability of this country to handle unprecedented situations like this.

Commencement of News channel war !

                                          

Gulf war triggered another 'war' in the world  which is still on.News channel wars.US network CNN was the first news channel in English which telecasted live for 24 hrs.in Qatar.People around the world saw the live war scenes from even their bedrooms for the first time in the world. I remember well the live broadcasts from time to time  ... "This is Peter Arnett from Al Rashid hotel, Bagdad". Each word he spoke was important for us those days.

All TV stations and networks  had to exclusively depend on CNN which was watched by over a billion viewers around the world.CNN International followed by a host other international news channels came to existence soon after the war which is known to all. Subsequently various national TV news channels also increased considerably. In my home state Kerala in India where we speak Malayalam , which is limited just to that state and those Malayalees who are settled in other places ,there are almost a dozen news channels live in the air 24 hrs., 365 days ! The competition among them plus political consciousness of the people has made the 'war among the channels'  so stiff that they 'break' news of even minor political importance or gossip news claiming to be investigative journalism !!! 

images:courtesy CNN/GOOGLE/Time