1990-when Iraq attcked kuwait


Tea official became 'ambassador' to evacuate 1 lakh Indians in '90


KOLKATA: He had his task cut out. Evacuating 100,000 countrymen, who were without passports, out of a seething war zone. He took about two months and a few days more, but evacuate he did, each one of them successfully and without any casualty. Meet Ashoke Kumar Sengupta, the then officer-in-charge of the Indian embassy in Kuwait from August 24 to November 7, 1990, the time when US invaded Iraq. Sengupta, today, is busy finalizing the constitution of an apex committee of a Golf Green township where he lives. But as he recounts his hair-raising days in Kuwait, one has a glimpse of the panic, devastation and destruction behind the spectacular images of Scud missiles crisscrossing the Baghdad sky that beamed directly into our living rooms.
"At the time, there were 1,70,000 Indians residing in Kuwait. Of them, around 50,000 were on vacation as schools were shut for summer. Of the remaining 120,000, a majority was clamoring to get out of the country and none had passport as the document was with their Kuwaiti employer as is the norm in the region," recounted Sengupta. Once Iraq invaded, Kuwaitis fled and Indians, like other foreign nationals, were stuck without passport. And then, Saddam Hussain ordered all embassies in Kuwait City be closed as the country was part of Iraq.
"I had reached Kuwait in 1988 to take charge of the Tea Board office in the country as director of tea promotion in West Asia & North Africa," Sengupta recounted. Tension between Iraq and Kuwait was mounting over the latter's refusal to overwrite a debt that it had extended during the war. Iraq also accused Kuwait of drilling oil from its reserve and producing more, thereby pulling down the price of crude oil. Iraqi troop buildup began along the Kuwaiti border and in the wee hours of August 2, the invasion happened.
"Dalbehua, an assistant manager of State Bank of India in Kuwait, called to say that the Emir's palace was being bombed. I ran to the roof and saw fighter jets flying low. Tanks rolled in later in the day. After stocking up my home from the supermarket, I went to the embassy in Safat as my office in central Kuwait city was inaccessible. From that day, I would go to the embassy from my home in Jabria everyday till as long as I was in Kuwait," he said.
" When the then Indian Prime Minister IK Gujral met Saddam to negotiate the safe evacuation of Indians, the latter insisted that all Indian diplomats would have to first leave Kuwait. Since I was the only senior-ranking Indian officer left in Kuwait after Air India and SBI officials left, I was asked to take charge of the embassy and all red or diplomat passport holders (ambassador, first secretary, second secretary, counselors and section officers) shifted to Basra on August 23," he recalled.
In a letter to the Tea Board chairman PK Bora on November 3, 1990, Budhiraja wrote: " On August 20, 1990, I was informed by the minister of external affairs of India to move all diplomatic officers from the Indian embassy in Kuwait to a camp office in Basrah, southern Iraq. It was obvious somebody had to made officer-in-charge of the Indian Mission in Kuwait. I requested AK Sengupta to take over this difficult responsibility and he performed extremely well."
Communicating over a HAM radio, Sengupta with a team of embassy staff began organizing the evacuation. His job was to inform the foreign office official in Delhi about the morale of the people, the electricity and water situation and finally the evacuation plan for next day before getting to do the groundwork.
" The first challenge was to prepare over 100,000 travel documents. Delhi had sent two planes 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. " These were 2,000 km trips. Though Iraqi soldiers did not target Indians as many Iraqi officers were trained in India, it was still a dangerous journey," Sengupta recounted.
Prioritizing the order of evacuation was a big challenge as everyone wanted to get out first. Finally, pregnant women, single women, nurses and dialysis patients were given first preference. Everyday, 80 buses would roll out, carrying Indians to Jordan via Iraq. " We would do the paperwork for undertaking the journey in the morning before getting the list of passengers ready for the next day. Since I was in charge, I received numerous requests, including some funny ones. Once, a Punjabi lady called demanding that I forge an agreement where she could keep the Rs 50,000 that she had collected in a kitty party before the Iraqi invasion, and she would refund the members once they reached India," Sengupta recalled.
Since pregnant women were repatriated on priority basis, nearly all women claimed they were pregnant. To weed out suspect cases, Sengupta made it mandatory for women to furnish a medical check-up report or prescription.
One morning, he found an Indian dancing in front of the Indian embassy. Apparently, he had been sentenced to death for murdering a Kuwaiti national but he had a narrow escape as Iraqi troops had stormed the Kuwaiti prison and set everyone free the day before he was to be executed. On another occasion, an Indian came to deposit 17 tonne of gold at the embassy, a stunned Sengupta had to refuse.
Even as evacuation was underway in full-swing, Sengupta received an urgent request from Delhi seeking the evacuation of one Shiv Shankar. After a lot of enquiries, he was finally located in an oil refinery but he refused to be evacuated before his colleagues. " He was the son-in-law of Janata Party chief SR Bommai, and hence, the instruction from Delhi," explained Sengupta.
It was by early November that the mammoth evacuation seemed to be finally drawing to a close. Around 20,000 Indians refused to leave Kuwait because they had nothing to look for at home. Around 70,000-80,000 had been transported by road and another 20,000-odd by air and sea. With the number trickling down to double digits, Sengupta received the go-ahead from the foreign ministry to leave Kuwait. On November 7, after more than two months of nerve-wracking tension, Sengupta relinquished charge of the embassy and left Kuwait.
As Indian embassy's then charge d' affaires RS Mukhija wrote in his letter of appreciation to Bora, "During August 24 to September 2, 1990, Sengupta was the lone officer holding forte. He faced the angry and frustrated crowd of Indian nationals thronging the chancery premises with tact, patience and courage. As officer in charge of the embassy, Sengupta was also responsible for the welfare of 30 staff members. He showed great qualities of leadership in keeping the morale high and flock together in very trying circumstances."