Memories from the First Gulf War | Yaser Birjas

f14_kuwaitoilAugust 2nd, 1990 – It was a beautiful summer morning I wouldn’t soon forget, nor would the rest of the world.  After performing Fajr salaah at our local masjid, Masjid al-Zaahim, myself and a mix of children and teenagers  headed out for an hour-long walk to the beach.

The spot we chose to swim was right in front of the late crown prince Shaykh Sa’ad al-Abdullah al-Subah’s palace, which made for an amazing view since it was adjacent to the famous Kuwait beach towers.  Along with the pleasant weather, it was an amazing day for swimming, and I remember being neck deep in water so crystal clear I could see my feet at the bottom easily.

We didn’t expect the air to be ripped and the ground to be shaken by the deafening scream of military fighter jets flying directly overhead.  We were completely caught by surprise, thinking that some sort of military training exercise was taking place, albeit strangely close to the civilian population.  We quickly realized how wrong we were when we looked at the Kuwait Towers and saw that a missile had been launched at one of them.  Military trucks quickly surrounded the towers and police sirens were blaring all around.  We didn’t yet know it, but the attack was the beginning of the first gulf war.  This is my brief eyewitness account of what happened between August 2nd, 1990 and February 26th, 1991.

Day 1: Chaos and Confusion

Not knowing yet what was happening, we decided to return home immediately. I was in charge of the group and decided it would be best to take a bus home rather than walk as we had earlier. Unfortunately, no bus or taxi would stop for us and after much waiting, we had no choice but to return home walking.

We crossed a street in front of the royal palace and a group of Kuwaiti soldiers came out, pointing their rifles at us and yelling at us to stay away. It was the first time any of us had been threatened in this manner, and the children began panicking, so I had them all hold hands and keep close together.

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We followed the main highway leading to the capital and found that the traffic traveling towards the capital was jam-packed despite the great number of lanes. There was almost no traffic moving in the opposite direction. We saw that the police, a man and a woman, had blocked traffic and were re-directing it away from the capital, telling people to stay away.

I called out to the female police officer, asking what was going on. The policewoman turned around and, seeing all the kids with me, burst into tears exclaiming, “What are you kids doing here? Go home now, Iraq has already taken the capital!”

I decided it would be safer to cut through the Kuwaiti neighborhoods rather than take the main roads to return home. The children were scared and crying, and I had to again hold them close to make sure they were alright.

When we finally arrived in our neighborhood Hawalli, we were surrounded by chaos – people were storming grocery stores, stocking up on anything and everything they could carry. I walked each of the children to their homes, mothers upset and crying at the door, happy that their children were safe. They offered to let us stay in their homes until the things cleared up a bit, but after dropping all the children home, I returned home as well.

I was staying with my grandmother, and my older sister and her husband were visiting us, while my parents were in the US. Our biggest concern was my younger brother (17 at the time), who had traveled to Iraq for some shopping and sightseeing. After two weeks, we lost hope in his returning back to us, and we hoped he would be able to cross the Iraqi border into Jordan, but alhamdulillaah, he did return very soon after the conflict began.

The first day was truly nerve-wracking. We could not understand why Iraq, a neighboring and fellow Arab country, would attack Kuwait over something like oil. Apparently there was a dispute over oil production, prices, and oil fields Iraq had against Kuwait, and the dispute had escalated such that Iraq felt compelled to take punitive action. All we could really do now was wait and watch what happened.

Around mid-day, we caught our first sight of the Iraqi army, accompanied by a helicopter prominently displaying the Iraqi flag. It was painfully obvious that the Iraqi army was in control of most, if not all of Kuwait. The Kuwaiti government escaped into Saudia, and by the end of the day the Kuwaiti military was running away in defeat. I saw some of them breaking into a laundromat and changing into civilian clothes in order to escape harm. Using binoculars, I was able to see the palace we were swimming next to earlier that day burning down and I wondered about the soldiers guarding it that had chased us away. None of us could believe what we were seeing, bringing tears to our eyes.

Resistance continued for a few more nights until it was completely suppressed.

Life Under Occupation

Kuwait was a land of religious freedom, and the idea of living under the banner of Iraq’s extreme socialist Baathist ideology was terrifying for many. As a result, many imams left the country as soon as the Jordanian border opened up. By necessity, I became a volunteer imam for the first time in my life.

Sharing the duty with a friend, we maintained the adhaan and salaah in our masjid, even though we were younger than many attending. We also took care of the khutbahs and the general talks, and even led the Taraweeh salaah. Several months into the war, we were able to continue functioning despite the lack of government support for the community.

Using my position as Imam, we were able to coordinate and establish a self-sufficient system based on volunteer effort. We were able to maintain certain necessary community functions such as trash removal (until the Iraqis confiscated our trucks) as well as feeding the needy.

January 16th, 1991: Airstrikes

Life continued as mentioned earlier until mid-January of the next year when the airstrikes began. The first night was the most terrifying – we could hear the bombing from far away, our homes would shake from the blasts, and we could see the glow from the blasts in the darkness of night. I stayed up the entire night, unable to sleep from the non-stop shelling. When Fajr rolled around, my mother (who had since returned from the US) initially tried to prevent me from attending the salaah at the masjid, but eventually she capitulated when she saw our neighbor going to the masjid.

I had expected the masjid to be empty, but it was just the opposite – the masjid was packed as though it was Friday jumu’ah and the people were busying themselves with worship and reading the Qur’aan as though the end was imminent. Unfortunately, everything went back to “normal” after a few days, as everyone became accustomed to the airstrikes.

The End of Iraqi Occupation

In the last few weeks of the war, we lived in total darkness due to the destruction of the power grid. We ran out of gas, fuel, and candles, so we used recycled wax from the candles and used olive oil for light. People had to build kilns behind their homes for cooking, using construction wood for fuel. The humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate as the air strikes on the supply lines prevented provisions from coming in.

It wasn’t until February 26th, 1991 that the situation changed. I went out for Fajr and immediately realized something was very different – the air was pitch black with the smell of diesel wafting in the air. I couldn’t see the way in front of me and I had to stumble around in the dark until I found my way to the masjid. After I led the Fajr salaah, someone behind me stated, “Saddam withdrew last night.” A debate broke out between those who were pro-Saddam (actually, it was only one man) and those against him. We decided to investigate the situation firsthand.

We waited until sunrise which took longer than usual due to the excessive darkness caused by the burning oil fields, which puffed out immense clouds of smoke and then caused crude oil to rain everywhere. When we finally left, we discovered that the withdrawal was indeed real, albeit chaotic, and the army could be found on the highways wandering, looking to find their way back to Iraq. Many of them were killed or taken prisoners during this time.

It was not until the end of the day when we saw the first military vehicles from the international alliance enter the area, carrying with them the national flag of Kuwait.

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24 responses to “Memories from the First Gulf War | Yaser Birjas”

  1. Abu Sauleh says:

    Jazaak Allaah khayr Sh. Yaser

  2. Abu Sauleh says:

    Jazaak Allaah khayr Sh. Yaser for this post and the earlier one about Bosnia,

    Your first hand accounts give a very different perspective from what we get from mainstream media sources.

    SubhannAllaah, its amazing how much has happened since then, in what is not a very long time.
    Alhamdulillaah, you carried yourself with dignity and valor and alhamdulillah that Allaah protected you and your family in this trial.

    I’m sure the lessons that such events teach cannot be learned anywhere else.

    May Allaah heal our hearts and restore the brotherhood of this ummah.

  3. Hassan says:

    You meant “First” gulf war in title?

  4. Hassan says:

    Or you are counting Iraq-Iran war as first? Usually westerners dont say it first..

  5. Pashtana says:

    Mashallah shaikh you are from Shabab masjid az-Zahim =)

    I remember that day too! subhanAllah , although I was younger waiitng for 9 am cartoon from KTV!( remember we had no cartoon network or 24 r cartoon channels so !) somehow the cartoon dint show up and the noise of jets over our building was so noisy wen we went to te balcony we could see the Iraqi flags! and I remember my mom being worried coz we were all alone three children with our mom!

    The Iraqi neighbour was so happy ! and we wuld just switch the lights off early at night to avoid catching attention of the neighbours who would greet the Iraqi soldiers! it was so sad to see those who Kuwait were hostile towards were happy for it being invaded! my mother would all night read Quran and do doaa and ask us to do the same!

    Some of our Kuwaiti and non Kuwaiti friends called us and braught basic food supplement and asked us to move to their place! and finally my dads students who were planning to leave to saudi took us with them on day 10 to Saudi Arabic by car!
    the happiest day was coming back home! after one year and finding our Iraqi neighbour ran away ! subhanAllah..
    Alhamdolillah for his bounties..hamdan katheeran taiban mubarakan feh!

    • Yaser Birjas says:

      I actually lived in most of the Masaajid of that area in Kuwait, starting with masjid az-Zeer, then al-Nasrallah, al-Frayh, al-Tawaari, al-Shaa’yiji, al-Yousifain, ….. but al-Zaahim was the closest to where we lived.

  6. Curious says:

    Question for the author:
    Based upon your statement: “A debate broke out between those who were pro-Saddam (actually, it was only one man) and those against him.” I feel curious as to what would compel a Kuwati whose country was just invaded by Saddam to be pro-Saddam. Was this at all a common sentiment in Kuwait at that time – I know Palestinians were ejected from the country due to their pro-Saddam lean?

    • Yaser Birjas says:

      Actually he was one of those hardcore Palestinian uncles who claimed that if the shaytan ‘devil’ was going to bring Palestine back, he would be willing to side with him. The concept of allegiance was very confusing during that time of the war. It was a trial that caused many good people to fall into its Shadow. In Amman, Jordan for example, many Muslim activists and speakers lost their principles to the frenzy and zeal of the event and took the path of supporting Saddam blindly misleading the crowd who put so much trust in them. That position caused so much damage to the Islamic movement, and broke the trust between the crowd and their religious leaders.

      • Habeeb says:

        That position caused so much damage to the Islamic movement, and broke the trust between the crowd their religious leaders.

        Subhanallah, that reminds me so much of the situation in Bangladesh. Basically there was a major fallout between the nationalistic secular population who wanted independence from Pakistan in 1971, and the religious minded population, who wanted to stay with Pakistan in the name of Islamic brotherhood. What followed was really bloody, and as a result, (in my opinion and experience), there is a huge difference between secular and religious minded people in Bangladesh.

        I’m not from Bangladesh, but I have met many brothers from there, and I have seen a lot. Please forgive me and correct me if I am over generalizing.

  7. Talha says:

    I was only a kid back then, and lived in Riyadh instead of Kuwait.

    The first day of the Gulf war, we were actually flying back to Riyadh from Karachi after the summer holidays, and our flight was delayed because of that (at the time we didn’t know why it was delayed). It was when we were waiting at the airport that day that I learned how to tie shoelaces :)

    But I do remember all the gas masks we’d purchased, the doors we’d taped (so no poison gas would come in to our house), and the windows we crisscrossed with tape (so nearby airstrikes wouldn’t shatter our windows). The sirens in the air, the TV warnings (‘Stay Calm, Don’t Panic’), the ground shaking from the SCUDs dropped even many kilometers away.

    A lot of people went back to their countries, but our family decided to stay (not so much out of bravery, but we figured that there was only a minute chance of anything actually happening to us).

    I was a kid back then, so I definitely remember school being off the whole time, and being just a little bit concerned that when the war was over, we’d have to go back to school again!

    • Hassan says:

      I was there too, no school, got promoted without exams, learned to play “carem board” during that time.

      Although we did not take much precautions. My parents have witnessed Pak-India wars of 1965, and 1971, so this was pretty lame.

    • Ameera says:

      I was a young girl of five then I don’t remember much either excpet for the fact that my mother and I moved to Pakistan for a couple of months. When we came back, there were marks on the windows where my father had taped them shut. Very faintly, I remember my father telling me why he had done that and I used to fear, as a child, that a soldier would peek in through the window some time. Your mentioning those taped windows brought these old memories back to me.

      We were in Tabuk, a city to the north-west of Saudi Arabia, which was to become and still is to this day, a major base for the Americans.

    • BintKhalil says:

      Assalamu alaikum

      As a kid growing up in Riyadh, I had an experience similar to the above. My family wasn’t particularly worried either even though the neighborhood we lived in had a bunch of military (Saudi, not American) buildings which were considered primary targets. All we did was free up space under a sturdy metal bed frame to take shelter under and get 2 gas masks (for a 4-member family!) and tape up the windows. It was pretty token stuff, most families went back to the subcontinent, with or without their fathers. I suppose I was just too young to understand the gravity of the situation but the sirens and the tremors under our feet when the Scuds fell was sorta exciting. Also, although we did see a bunch of buildings with entire sections demolished and the huge craters left behind, I didn’t know of anyone who died (honestly how many deaths were there amongst the civilian population in Saudia?). I guess the Iraqis thought they could take on the Saudis like they did the Kuwaitis, but when big sister America came along they realised they had bitten off far more than they could chew.

      Did people in other parts of the Gulf have similar experiences of the war? I suppose not, since it was pretty much just Saudia that was targeted by Iraq when she rushed to the defense of little sister Kuwait. My mum told me that King Hussein of Jordan was best buds with Saudia’s King Fahad, repeatedly visiting Riyadh, but when Hussein didn’t support Fahad against Saddam, it caused a rift between them and relations weren’t the same since. Sure enough, when I googled it, I found some interesting results. Hussein’s stance pretty much isolated him from most of the Arab world and the West.

      Our neighborhood Imam was famous in the community for his extremely long du’as with much weeping during Ramadan, so much so, that the uncles would joke that no matter which part of Riyadh was bombed, our neighborhood wouldn’t be one of those. Sure enough, we never were bombed Alhamdulillah. I remember my brother, who was a teenager at the time, praying at the Masjid all through Taraweeh and running home just before Witr because he said his legs couldn’t take the lengthy du’a!

      I had a friend who lived in Kuwait at the time and she said that invading Iraqis were pretty good to Indian professionals working there (she was Indian) and they were allowed to pack a suitcase per family and evacuate their homes. So her parents filled a shoebox with documents which they were unable to carry with them and put it inside the air conditioner casing. When they returned, after Iraq retreated, the apartment was stripped bare but the documents were still intact.

      Also, why is this being referred to as the Second Gulf War? The Iraq-Iran war isn’t considered a “Gulf War” because neither country is part of the Persian Gulf.

      • Hassan says:

        I think no body died in Riyadh, there was just empty building that got damaged with scud (on Shara’i Washam Bridge/University Road). I think there were few causalities in Al Khobar.

        We never left Saudia, nor we had gas masks, sometimes we even slept through whole sirens going off.

  8. Ameera says:

    In a time where the threat of war always looms over many countries, particularly in Muslim lands, your piece is very significant. Jazakillah khayr for sharing this with all of us, we need to understand how to prepare ourselves mentally for such a calamity if it ever strikes, may Allah protect us!

    I was too young to know all of this but I remember the fear and uncertainity and how upset I was on being i Pakistan, away from my home in Saudi Arabia for the duration of the war, for the sake of safety.

    May Allah(swt) accept your efforts and reward your deeds and may He make your experience a model for us InshAllah! Ameen.

  9. Tauqeer says:

    OMG i can so relate to this…i was there!

  10. Abu Aisha says:

    Subhanallah.. I was waiting for Shaykh Yasir to share some of his Kuwait experiences. Like some other brothers/sisters here I have my own memories which I think will never forget. I was maybe 11 years old and my dad worked in one of the refineries (still does) and on the night of Aug 2nd called home saying he just saw scud missiles land in the refinery. That was the start, soon all schools and pretty much the whole country shut down.

    Other things I cant forget..

    – playing soccer with some iraqi soldiers.. yeah. They were teenagers, some of them in sandals ! They put their guns down and asked us kids to play with them. So we complied and then got grounded by our parents hence after.
    – free KDD ice creams from the local baqalah (mini grocery store) since they had an overstock for some reason in war
    – lining up at the khubs factory for some kuwaiti pita bread.. I’m sure everyone who’s lived in kuwait remembers those.
    – people in pickup trucks all the way from Iraq and Jordan who came shopping to kuwait since people were fleeing and leaving stuff behind
    – seeing safeway (american grocery store in fahaheel) being blown up.. because I guess it was american
    – having to run out into the open at night when the sirens went off
    – going by bus from Kuwait city to a port in Basra where a ship sent by the Indian gov. was waiting to carry refugees to Dubai. Some sort of deal between the Indians and the Iraqis. Spent 4 days on the ship to get to Dubai, and I remember seeing dolphins and also a US aircraft carrier once we left Iraqi waters.
    – people actually buying VCRs at TVs at the Dubai duty free even though they were refugees in transit to India….Allahu mas ta aan
    – the honest man. When we left kuwait we pretty much left everything we owned as is. Except for the car which my dad gave to a kuwaiti friend since it would be stolen or lost anyway. We really didn’t expect to come back to Kuwait. After around 2 years when we eventually returned, the man found out and handed over the car in the same condition without ever using it. He treated it as an amanah and took care of it for us without falling into the greed of selling it . Subhanallah. We drove the car for another 10 years.

    So Shaykh Yasir , Jazakallahukhairan, you brought back a lot of memories.

    • BintKhalil says:

      people actually buying VCRs at TVs at the Dubai duty free even though they were refugees in transit to India….Allahu mas ta aan

      Subhanallah! Honestly, the place that Dubai has in Indians’ hearts – nothing can compare…

  11. BrownS says:

    It looks like a lot of MM readers were in the area at the time! I was in 1st grade in Jeddah and all I remember are loud sirens in the mornings while travelling on the school bus and some welcome holidays.

    Even though I’ve read about this war, I never thought about one of the things you brought up in your article: the army casualties. You mentioned Kuwaiti armymen who were killed by the invading army and Iraqis killed while retreating. And I can’t help but feel sad wondering: What cause did these Muslims die for? What did they give their life for? Did it do anybody any good?
    And well, these questions lead to more disappointment at how completely we’ve adopted the nation-state concept and how far it is from worthwhile causes …

  12. Habeeb says:

    I was about 4-5 years old at the time, living in Jeddah. Don’t remember anything, except the emergency drills example shown on Saudi TV, showing what to do when the air raid siren sounds off. That siren in of it itself was absolutely scary, subhanallah. My mother calmed me down, saying ‘Don’t worry, thats all in Riyadh, we’re safe in Jeddah.’ That pretty much summed it up for us living on the Saudi west coast. My dad wasn’t too concerned since he said there is no way that Iraq’s Scud missiles could reach Jeddah since they didn’t have enough range. I guess many Kuwaitis and the Kuwaiti government-in-exile agreed with him. The Kuwaiti royal family stayed in one of the huge Saudi royal family guest houses. While a lot of the Kuwaiti refugees stayed at the Eskan Complex, at the intersection (or now its a roundabout) of Waly al Ahd street and Siteen (or King Fahd) street. If you are a current or former Jeddawi, you’ll know where that is. Anyway the Eskan complex was about 30 towers worth of apartments that was built in the early 80s, and I guess they were still empty by 90-91, so they served their purpose of hosting Kuwaiti families.

    Years later though, I talked to some of friends about it, and they told me that there were air raid sirens and the whole lot, even in Jeddah. Don’t remember that, but apparently since Sudan, just over the Red Sea, had buddied up with Saddam Hussein over the Kuwaiti invasion, there was a missile threat from them on the west coast. We have all these weapons, and we just use it against each other, subhanallah.

    But alhumdulilah, nothing major happened over here.

  13. Omar says:

    My mom, my little brother and myself were on vacation visiting relatives in Egypt at the time. Only my father was in Kuwait. He tells us he went to the roof of his building to figure out what happened, only to find a rifle in his face and a frightened Kuwaiti soldier yelling at him to go away. Eventually my father escaped with a few friends who alternated driving alhamdolela.

    Being a four-year old, I was naturally concerned about my toys, my parents said “Saddam took them”, and so every time I saw his picture I remembered my toys.

    Subhanallah, the fitna caused by division… It isn’t a modern nation-state phenomenon, it occurred throughout Islamic (and human) history. I always wondered about the soldiers who fought killing fellow Muslims for money or because the leader commanded it. But then again, who knows what we would do in their shoes.

    May Allah unite the Ummah.

  14. Ron Ibn Abi Paul Al-AntiIlluminati says:

    Assalamu alaikum wa rahmat Allah wa barakatuh,

    Your post brings back memories, Sheikh Yaser. I’m a Kuwaiti citizen, and although I was only around 5 years old at the time, I still have some memories of the war. Here are some of the things that stuck with me to this day:

    -I don’t remember being afraid most of the war. School was out, and as far as I was concerned, it was all good in the hood.

    -At some point during the war, most of my extended family moved back to my grandfather’s house. My family had decided to leave Kuwait, fearing for their kids’ lives. My grandfather was part of an earlier generation; having lived in Kuwait during the times of hardship before oil was discovered, he had a special bond with the land. He refused to leave, announcing to the rest of the family that this is where he was born and this is where he wishes to die. So we all stayed for duration of the war.

    -Some of the Iraqis who had moved in after the Iraqi Army secured the country were actually decent people. While others were too busy looting and vandalizing, some of them sympathized with Kuwaitis and actually formed friendships with them. My father was friends with one such Iraqi man (although he may have known him before the war started, I don’t quite remember). One day, my father entrusted this man with me and asked him to take me to a clinic because I was sick. The man agreed. On the way, we passed through an Iraqi checkpoint at a traffic light. An Iraqi soldier motioned for the driver to stop. He then approached, spoke briefly with the driver (I’d imagine the driver was trying to explain his purpose to the soldier), then directed his attention to the backseat of the car, where I was sitting. He wanted to speak to me, so I rolled down the window. I didn’t say a word, but all the while I was staring at his AK-47. “What are you looking at?” he asked. I said “LOL MY DAD HAS AN ASSAULT RIFLE JUST LIKE THAT ONE!”. Big mistake. The soldier said something to the effect of “now I kill you”, and this is probably the only moment of fear I remember from the entire war. Fortunately the cunning driver was able to explain it away somehow (probably as the delusions of an insane 5 year old). The soldier teased me a little, but he let us go eventually. By the Mercy of Allah, I had safely evaded some serious pwnage.

    -Speaking of that AK-47, I wasn’t quite sure why my father had one. We used to live in an area called “Kaifan” at the time, the center of the civilian resistance. Gunfights would break out in the public park right in front of our house ( which is why we eventually moved in with my grandfather). But I do recall that after the war, everyone and their grandmother had some sort of firearm.

    -Our neighbors had left the country early on. They owned a gigantic black Great Dane whose name was “Scooby”. Scooby was left behind, but he still hung around our neighbor’s house. My dad would feed him from time to time. He told me that he saw an Iraqi soldier’s reaction to the dog; upon seeing the dog by peeking from the other side of the fence, he exclaimed “Oh religion of Muhammad! (peace and blessings be upon him)” and then backed away. Scooby was a force to be reckoned with, although he could’ve easily been shot I suppose.

    -I distinctly remember the day of liberation. Everyone was so happy, especially my aunt. As is the custom of all Arabs, she was armed to the teeth and showed her joy by firing random shots from her revolver in different directions. Alhamdulillah, we can all get on with our lives now. Too bad that meant going back to school.

    -As Sheikh Yaser mentioned, I too remember the pitch black sky when the oil fields were burned. Couldn’t tell night from day.

    -In the aftermath of the war, we began to realize how it changed people. We all know that hardships often bring people closer to Allah, now imagine what war can do as it traumatizes an entire people. Religiosity surged after the war, beards and niqabs started popping up everywhere. Islamist political groups started forming, slowly gaining popularity until they reached the stage of parliamentary dominance (up until the most recent elections, which were hopefully just a fluke).

    -Here’s some cool wartime trivia. Sheikh Meshari Al-Afasy first started giving the Adhan and leading prayers at the mosque during the occupation.

    End of random memories from the war :D

  15. interesting says:

    most of the comments are from people who were 4 or 5 in 1990 and lived in the gulf. interesting demographics for MM