The day Kuwait would rather forget

As regional turmoil surrounds them, Kuwaitis are quietly marking the 25th anniversary of Iraq’s invasion.

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Exhibits at the Kuwait House for National Works tell the story of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing Gulf War [Megan O'Toole/Al Jazeera]

Kuwait City – Nasser al-Duwailah is still haunted by a mistake he made 25 years ago. The former Kuwaiti member of parliament, who served as an army captain during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, sent his soldiers home for a break on August 1, 1990, after negotiators for the two countries (Iraq and Kuwait) indicated they were making progress towards a deal over an oil revenue dispute.

Earlier, Duwailah had issued orders to put his men on alert amid suspicious Iraqi troop movements near the Kuwaiti border.

But political officials played down the threat, calling it “a political crisis, not a military one”, he recalled.

“Everything on the ground said the war would start soon,” Duwailah told Al Jazeera, noting Iraq duped Kuwait into believing a negotiated solution was on the horizon in order to secure the element of surprise. “[Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] wanted it done quickly. If Kuwaitis were on alert and ready to fight, it would create obstacles; they would lay down a minefield, the air force would be ready. It would drag out the conflict.”

But on that day in early August, Duwailah also let his guard down, taking his soldiers off alert. “That’s the first time I was tricked,” he said. “This was my one mistake.”

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Twenty-five years ago today, on August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded its southern neighbour, prompting uneven skirmishes that ended swiftly with an Iraqi victory.

The dispute was rooted in Iraq’s fiscal troubles: It was carrying billions of dollars in debt from the Iran-Iraq war, but Kuwait was fuelling a drop in oil prices through overproduction. Iraq also accused Kuwait of drilling diagonally from its side of the border to steal Iraqi oil.

Politician Nasser al-Duwailah said there are many lessons to be learned from the Gulf War [Megan O'Toole/Al Jazeera] 
Politician Nasser al-Duwailah said there are many lessons to be learned from the Gulf War [Megan O’Toole/Al Jazeera] 

Iraq’s rapid takeover of Kuwait in early August was followed by a months-long occupation, which prompted an international military build-up and the commencement of Operation Desert Storm in early 1991.

Hundreds of Kuwaitis died or went missing during the conflict, while hundreds of thousands more were forced to flee the country.

After more than a month of war, coalition forces successfully liberated Kuwait by the end of February – an event that is marked annually by massive street celebrations along the capital’s coastline.

No such events, however, mark the annual passing of August 2.

The anniversary of the invasion typically proceeds quietly, residents say, without a national commemoration – even on the milestone 25th anniversary this year.

It is not a day most Kuwaitis want to remember.

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“Kuwait is not interested in the invasion. We celebrate only the day of liberation,” Tawfiq al-Amir, a 71-year-old retired local cameraman and producer, told Al Jazeera. “It is too hard to mark the invasion date.”

During the Iraqi occupation, as Iraq took control of Kuwait’s media, Amir leveraged his contacts in the industry to launch an underground radio station to deliver news and updates to Kuwaitis.

They initially ran the station from Amir’s home in the Sabah al-Salem area, broadcasting on a local frequency in the invasion’s brutal aftermath.

“[We played] national songs. Presenters talked to people and told them to be brave and strong, and that the liberation is coming,” Amir recalled. “The radio station made people stronger. It gave us unity, the strength not to surrender to the Iraqis.”

Unity has continued to define Kuwait as the surrounding region has descended into chaos, resident Tawfiq al-Amir said [Megan O'Toole/Al Jazeera]
Unity has continued to define Kuwait as the surrounding region has descended into chaos, resident Tawfiq al-Amir said [Megan O’Toole/Al Jazeera]

This unity has continued to define Kuwait, Amir said, as the region around it has descended into chaos, with ongoing wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and a devastating rampage by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group that has further destabilised large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

“[Kuwaiti] society is still united … against any threat,” Amir said, pointing to the recent ISIL-linked bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait City, which brought the country together in grief.

“The invasion showed us the value of being united, despite differences between individuals,” he added.

Mohammed al-Rumaihi, a former magazine editor who went to London during the Iraqi occupation to launch the Sawt al-Kuwait (“Voice of Kuwait”) newspaper for Kuwaitis abroad, said the current regional turmoil is part of the reason why many people are paying scarce attention to the invasion’s 25th anniversary.

“People want to ignore this,” Rumaihi told Al Jazeera. “I think the government does not want to relive these sad events, and the people are not insisting on it. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the region, so it’s better to keep quiet. No good will come of [reliving this].”

'People want to ignore this,' former magazine editor Mohammed al-Rumaihi said of the invasion's 25th anniversary [Megan O'Toole/Al Jazeera]
‘People want to ignore this,’ former magazine editor Mohammed al-Rumaihi said of the invasion’s 25th anniversary [Megan O’Toole/Al Jazeera]

One of the few commemorations that will take place on Sunday is at a privately funded, labyrinthine Kuwaiti museum dedicated to documenting the Gulf War.

The Kuwait House for National Works will open its doors from morning to night to showcase a variety of theatre, poetry and art.

About 100 people are expected to turn out, museum president Yousef al-Amiri told Al Jazeera. He believes it is crucial for people to remember what happened in 1990-91, and says the government has failed to give the August 2 anniversary the prominence it deserves.

Gesturing to a wall of life-size dioramas showing Iraqi soldiers raiding homes, torturing prisoners and shooting Kuwaitis at point-blank range, Amiri asked: “How do you forget?”

Duwailah acknowledged that there are many lessons to be learned from the Gulf War – and many that have yet to be put into practise.

In particular, he said, the Kuwaiti army must be better equipped to face the challenges that lie ahead.

The exhibits tell the story of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait [Megan O'Toole/Al Jazeera]
The exhibits tell the story of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait [Megan O’Toole/Al Jazeera]

Kuwait is surrounded by potential threats, Duwailah noted, and reliance on US assistance cannot be the way forward when the two parties’ interests are increasingly divergent.

“We have to remember the soldiers who died and the people who died … not so we foster hatred towards Iraqis – we are finished with that – but we need to remember the mistakes we made, the lessons we learned, and let young people know their history,” he said.

“We made very big mistakes, [but at the same time] some people did very good work for their country. We must remember the people and the evidence.”

Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole

Source: Al Jazeera