Twenty years after Iraq’s invasion, former classmates dispersed by the war reunite.
|The class of 1990 from the New English School in Kuwait lost touch when Iraq invaded in 1990|
If someone had told me earlier this year that I would not only meet some of my former classmates from the New English School in Kuwait, but that I would make a film about it, I probably would have laughed them out of the room.
I had lost touch with most of them, almost overnight, when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990.
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The event was a major turning point in the geopolitics of the region, with significant ramifications that still reverberate today, but for my classmates and I it will always be marked as the crossroads in our childhoods.
At the age of 10 we suddenly found ourselves caught up in events more serious than we could comprehend.
We were students at an international school and most of us were non-Kuwaitis. Although I am originally Egyptian, like many of my classmates, Kuwait was my country of birth and the only home I really knew.
Growing up in Kuwait in the 1980s was idyllic; the country was booming economically, and culturally, offering us a comfortable lifestyle and a protective environment. Our young lives revolved around visits to the beach, amusement parks, birthday parties and school.
From my first day at the New English School, I always had the same classmates. Every year we would say our farewells at the end of the summer term confident that we would see each other again at the start of the next academic year. In 1990 though, everything changed.
On the last day of school, amidst the games and celebrations, we did something unusual – swopping contact details before we headed off for the holidays. It was this small stroke of luck that helped some stay in touch after the invasion.
|The classmates reunited in their former school in Kuwait|
Many of us ended up scattered in different parts of the world and it was only with the growth in social networking some 20 years later that we were finally reunited.
A few years ago I posted some of the photos I had managed to save from our days in Kuwait on Facebook. The effect was quite dramatic. Within a few months the photographs had captured the attention of other former classmates as each was tagged by another friend.
The 1990 class photo, our last one together, drew the most comments as everyone attempted to remember the names of the other students. Before long there was talk of a reunion, although initially it was only a fleeting idea.
I decided to try to capture the momentum and started making my own plans to mark the occasion. I was driven by a 20-year-old hunger to discover what had happened to my classmates during the invasion and how it had impacted them.
I was all the more curious because I had narrowly escaped the events myself and could only rely on other people’s accounts.
In July 1990, my family and I travelled to Egypt for our annual summer holidays. On August 2, I was in the safety of my family home, coincidentally with another of my classmates, a Palestinian-Egyptian girl called Bouthaina.
My most vivid memory of that day was finding my parents huddled over the radio in the living room, faces taut with tension, and the aggressive shushing we received when we asked what was going on.
My father had been due to return to Kuwait the following day but after making some calls he was told that the airport in Kuwait had been shut down, and that the country was at war. My father responded with innocent disbelief: But I have work the next day, he said.
For us and hundreds of other families suddenly stranded abroad the following few months were filled with uncertainty, and rapidly depleting funds.
No one had been prepared for the invasion or for their holidays to be extended indefinitely. Yet for those who remained in Kuwait, the situation was far more serious.
We followed the news from abroad, diligently waiting for any sign of an outcome that would lead to our eventual return.
As we heard reports of dead bodies littering Kuwait City, I would picture my friends’ bodies strewn across the streets. I had nightmares of dark, deserted spaces in Kuwait – the country I had only ever associated with happy memories – now a ghostly scene of ugly battle.
I had no way of finding out whether my friends were safe.
We watched as international news channels broadcast images of coalition forces bombing Iraqi targets in Iraq and Kuwait.
Then in February 1991, we heard the news of Kuwait’s liberation.
Reminder of war
|More than 700 oil wells were damaged, causing a dark cloud to hang over Kuwait|
Many displaced Kuwaitis and expatriates began to return as the country slowly recovered from the impact of seven months of occupation and war.
Over the next few years I would discover that some of my former classmates did return to the New English School in September but by then they were in senior school and no longer shared a classroom.
From what I heard from them, that was not the only change.
More than 700 oil wells were damaged by the defeated Iraqi regime, 650 of these were set ablaze in the final few weeks of the war.
The result was a constant dark cloud over Kuwait that merged day into night and hung over the country’s residents as a solemn reminder.
One of my former classmates, a Kuwaiti national called Nouf, told me how they would buy new school uniforms every week because the air pollution turned their white shirts black.
In the aftermath of the invasion, my family and I had settled in the UK, deciding not to return to Kuwait.
Twenty years later I was still curious about the fate of the friends I had left behind.
When the decision to reunite was finalised, I began to search for the missing classmates. As I called each of them, my first questions were: Were you there? What happened to you? The answers shocked me as I discovered that many of our class had witnessed the invasion, and that the experience had more of an impact on them than I had ever realised.
Everyone remembered the events of 1990 vividly and each of their lives was directly affected. As they told me their stories, I tried to imagine what it would have been like had my family not left the country when we did.
I planned to meet those who were in Kuwait, as well as the ones who were flying in from abroad, in advance of the reunion and arranged my flight to Kuwait a week before the event.
From school to barracks
|The school had been used as an army barracks|
One of the first visits I made on my return was to the New English School. I was saddened to learn that it had been used as an army barracks by the occupying Iraqi soldiers who had destroyed a lot of the classroom furniture and equipment on their departure.
I met with the school’s director Ziad Rajab who is also the son of the school’s founder. He told me how his British mother and older brother had been alone in Kuwait during the occupation.
I also met his mother, Jehan Rajab whose book Invasion Kuwait: An English woman’s tale I had read prior to my visit. In it, she gives an intimate account of the invasion and occupation of Kuwait until the final day of the Gulf War.
Twenty years later, she could still recall her determination to clean up the school and prepare it for the new school year following the liberation, despite the suffocating heat of the Kuwaiti summer. French soldiers from the coalition army who were still stationed in Kuwait joined her and the remaining school staff in the clean up operation.
The school administration encouraged the idea of the reunion – it was to be the first of its kind for a pre-war class – and helped with all the arrangements.
I felt anxious that after months of planning, it was finally taking place.
After the initial meetings and reminiscing, we spent the day together at our old school, exploring the playgrounds, classrooms and corners of our memories.
After it was all over, I realised that I had not only been excited about meeting the friends I had thought were long lost, and hearing their experiences. I discovered that my wish had been much simpler – I had wanted to relive some of the moments of a stolen childhood.
For my former classmates, the reunion has been a chance to close a chapter of our past.
Much as we were shocked by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, scattering our lives and propelling us into unimagined directions, we never expected that we would be reunited again.
The experience of the past 20 years has taught us many things, but in the words of one of my former classmates Ali, the most resounding lesson of all is to make the most of what you have when you have it, because nothing lasts for long.