Kuwait: Class of 1990
Class of 1990

Sarah: ‘I felt like a refugee’

Sarah’s family fled to their native Bangladesh, but she says Kuwait felt like home.


On August 2, 1990, the Iraqi army invaded the small emirate of Kuwait, which Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s president, had declared his 19th province.

The Gulf war lasted a little over six months yet the memory of the conflict remains strong, not least in the minds of the children of that war.

At the end of the school year of 1990, students at an international school in Kuwait said their final farewells as they headed off for the summer holidays.

Twenty years on, Al Jazeera follows a group of classmates who were separated during the war as they organise a reunion and try to find out what happened to their classmates and their school during and after the war.

Al Jazeera’s Nashwa Nasreldin was one of those students. She spoke to former classmate Sarah, a Bangladeshi citizen, who moved to Kuwait in 1987.

Sarah’s family remained in Kuwait during the conflict as her father was the Bangladeshi ambassador to Kuwait. Although granted diplomatic immunity, he refused to leave until all the Bangladeshi citizens of Kuwait had been accounted for.

A month-and-a-half after the invasion, Sarah and her family eventually escaped, traveling over land to Iraq and then taking a flight from Jordan to Bangladesh.

Sarah is now in Bangladesh completing her research for her PhD in political science.

Al Jazeera: What were your earliest memories of living in Kuwait?

Sarah: My family came to Kuwait in 1987. I was really struck by the variety of products available in supermarkets. We moved into a beautiful house in Mishif, which had 19 rooms in it, and it had five storeys and it had beautiful gardens, swing sets and slides and see-saws. So for me, Kuwait was the lap of luxury at the time.

How did you become aware of the invasion?

The night before the invasion, we’d gone to a place for dinner. I remember the adults watching the footage of the crown prince returning from failed talks with the Iraqis. They said Iraqi troops were gathering on the border.

I remember at dawn my parents tried to wake me up, to find out what channel Iraqi TV was on – I was our family’s TV expert. So I told them it was on channel 4 and I went back to sleep. And then I woke up at around seven and I remember I went down to our family room that had really big ceiling-to-floor windows and I could hear helicopters and my dad was staring out at the helicopters and I asked him, you know what’s going on, what are all these helicopters doing here?

And he said Iraq has invaded Kuwait and the Kuwaiti Emir has been deposed. At that time I didn’t know what deposed meant so asked him and he explained that they didn’t know where the Kuwaiti Emir was or where his family was, and that Iraq had taken over and that Iraq was controlling the country now.

It took a bit of time to sink in. I asked him: ‘Does that mean we won’t be going to the beach tonight?’ I still thought that life would continuing as normal.

How did you feel when your dad said that you could not go to the beach?

I was disappointed and the gravity of the situation began to strike me. Nobody was using the word war at the time but it reminded me of what I had heard about wars, it restricts your freedom of movement. You have to be careful, things might get dangerous. So I was definitely a bit scared.

How concerned were you about safety?

I was concerned at that time. I didn’t think to myself I am a Bangladeshi, what is happening here isn’t really my problem. I really felt as if it affected me as a resident of Kuwait, someone who lived here.

To me it seemed unjust that another country had come and was trying to take over the country, so I did feel violated. I really did feel concerned about the invasion and scared.

Pretty soon afterwards we had started hearing stories about things like bullying on the streets by Iraqi soldiers to rapes, to houses being burnt and looted so there were these rumours and stories we were hearing that made me feel as if we weren’t safe.

How did your family survive?

We were there in Kuwait for a month-and-a-half after the invasion. At first my mum and I used to go and get supplies from the supermarket. And then sometimes, there were people, I think they were the Kuwaiti resistance, who’d come out and throw fish wrapped in paper and other supplies over the gate. So it seemed like there was an effort going on to help people, keep their access to food.

When did you come to the realisation that you were going to have to leave and might not be able to back to school?

I think there was a summit either in mid or late August where there was a possibility that Kuwait might reach a deal with the Iraqi authorities. So the night before that summit, I wrote in my diary that tomorrow there is going to be this summit and insh’allah a solution will be reached so I can go back to school and everything will be like before. Then the next day I wrote that the summit had been a failure so it looks like we will have to leave Kuwait.

And at the same time I think Saddam Hussein was reported as saying he would turn Kuwait into a graveyard, so that further strengthened the fear around the situation.

After the summit, that’s when I realised that this would be a much longer problem. When I had heard that the summit had failed I was really disappointed and saddened.

I kept thinking about how wonderful life had been before the invasion and how everything was going to change now. Not being able to go back to school, being completely out of touch with my friends, many of whom weren’t in Kuwait. I had trouble sleeping at night. I was constantly worried about the safety of my family and my own safety as well.

Did you have to secure your house in any way?

When the bombing started we were worried that all the glass would shatter and we wouldn’t have adequate shelter. So we prepared a room in the basement with towels there and other things that we needed.

But the problem was that there was still a small window, in that room and at that time there was a lot of concern that the Iraqis would use chemical or biological weapons. So I mean I thought that even if we went in to the room we’d still have a pretty high chance of dying because the gases could seep in through that window.

But we did our best to try and secure the room with tape. We put water in there with towels that are supposed to help absorb any poisonous gases. But in terms of securing the entire house, that wasn’t feasible because of all the windows.

So when you were in this sort of situation, was there ever a part of you, the child, that was enjoying the game, the drama, the anxiety of it all?

No I didn’t enjoy the experience at all! I was really scared. It was hard to distinguish between the rumours and the actual stories. None of it seemed like a game, none of it seemed to be exciting or thrilling. I was really, really scared.

Why did your family stay in Kuwait for so long?

My father didn’t want to leave Kuwait until all the Bangladeshis who wanted to leave Kuwait had been able to do so. The Iraqi government had said that the deadline for diplomats to leave Kuwait was August 24. But, by then not all the Bangladeshis had left so my dad tried to use his presence in the country as a bargaining chip.

How did you feel when you found out you were going to leave?

When my father finally said that we could leave, I was really happy. Because at that time the bombings were scaring me, and the whole house would shake when the bombings would happen and I would be absolutely terrified, crying, screaming.

I was worried because the Iraqi government was sending buses for us that they might do something to us on the way to Bagdad, that they might be really angry with my father for not having listened to the Iraqi government’s orders to leave sooner. I kept praying that God would help us get to Bangladesh safe and sound.

So I was still anxious about the trip. But fortunately you know we got on to the buses with a lot of close families and friends and made our way to Bagdad and the bus drivers were actually really nice and I kept giving them sweets and trying to get them to like us, so they wouldn’t kill us or do anything bad to us. But they were perfectly professional and very nice and we got to Baghdad safe and sound.

What was your feeling about going to a country that you had just been watching on the news and that were the aggressors?

I had mixed feelings about going to Iraq – on one hand we were escaping and then we were escaping into the arms of the enemy. I was worried about how people would react to us. If we were in danger if people found out we had come from Kuwait.

My dad told us never to mention that we had come from Kuwait when were outside on the streets of Baghdad. So there was definitely a lot of secrecy. We didn’t feel completely secure. I was definitely worried about our safety and how we’d be perceived among regular Iraqis.

What was it like in Iraq?

When we got to Baghdad I was struck by how the Iraqis we saw didn’t really seem to be affected, everyone was going on with life as usual. When we went around the city nobody asked us where we’d come from or paid much attention to us. So to me the contrast was really striking, that in Kuwait our lives had been turned upside-down by this country.

How did you finally get back to Bangladesh?

After about a week of being in Iraq, my mother, sister and I took a flight to Jordan, and from Jordan to Bangladesh.

For my father we weren’t sure what would happen to him. What the Iraqis were going to do to him, what they were going to ask of him.

Getting to Bangladesh was also really tough because people didn’t understand what we had been through. A lot of Bangladeshis didn’t realise that Iraqis had been committing war crimes or anything of that sort in Kuwait. They just felt ‘oh you know it’s an occupation, at least Saddam Hussein is standing up to the western powers’.

So there were a lot of people who supported Iraq and Saddam Hussein even though the Bangladeshi government supported Kuwait.

When you were back in Bangladesh did you still think about Kuwait and its people?

When I was back in Bangladesh I was still really concerned about the liberation of Kuwait. The invasion and occupation of Kuwait really affected my sense of justice and right and wrong.

And in Bangladesh at the time, there were a lot of demonstrations in favour of Saddam Hussein. I definitely never stopped caring about Kuwait – it was at the top of my mind.

I kept hoping that we’d be able to go back at some point and see Kuwait again.

Did you continue to follow what was happening in Kuwait or did you go back to a routine of cartoons?

No, in Bangladesh, I kept up with the news and you know kept hoping and praying there would be an intervention – an allied intervention and that Kuwait would be liberated.

I felt like a refugee in Bangladesh. And a lot of people called us refugees and didn’t think of us as Bangladeshis who had come to Bangladesh. For me, this was the first time I was spending any significant amount of time in Bangladesh.

So Kuwait definitely felt more like home, especially when I was in this environment, where I’d have all these arguments with my classmates. It felt even less like home.

It didn’t feel like a very comfortable secure place. And with the demonstrations in favour of Saddam Hussein and Iraq, that definitely intensified the feeling of being a refugee in Bangladesh.

Do you recall how you felt on the day of liberation?

I was really excited. But also I was really worried caused we had heard reports about oil fields being set on fire, and I was worried about Kuwait, what the Iraqi soldiers had done to Kuwait.

Was it the Kuwait that I had known or was it a completely different Kuwait? So I was still concerned at that point but obviously very, very happy and very thankful.

Do you still miss those days? 

I wish I could go back to that time. For a long time I felt I wasn’t myself anymore, it took me a long time to get back to feeling I was living in the moment and I was present at any given time.

But those years in Kuwait before the war were just amazing, carefree, and I definitely miss that time.