Escaping Occupied Kuwait: History's Largest Air Evacuation

Why you should care

America stunned the world with its military power in the Gulf War. But before that, another unmatched operation helped cement India’s legacy with Kuwait. 

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Eight-year-old Viju Cherian went to sleep in Kuwait City on Aug. 1, 1990, excited about a friend’s birthday party the next day. By the time he woke up the next morning, though, the party had been called off. Kuwait was under occupation, and the only people celebrating were Iraqi soldiers, young men in olive fatigues who were part of Saddam Hussein’s invading army. U.S.-led coalition forces would free Kuwait six months later in a show of America’s unmatched military might. Before that, however, Cherian would play a part in another unparalleled feat: the largest air evacuation in history.

Cherian and his family were among more than 176,000 Indian nationals trapped in Kuwait at the time of the invasion. The Kuwaiti royal family and government were in exile. The U.N., through Security Council resolutions, had barred all commercial trade and connectivity with Iraq and Kuwait, so escape appeared impossible. In parking lots throughout Kuwait City, Saddam’s soldiers were breaking into and stealing cars. “The Toyota Corolla was their favorite,” Cherian recalls.

With war clouds gathering, a wobbly Indian government cobbled together by multiple parties somehow managed to turn Kuwait into ground zero for what the Guinness World Records heralds as the biggest human airlift of all time. It was a diplomatic coup: pleading with Iraq while absorbing caustic reactions from Kuwait’s exiled government, not to mention the embarrassment of images showing India’s foreign minister in Baghdad embracing Saddam to persuade him to agree to the evacuation.

This gave us the confidence to do such evacuations again.

Kalarickal Pranchu Fabian, former Indian diplomat

In the end, though, India successfully transported its citizens from Kuwait to Amman, Jordan, cutting through Iraq, and flew them home to safety before war broke out. It was a two-month-long operation that would become a template for smaller but no less dangerous Indian rescue missions, from an Islamic State–controlled Iraq, civil war–torn Libya and a chaotic Yemen.

“This gave us the confidence to do such evacuations again,” says Kalarickal Pranchu Fabian, the now retired Indian diplomat who coordinated the 1990 rescue mission.

Like Cherian, Fabian vividly remembers the moment he learned that Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Early in the morning of Aug. 2, he received a call from friends in Kuwait who worked for an international agency saying they’d seen Iraqi vehicles rolling into Kuwait’s capital. The same day Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, fled to Saudi Arabia with senior members of his government.

Most countries responded as one — with vehement condemnation — but India was in a quandary. On the one hand, the majority of its Arab friends were staunch critics of the invasion; on the other hand, a sizable Indian population was effectively being held hostage. Chinmaya Gharekhan, India’s permanent representative to the U.N., advocated joining the rest of the world to “condemn” the invasion, but the government pointedly chose the softer “deplore” to describe its reaction. “Our main concern was the safety of our people, and whether it was possible to get Iraq out of Kuwait through negotiations,” says Fabian, who would later serve as ambassador in Qatar and Italy.

But Kuwait had other priorities. When India’s then foreign minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, visited New York for the U.N. General Assembly in September, he told Kuwait’s exiled foreign minister, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed, that “we are 110 percent with Kuwait,” recalls Gharekhan. Sheikh Sabah responded curtly: “Excellency, 100 percent would do … we only want the great nation of India to condemn.”

But by then, India was profiting from its approach toward Saddam. On Aug. 20, Gujral had flown to Baghdad, where he met Iraq’s foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, and, two days later, Saddam. The Iraqi leader wore his “traditional khaki uniform with a gun in his holster,” Gujral recalls in his autobiography, Matters of Discretion. “He hugged me when I went to greet him.” That image, broadcast internationally, instantly put India on the defensive with other partners, but Fabian argues that Gujral didn’t have much choice. “When your host wants to embrace you,” he insists, “you can’t avoid it.”

Either way, Saddam agreed to the evacuation — except that U.N. sanctions made it impossible for India to send planes into Kuwait or Iraq. The 176,000 evacuees would have to cross two borders before reaching an aircraft.

Locking the door to their Kuwait City apartment behind them, the Cherian family joined the flood of fellow Indians streaming onto buses that headed first to a border city, and then into Iraq. After passing through multiple checkpoints, Cherian says they reached Baghdad for an overnight halt. The buses then brought them to a desert camp where they spent another night. The next day, they were driven to a patch of “no-man’s-land” between Iraq and Jordan, where they stayed at U.N. refugee camps, before they were finally transported into Jordan and straight to Amman airport. Cherian describes the night at the airport as the “most chaotic” of the entire ordeal — he and his family had to cross a 4,000-kilometer “air bridge” to safety that Air India had built. Over 63 days, the national airline dispatched 488 evacuation flights from Amman to Mumbai, free of cost to passengers, plucking out the trapped citizens.

By Oct. 20, the operation was complete — and the next month the Indian government collapsed. But the airlift birthed a legacy that survives in Kuwait today. When the Gulf War ended, thousands of Indians returned to Kuwait, including Cherian’s parents. Many went back because their livelihoods depended on it. But for some, there was also a sense that Indian diplomacy had their back, says Cherian. Today, 800,000 Indians make up 20 percent of Kuwait’s population. They are Kuwait’s largest expatriate group. And they’re not going anywhere.

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