When Malayalis Fled From the Gulf In Fear

On June 20th, 2019, Iran shot down an American drone. News pundits and online commentators immediately started discussing what this meant. Would Iran and the United States go to war? Or was this just a slight escalation in rhetoric?

It was the same question I asked out loud as I dropped the Malayalam Manorama newspaper back onto the coffee table. My dad, mom, and grandmother were having their breakfast. They simply nodded, shrugged or otherwise dismissed my comment.

And for a moment I wondered. We’ve been here before, haven’t we?

And then an even more troubling thought tumbled out. Have we forgotten it all so quickly?

Disturbance in the Desert – August 1990

Almost 29 years ago, on Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. Most of us are aware of what happened next. George H. W. Bush lead a coalition of forces that descended upon the Iraqi forces and drove them back. It was a decisive victory.

However, things weren’t as smooth as the Wikipedia entry or documentary footage would have you believe. At least, not for the thousands of Malayalees living in the Gulf at that time…

Saudi Arabia was both Iraq’s neighbor and home to several thousand Malayalee expatriates. They held jobs in every sector, be it retail, manufacturing, hospitality or even public administration. Many of them had been residents of Saudi Arabia for at least a decade or two and enjoyed lives that were both stable and comfortable.

And over the course of the next 6 months, 3 weeks and 5 days, Saddam Hussein robbed them of both.

Malayalees With Gas Masks – January 1991

Since the Internet and mobile phones weren’t popular yet, information flowed through workplaces in the morning before being pooled, strained and reiterated outside grocery stores and juice stalls where Malayalees gathered, their usually jovial expressions replaced by concerned frowns that were illuminated by the orange hue of nearby street lamps.

Even the group jester’s smile faltered when he heard about the gas masks.

Since August of the previous year, Saddam Hussein had been verbally attacking Saudi Arabia, arguing that being backed by the United States meant they were illegitimate and unworthy guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Realizing that the Iraqi Dictator could very well threaten the country’s oil fields, President George H. W. Bush launched Operation Desert Shield, whereby military forces were deployed to protect Saudi Arabia.

And then UN Resolution 678 was passed on November 29th, 1990, which gave Iraq until January 15th, 1991 to withdraw from Kuwait.

By the beginning of 1991, it was increasingly clear that Saddam Hussein had no intention of backing down. In fact, Iraq warned that they’d retaliate against both Saudi Arabia and Israel if they were attacked.

Which is why thousands of Malayalees in eastern cities such as Dhahran and Dammam rushed to buy gas masks that were being distributed by Saudi Civil Defense. The growing anxiety had finally boiled over into frenetic action. Air raid drills were conducted and short films on chemical and biological weapons were aired on Saudi television channels.

Many retired Gulf expatriates living in Kerala today can still recount those frantic weeks. They can tell you how they sealed their windows and doors shut. How they shepherded their young families into a single room that was most fortified against the threat of a chemical attack, and best equipped for survival thanks to stacks of canned food piled onto shelves. Some may even mimic the air raid sirens that blared across the city, causing their hearts to beat faster as they projected calm for the sake of their children.

47 Scud missiles were fired into Saudi Arabia by Iraqi forces. Almost all of them were intercepted. But the force with which windows rattled and furniture shook as Iraqi Scud and American Patriot missiles violently slammed into each other in the sky overhead, was enough to convince many Malayalees. It was too risky to remain.

Returning Home

And that was why thousands of wives and children were sent back to Kerala by their husbands who had to stay in the Gulf due to work. In January and February of 1991, grandmothers all over the state welcomed their daughters, daughters in law and grandchildren, with their voices alternating between concern shared with the returning adults and joy showered on the blissfully ignorant kids.

Ultimately the conflict was swiftly resolved. Operation Desert Storm began on January 16 and concluded on February 28. Though the conflict resulted in great loss of military and civilian life, the Malayalee expatriate community was relatively unharmed. Slowly families were reunited, and life regained a sense of normalcy.

And gradually, over the course of almost three decades, the intensity of those 6 months seems to have faded from our collective memory. It hasn’t been immortalized in our state’s cinema, it hasn’t been preserved in literary form, it hasn’t been recounted over and over again until sons and daughters are aware of what their fathers and mothers went through.

Learning From the Past…

So as I glanced back at the front page of the newspaper, I wondered if we were making a mistake, or at the very least, doing ourselves a disservice. Of course, we don’t have to teach the next generation how to wear gas masks. Or how to properly seal a house in case of a possible chemical attack. But maybe we all need a reminder of how fragile life really can be? How we aren’t guaranteed anything, no matter how affluent or stable or connected our lives are? How the world around us can change based on the politics of nations and the policies of a few individuals?

At least then, we’d think twice when we read about Iran shooting down a U.S. drone, or the U.S. deploying thousands of troops to the region. It’s easy for us to think of war as something that happened either in the past or to someone else. Listening to the Malayalees who lived in the Gulf in 1990 will make us realize…that’s what they used to think as well.

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