In the midst of the Gulf War: Travelling from Safat to Basra

The trip, which was punctuated with gunfire and sporadic explosions, also included a stopover at construction site called ‘Mohammadia’ where one of the leading Indian builders were involved in building a township of hundreds of houses. This is the tenth part of the series describing the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business in Asia in the seventies and eighties

We had nice lunch and took a nap while, Stephen was very busy fixing the SUV that we were going to use for our journey into Iraq and taking care of the rations, essential medication, including blankets and pillows, if we had to sleep in the van itself.

I think it took us almost three hours of long winding roads, heavy traffic of trucks and lorries, that we had to keep overtaking before we could reach the Kuwait-Iraqi border at Safat. It did not take much time on the Kuwaiti side and even in the no-man’s land there was yet another long queue of vehicles before we actually reached the immigration/customs on the Iraqi side.

While we sat in the vehicle smoking rather nervously as we heard gun fire at a distance, it was Stephen, who processed our passport clearances and returned to the vehicle for the next job of getting the customs inspection.

We had a couple of inspectors who did the job rather well; when they left, they had a handbag of hampers in their hand, which was rudimentary supplies of fresh khubbas, eggs and some olives. 

Communication was not easy; many of these customs officials knew English and the Arabic spoken (dialect) in Lebanon is called ‘Lubnani’; while for instance, in Egypt, it is called ‘Masri’.  Lubnani is considered the ‘refined’version, while in some parts of Syria, it is the ‘archaic’ type.  I believe thus Arabic spoken in many countries differed in many ways, and what was spoken in Iraq was one of the most difficult kind. In fact, if a Lebanese or Yemeni were to travel to the Lower Gulf, or to the interior in Saudi Arabia, it would take some time before they can understand each other quickly.

We moved on, but what I could understand was that our beneficiary of the hamper was giving direction to Stephen on the safe road/highway to take before reaching our hotel that night.

May be an hour or so later, we managed to reach our hotel, where customarily Stephen and his colleagues have stayed off and on; unfortunately, however, the receptionist could not give our rooms, as the guests had to stay back, and the booking for them had been made by some military department, which had simply requisitioned the rooms and had asked for more. He managed to call up couple of other hotels, not far from his hotel and requested us to proceed there.

We did not have any choice, and maybe another 15-20 minutes later, reached the new hotel. It was very dirty, and the bathroom was crawling with cockroaches; beds were unmade, and the only thing that the receptionist did, because of the recommendations he had received about us, was permitting our van to be parked in a secure area—not on the road!

Since we planned to leave about six in the morning enroute to Baghdad and had to stopover at a construction site called ‘Mohammadia’ where, one of the leading Indian builders, I think it was the Ansals, who were involved in building a township of hundreds of houses.

We cleaned up the place, as best as we could, ate our khubbas and some readymade food parcels that Mrs Stephen had so lovingly given us, drank a little bit, smoked and tried to hit the sack.  The room was so dirty, we even thought of moving into the van to sleep.

Meantime, we could hear the distance gunfire and sporadic explosions. The Basra airport was not far from our hotel and often we could hear the planes landing and taking off. Stephen was too tired, but he would not let me drive.

The roads had very deep marking of tank movements, and in many places, we saw damaged, abandoned military vehicles. Gun fire continued and all of us loudly wondered if it was the right decision we made to come here.

As we lay in the uncomfortable beds, trying to sleep, the sound of gun fire, anti-aircraft guns, and explosions continued unabated. The largest of them, not far from our own hotel shook the building up, and we heard sirens and ambulances screaming past the hotel. We were too tired and not ready to take the walk to the reception to ask what was going on.

In spite of all these commotions, somehow, we all slept, until we heard the wake-up call at about six in the morning.

We drank the tea offered and made our way to the van an hour later and began our northward journey. We may have travelled a kilometre or two when armed personnel stopped the vehicle to inspect the van and check our documents; Stephen's entreaties to find out what was going on did not get us anywhere, nor he could elicit any information. There were many other vehicles ahead of us and behind us, but what Stephen managed to hear was that the Iranians had attempted to bomb Basra airport and in the process several buildings in the vicinity, including the hotel which did not (thankfully) accommodate us, were totally destroyed.

We thanked the Lord in our own ways, and felt sorry for the loss of life and damage to the property that wars cost and we moved on to find our way to the next destination. If we had stayed, nobody would have even known that we had perished in the bombing that night! 

We may have travelled for an hour or so before reaching Mohammadi township where we met the site manager, who extended his generous hospitality and offered us a delicious lunch. Stephen wanted to ensure that we reach Baghdad as quickly as possible and right after lunch we moved on, filling up some rations and gas for the vehicle. Naturally we took note of the urgent and additional site requirements so that we could arrange for despatches  from Kuwait, procuring them from Dubai, if necessary.

I cannot recall exactly when we reached Baghdad; our hotel was located on a side street, off Saadoon Street (one of the main thoroughfares) and Stephen’s colleague was occupying it, for handing the room over to us so that he can return back to Kuwait.

Our plan was to leave the next day early morning to Kirkuk, further north to visit the site of the French company. The estimated trip time was about 5-6 hours, provided we had no trouble en route.

We ate our food and as it was a much better hotel than the one we had to put up with in Basra; two of us slept on the floor and let Stephen have the luxury of the cot. We did hear occasional rattling of the gun and sporadic shots at a distance; but after all the travelling we did on very bad roads, we slept soundly until the next day. 

(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US. He can be contacted at [email protected].)

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