It was a ‘shipment’ not ‘Airlift’ out of Kuwait

Second of three parts

Captain Zain Juvale – 

On hearing about the exodus of foreigners from Kuwait, some of my crewmembers were so nervous and panicky that they wanted to abandon our ship and take the land route to Amman. Some even suggested that we sail out quietly at night under cover of darkness.

At this point I had to summon my entire crew and warn them against any risky, suicidal and mutinous activities on board, which could jeopardise all our lives.

I also warned them that any precipitative action could affect our eventual release.

The need of the hour was discipline and unity as a team and I warned that I would not hesitate to lock-up anyone acting contrary to the requirements of the prevailing circumstances. I could understand their anxiety and predicament but had to be firm to maintain law and order.

It was by no means an easy task to have 26 different nervous minds toe your line of thinking. I had to time and time again reason with them, reassure and convince them that we should not take such rash steps.

The Kuwaiti coast and the coastal waters were under surveillance and well-armed. Iraqi radars could track any shipping movement and attack the target.

At the time of the Iraqi invasion, there were over 170,000 Indian expatriates in Kuwait and most of them were desperate to get out, like other expatriates.

Rescue Plan

Over the period of our captivity, I built up a rapport with our captors and gained their confidence. Seeing the plight of my fellow Indians, I devised a rescue plan. I calculated the space on my ship, which could have accommodated about 3000 people.

I put forward this ‘Humanitarian Rescue Plan’ to the then Indian government, through the Indian Embassy, after a detailed discussion with Inder Kumar Gujral, the then External Affairs Minister (and later Prime Minister), who had arrived in Kuwait to negotiate with Iraqi President Saddam Hussain.

Unfortunately, although I obtained clearance from Iraqi authorities within 24 hours, bureaucratic hurdles from New Delhi tended to derail my rescue mission.

The Indian government had no jurisdiction over my ship. They did not appreciate the ground reality and warned me against carrying any Indians on board my cargo ship,

as they considered it unsafe.

At the same time, authorities from other governments approached me to rescue their nationals on board my ship, but I politely declined, being fully aware of the political equations of those countries with Iraq.

Household names

Captain Juvale and my ship MV ‘Safeer’ became household names.

The hopes of all the Indians in Kuwait were pinned on me. There was a constant stream of Indians pleading with me to rescue them on board my ship. They were all desperate to get out of Kuwait at any cost, and I did not wish to disappoint them.

I was confident and hence took a bold decision to ignore the warnings of the Indian authorities, called my ‘War Cabinet’ for a discussion about my plan, and proceeded with the rescue mission at my own risk and responsibility.

However, I did not want to push my luck hard and decided to reduce the number of persons to be carried, contrary to what was originally planned. I was fully aware that even a single fatality could have resulted in a noose round my neck.

Ship conversion

Almost overnight, my cargo carrier was converted into a passenger ship, with makeshift infrastructure, like building extra toilet facilities, with whatever means at our disposal. We painted empty 200 litres lube-oil drums to store water.

I managed to procure 400 life jackets and 14 life rafts from a dead war torn city. For all those trying to flee Kuwait, my small cargo ship was like QE2.

Eventually, on September 4, 1990, after encountering numerous hurdles, I carried 750 Indians through the ‘mined waters’ of Kuwait, but felt sad for those left behind.

Before and during this rescue mission, several types of compensation were offered to me in exchange for a passage on board my ship, but I refused to accept any and did not charge a single penny from any of the 750 refugees.

Suffering humans

I flatly refused these offers as I had no intention of exploiting their circumstances.

My attitude influenced my crew, who too refused to accept any monetary compensation.

Although I was not directly involved with the selection of these 750 persons, I had issued specific instructions to the local Indian community leaders that the list should represent all parts of India, cutting across religious and regional borders.

The main criterion was to include those who were most vulnerable, weak and feeble, who had no other means of escape from Kuwait, and all those who could not afford to escape. My main concern was to rescue as many Indians as possible.

I later learnt that there were efforts underway back home in India, to prosecute me for defying the instructions of the Indian authorities.

This did not materialise, as all 750 refugees landed safely in Dubai.

This was the first batch of Indian expats to be successfully rescued out of Kuwait.

It has been over 25 long years since this ‘Humanitarian Rescue Mission’ was successfully accomplished, but during this period, no one, including governments, allied forces or international shipping companies has either acknowledged or appreciated this achievement.

International media covered the mission well at that time, with my interviews appearing in newspapers and broadcast on radio and television.

Mission ignored

Over this period, several governments with varying ideologies and agendas have come and gone in New Delhi and States.

Some of them claimed to espouse the cause of the ‘Marathi Manoos’ (local Maharashtrian). I am a proud Marathi Manoos, born in Ratnagiri and brought up in Mumbai. My late grandfather Captain Fakir Mohamed Juvale wrote his autobiography ‘Maajhya Daryavardi Jeevnaatil Bharti Ohti’ in Marathi.

My humanitarian Rescue Mission has, by and large, been ignored by the authorities concerned.

One virtue I inherited from my late grandfather is patience.

He had to wait till the age of 91 to be honoured with a National Award, and later, an Indian ship was named after him for his contribution to Indian Shipping.

He started the first Nautical School in India in 1923, during the British Raj.

It is largely due to his pioneering efforts that today one sees well qualified and most- sought after Indian Marine officers in all International shipping companies around the world.

(To be continued)

Editor’s Note: Those of us who lived in Kuwait and/or covered the occupation of the Arab Gulf State by Iraq from August 2, 1990 and the ‘Gulf Storm’, the First Gulf War that led to the liberation of Kuwait on February 28, 1991 (after five days of war), would know that the recently released Hindi film ‘Airlift’ is nothing more than a hero-centred imagination and divorced from truth. While the evacuation of Indians from Kuwait through Amman, Jordan and not through Saudi Arabia (which would have been easier and faster) was undoubtedly the single largest human exercise of the modern era, it was nothing like what the film portrayed. I was among those who was in Kuwait in the days following its liberation and what I saw and reported was more heart-rending and tragic than anyone could have imagined. The film has become a topic of discussion and Captain Zain Juvale has written a three-part report which will be complemented by my remarks. If you have been involved in the Kuwaiti Theatre during the Iraqi occupation, please write to

Photo :

A batch of Indians rescued from Kuwait in September 1990

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