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Memories of Desert Storm

Emad M. Ghanim / ccMay 29, 2013

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi troops began the bombing and invasion of Kuwait setting off the First Gulf War. DW editor Emad M. Ghanim witnessed the war as a 15-year-old boy in southern Iraq.

Deutsche Welle Arabic's Emad Ghanim. Photo: DW/Per Henriksen
Image: DW/P. Henriksen

I still have very clear memories of 2nd August 1990. On that Thursday morning my mother woke me in our hometown of Maysan in southern Iraq with the words, "Saddam has invaded Kuwait." I was just 15 years old, but I sensed that she was afraid. "How do you know?" I asked.

Back then there was still no Al Jazeera; Iraq was largely cut off from the outside world. "Your father called me from work," she replied. Phone calls like these were risky. But my parents had developed a secret language during the Iran-Iraq war that enabled them to pass on information, even if telephones were tapped.

Members of the Royal Irish Rangers move toward Iraq in the Kuwaiti desert in preparation for possiblw war against Iraq Wednesday March 19, 2003, as they head towards Iraq. ( AP Photo/Adam Sorenson/British Ministry of Defense,Pool)
Operation Desert Storm started after Iraqi troops marched into Kuwait in 1991Image: AP

Propaganda and war songs

I reached for my little transistor radio; I wanted to listen, as my father did, to the news on Radio Kuwait. But already almost all the radio stations were jammed. The only one I was able to listen to was the Iraqi "main program" an endless loop of war songs in praise of our leader Saddam Hussein, Iraq, and Saddam's Baath party. The propaganda was interrupted only by the voice of the newsreader Muqdad Murad, who kept saying that an important message would be read very shortly.

From the fact that Saddam's favorite newsreader of many years' standing was the one making the announcement, any Iraqi could guess that something terrible had happened, or was about to happen.

Schoolchildren given Kalashnikovs

In order to get a clearer idea of what was going on, I switched on my father's old Russian radio, which he always used to listen in secret to the news from the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Radio Monte Carlo. It was true: Saddam's troops had invaded Kuwait, with a force of around 100,000 men - an act of aggression. The Iraqi media later reported that there had been a Kuwaiti "insurgency" against the ruling al-Sabah family, and that the rebels had joined forces with Iraq in a "unity alliance."

Saddam Hussein waving to a crowd Photo: Ina (nur s/w) +++(c) dpa - +++
Hussein procaimed the war would be the 'mother of all battles'Image: picture-alliance / dpa

On television and in the newspapers, later in school as well, there was talk only of the "wisdom" of our political leadership in "uniting the historical territory of Iraq." From now on we had military training in school instead of sports lessons; older pupils were given Kalashnikovs, which they had to bring to school every day along with their books. Some of my fellow students enthusiastically parroted the words of our teachers: that Iraq was now the most powerful country in the world, with the biggest oil reserves and access to the sea.

Minors to the front

Before long my uncles were called to arms, the first members of our family to be summoned. We guessed that the situation could get even more serious than during the war with Iran, for even my cousin, who was not yet 18, now suddenly had to wear a uniform and was sent to Kuwait with the troops of the Iraqi Popular Army.

In the weeks that followed foodstuffs disappeared from the shelves and the markets remained empty: economic sanctions were imposed upon Iraq. My father's monthly salary in "the most powerful country in the world" was suddenly only enough to pay for four kilos of flour, a kilo of sugar and a kilo of rice.

We had to give up one meal a day in order to set aside some small reserves of food. Everybody knew that the war would come to us as well.

Saddam mocking the Americans

On the evening of January 16, 1991, my family was sitting in front of the television to hear how Saddam would react to the final appeals by the international community for him to withdraw from Kuwait and avoid a war. We heard him speak the phrase that was later to become famous, about the "umm al-ma'arik," the "mother of all battles." I remember how mocking he was, especially when he claimed that, if it came to it, any Iraqi shepherd could shoot the American fighter jets out of the sky. Operation Desert Storm had become unavoidable.

Aircraft from 4th Composite Wing, melded together from four units to form composite wings, fly over burning oil wells in Kuwait after Desert Storm. Photo: AP. Archive from 1991
Ghanim's family knew it would not be able to avoid the warImage: AP

In our hometown of Maysan the war began with a tremendous bang in the early hours of the morning. A bomb had hit the so-called "Yugoslavian Bridge," not far from our house, and destroyed it. The collapse of this bridge meant, for me personally, that it became difficult for me to get to the other side of town.

We were all very afraid. I remember how my mother gathered us children together under a stairway, to protect us from being killed by shards of falling glass. I think my mother was convinced that we would all either live or die together.

Three fatal shots

After many endless nights, which later we spent in the countryside, listening to the air raids over Maysan, the war was finally over on February 28. Saddam suffered a catastrophic defeat - but he remained in power for more than a decade. After the war, there was an insurgency by the Shiites in southern Iraq. My elder brother Ali took part in it. He wanted to contribute to the overthrow of Saddam, but he didn't stand a chance. The insurgency was crushed.

March 8, 1991 soldiers of the Republican Guard stormed our house. Three shots, and Ali's life was over. He had just turned 18.

In retrospect, I have the feeling that the beginning of the war was also the end of my childhood. Hundreds of thousands of my countrymen have lost their lives since then, in war, through terrorism, and under Saddam's regime of terror. Saddam was finally overthrown in 2003, but to this day Iraq is still not at peace: there is no security, no stability, and little hope.

I know that 1990 was a year of extraordinary events, many of which have also touched me: German unification, Germany winning the World Cup in football, Nelson Mandela being released from prison, the first website on the Internet. But it is August 2nd 1990 that dominates my memory of that year. When Saddam attacked our Kuwaiti neighbors, for me it signified the end of a personal peace which I was to find again only in 2004: in Germany, in exile.