Anis Sajan with his nephew Adel Sajan in Kuwait in 1990 and his latest photo in Dubai Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: “I thought it was the end of life when an Iraqi soldier pointed a gun at my head while I as selling oil by the roadside in Kuwait after Iraq’s invasion,” recounts Anis Sajan, a leading Dubai-based businessman.

Talking to Gulf News on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Gulf War, when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, Anis revealed how his elder brother Rizwan Sajan, founder and chairman of the Danube Group in Dubai, survived the Gulf War. Anis, who is the managing director of Danube Group, shares his survival tale and their escape from Kuwait in an Indian Air Force plane after enduring the war for more than two months — amid all the gunshots, bombing, looting and arson by Iraqi soldiers.

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Anis remembers how his elder brother Rizwan and he had tried to create a business opportunity during the war. To make ends meet, they decided to sell oil on the road to motorists.

‘A gun at my head’

Anis recounts the time when he met the Iraqi soldiers. “One day, I was sitting with some containers of oil, when an Iraqi soldier asked me what was I selling and for how much. I told him that it was oil and it cost 5 dinars. He then asked me what dinar? As a matter of habit, I said, ‘Kuwaiti Dinar’, and in a flash, there was a gun at my head! The soldier told me how this was not Kuwait anymore, this was Iraq. If I said Kuwait again, I would be shot. He then took a container and left.” Anis paused for a while and added: “It was a close call and obviously I could not do anything.”

“As I go back in time and think about 30 years ago, I still get goosebumps,” says Anis who was just 19 years old at the time of the Gulf War. He had gone to Kuwait to join his elder brother to work in his uncle’s building material company. Rizwan lived in Kuwait for about ten years, from 1980 to 1990, while Anis stayed there for nine months only in 1990.

That ‘fateful morning’

“I clearly remember each and every moment. Those days, even something as simple as communicating to your near and dear ones that you were alive, was difficult.”

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He candidly tells us how he did not know the exact meaning of the word “invasion”. “On that fateful morning in August, I reached my office around 8am, only to have my brother call and tell me he was coming to pick me up as Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait,” he said.

Just like everyone else, we went to the supermarket to stock up on essentials. Uncertainty was at its peak, no one knew what would come next. Even at the supermarket, an Iraqi soldier was seated at the cash counter. He would look at how full your trolley of goods and decided what you had to pay. The actual prices of the goods did not matter. In two days, Kuwait was taken over by Iraqi soldiers. From young lads of 16 to older ones of 50, they all held huge guns and ransacked the shops. Phone lines, our only mode of communication at that time, were cut off too.”

The telegram

Anis goes on to describe the inspiring spirit of his brother even in those trying times. “Rizwan realised that selling oil while sitting by the road side was extremely dangerous. He looked for other ways to do social service. We decided to serve at the Indian Embassy. During this time, communication was difficult. Letters could be received and sent, but it would take an extremely long time as the post offices were only partially functioning. A faster mode of communication was the telegram. However, telegrams could not be sent or received in Kuwait. The nearest functioning post office was in Basrah, Iraq, a four-hour drive from Kuwait. My brother made me sit at the Indian Embassy every day and collect telegrams and messages that people wanted to send. He would then drive down to Basrah to post those telegrams and come back. It was risky to drive through the check posts and borders to get to Basrah.

“The trying times only escalated. Then came the turning moment that made them decide to go back home. One day as Rizwan was driving to Basrah and the rest of the family were at home, they saw four Kuwaitis shot dead right opposite their building. It was visible from the balcony and was a truly frightening sight. Staying in Kuwait was not safe anymore.”

I.K. Gujral and V.P. Singh

Sajan also reminisces about how his brother refused to leave him alone. “In Kuwait, it was just the four of us; me, my brother, my sister-in-law and my nephew Adil Sajan who was just a one-year-old baby then. We approached the Indian Embassy to be repatriated to India and waited for our turn. However, when our slot came, we were informed that only my brother and his wife could go back with their baby. I was above 18 and could not fly with them. My brother put his foot down and refused to go back without me, and so, we had to wait two months before we could fly back.”

Anis expresses his gratitude to the Indian Government of that time. “The Indian foreign minister at that time was I.K. Gujral and the prime minister was VP Singh. I can never forget these two names. They were extremely helpful and supportive. In fact, Gujral flew down to Kuwait to meet the Indians there and assured us that we would all be taken care of and flown back.

“We also tried to escape from Kuwait by car, but the vehicle broke down just after an hour’s drive. But it was a blessing in disguise as it was a very dangerous route to drive. We went back home and waited for the flight back to India.”

Finally, on October 2, 1990, the Sajans were repatriated home. “We took a bus arranged by the Indian Embassy to Basrah and then were flown to Bombay [now Mumbai] on an Indian Air Force plane. It was truly a one-of-a-kind experience. We landed in Bombay on October 3, 1990.

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‘Safely, in Bombay’

“We had to leave everything behind and sold our car and furniture at throwaway prices. There were few people who chose to stay back, but with a baby with us, that was not an option. We were in Bombay safely. Two years later, we reached Dubai, Danube was formed, and the rest as they say is history!”

“30 years since the invasion of Kuwait, and I still have goosebumps recounting this story. The sounds of bombing, the gunshots, the fear that at any time we could be caught on the wrong side of the story and could have lost our lives. Thirty years on, and these experiences still shape the person I am.”

The Sajans stayed in India for about two years and then came to Dubai in 1992 to start their business afresh.