letters from the front; tragedy at home

Still counting my lucky stars i left Iraq’s 19th province in time and, as Kiwi put it ‘with bum and baggage intact.’
I’ve had news from the front in the form of three letters. The first came from Greg who used to teach at Kuwait University. One of his colleagues decided to make a run for it at the end of August and was successful. Greg didn’t feel strong enough to risk it but gave his friend a letter to post if and when he made it. I was surprised and very relieved to receive Greg’s letter postmarked in Istanbul.
He says that for the first two weeks of the invasion conditions were tolerable and there was reasonable freedom of movement. Essential supplies and power and water were available but by the third week conditions had begun to worsen. He was in contact with Patrick and David N who had the misfortune to be back in Kuwait on a short business trip from Dubai and was caught up in the invasion and he was also in daily contact with Daoud. Shah at the Meridien was also OK. Patrick The Procrastinator was very depressed, Greg said, and worried sick his art collection would be confiscated. Daoud had taken most of Patrick’s stuff and hidden it for him but will he ever be able to get it out of the country? Tanzanian Jamal was hanging in there, too, and all were keeping as low a profile as possible. No word about Zafer, Tariq or Assam.
A second letter came from London from Sheilagh Nelson, a former colleague. After a terrible overland journey from Kuwait she was lucky to get out on one of the mercy flights from Baghdad. Other women colleagues were safe, she said, but most of the men were holed up in their flats and not moving outdoors. Food and water were scarce and to survive they were taking water from the swimming pools and boiling it. She told me, too, that Mike and Steve had successfully made it into Saudi Arabia and had got as far as Riyadh.
A third letter reached me five days ago, again from Greg. This one was posted in Bombay by an Indian friend, Vishnu, who managed to get to a refugee camp in Jordan and then on to a flight from Amman to Bombay. This letter speaks of a serious deterioration in conditions with gross shortages – he had five days’ food supply left at the time of writing – and anarchy. Marsh Arabs from Basra had been let loose in the streets of Kuwait and were totally undisciplined, and tales of pillage weren’t exaggerated. The Palestinians in Kuwait were helping Iraqi soldiers root out Kuwaitis and as a result the Kuwaiti resistance, small though it be, had turned on the Palestinians. Fintas, the place i used to live, had become a scene of battle as it straddles both main roads leading south and is of strategic importance. There was daily mortar and sniper fire in Fintas and several buildings had been attacked by the Iraqis to flush out Kuwaiti fighters. And to think Fintas was home for more than five years! Salmiya was a mess, too, and Blajat where the Kuwaitis used to drive up and down on Thursday nights has been ripped up by Iraqi tanks and is deserted. The only pieces of good news, if you can call them good, are that Patrick has dispersed his art collection successfully and now lives in an almost empty flat and that Shah has decided not to run but to make a go of it and has been promoted by the Meridien from valet to front-of-house manager. Well, considering there are just 35 staff left out of a total of 330, someone had to be promoted.
No word of my good dear friends from Goa and nothing about Filipino friends either. I’m hoping Greg will be able to get another letter out or, better yet, get himself out, and Patrick and everyone else i know with him.

And now to a tragedy closer to home. Last monday night here there was a terrible accident. At about 10:15 i heard a horrendous explosion and jumped out of bed. I had just gone to bed and was drifting off – i do get up at 5:30am each day of the working week – when this almighty bang shook the foundations of the house. On Petchburi Road, a Siam Gas Company truck laden with tanks of liquefied gas overturned and the tanks exploded. According to eyewitnesses, the driver came off the expressway onto the road at high speed, tried to beat a red light, swerved to avoid a tuc-tuc and the truck flipped over and the tanks smashed onto the road. Petchburi is busy and any time from 8:00am to midnight is a perpetual traffic jam. When the tanks exploded and caught fire motorists couldn’t escape and 75 of them were burned to death. In addition, both sides of the street went up in flames and several shops and a ladies’ hostel and its inhabitants were wiped out. The final death toll still isn’t known. The hospitals have more than 100 severely burned patients many of whom aren’t expected to survive. From my balcony i could see a huge fireball illuminate the sky and i thought a building had caught fire; at the time, i never imagined the extent of the carnage. The following morning on my way to work – i pass right by there – i saw all these burned-out cars and houses. My neighbour works at Channel 3 TV which is a stone’s throw from the spot and she was leaving the studios at the time and witnessed the scene first hand. She’s still in shock and said to see people running around the street on fire and screaming was the worst experience of her life.

We’re in the middle of the rainy season good and proper and for the past two weeks it’s been coming down by the ton. Unfortunately, last monday night it didn’t rain at all or it might have quenched a few of the hapless victims. Yesterday and today have been particularly wet and i’ve had to wade to the local newspaper shop but, people tell me, this season has been nothing like last year when the city was flooded for days on end. The temperature has dropped radically and i’ve been sleeping without air-con for the past few nights.

Three evenings a week, monday, wednesday and friday, i go to Thai class for two hours and have entered for the Pathom Hok (Grade Six) exam in December. The course isn’t particularly good but neither is it bad. My writing has improved and it’s that i must concentrate on as the exam demands an essay and a letter. The oral will be based on the history of Thai culture. Overall, i’m enjoying the challenge of it. If i pass Grade Six i’ll be given a licence to teach at any school in Thailand for an indefinite period. To teach in Thailand for more than two years, legally that is, one must pass Grade Six, so even if i don’t need the requirement i’ll still go ahead with the course and the exam just for the enjoyment of it.

7 thoughts on “letters from the front; tragedy at home

  1. With US journalism rapidly becoming nothing but entertainment reality shows, reading these letters engendered a fresh faith that social and economic realities of the world are indeed available, albeit at times only in personal exchanges such as these. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Kuwait and Iraq were treacherous places to live during that era, circa 1991 (?) I believe. The
    military logistics do not interest me as carnage is carnage regardless of the venue. However; to learn of the personal dramas is enlightening and permits one to assess what they might be confronted with in similar circumstances. The region you tell us about has seen one confrontation after another from the very beginning. The tragedy at home, in Thailand, was surely a nightmare with innocent non-combatants caught up an accident where many were
    victims. Another interesting story that I certainly appreciate you sharing.

  3. 1990 ? Escaped by the skin of your teeth. Dramatic days.
    I remember it well and enjoyed your first hand account
    of events. Thanks.

  4. I agree with both Odin and Jon. This first hand account illustrates the narrow views expressed by our press. They leave out the human tragedy to focus on carnage. Your post widens our view of life. Thanks.

  5. Personal accounts are that much more rewarding for readers because they are
    genuine and genuinely felt. Winnie and myself are enjoying these posts immensely.

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