Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Memories of the Gulf War 1991

This week marks 20 years to the start of Operation Desert Storm, part of the Gulf War. The Israeli media have not been marking this anniversary very much, and it was an article about a popular satirical television series at the time that reminded me and brought back memories.

It all started on August 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Since this was my 21st birthday, when I first heard this news, I remarked: "I have been given a war for my birthday". As time passed and we witnessed the planned international response to this invasion, it became increasingly clear that Israel would be attacked. I remember saying to someone: "Of course Iraq will attack Israel, they have nothing to lose".

In January 1991 I was a student at Tel Aviv University, and we were planning an archaeology trip to Masada, which happened to be scheduled for a day or two after the start of Desert Storm. I remember saying to a friend: "See you on the trip, unless there is a war!". Of course, this trip never took place. The population had been given boxes containing gas masks and atropine injectors, and everyone had prepared "sealed rooms" that were supposed to keep out chemical weapons. As the allied attack started, Israelis were ordered to stay at home in preparation for attack.

In the middle of the night, we heard explosions and woke up. After a few minutes, the sirens started up. We put on our gas masks as instructed, turned on the radio and listened anxiously to hear what had been hit. During those first minutes I was imagining that clouds of nerve gas were spreading outside, and that life would never be the same. It turned out that Iraq was firing conventional long-range Scud missiles, but we could never be sure that the next attack would be conventional.

The missile attacks came every night for the next six weeks. After that first night, we went to stay with my parents, whose sealed room seemed more secure. We developed a routine of sleeping late in the morning, spending much of the day reading newspapers and watching the news on television, and then awaiting the attacks at night. Sometimes we were woken up several times in a night, particularly when it was cloudy in Western Iraq, allowing the missiles to be launched without being observed by allied planes. Each time we heard the sirens, we would rush to the sealed room, tape down the edges of the door, put on the gas masks and wait for the explosions, and later the all-clear siren. The radio stations had a silent frequency at night, which only broadcast the siren warning and then played news and music until the all-clear. I remember clearly that our dog Fluffy always knew just before the siren warning came on air, and started running to the sealed room whining, so often he woke us just before the radio did.

It was a strange war, because Israel was being attacked for no reason other than the Iraqi leadership's hatred, and the IDF was not involved in fighting, only in protecting the civilian home front. For once, Israel could feel, and present itself, as an innocent victim.

Six weeks is a long time to be in a stressful situation. It left its mark on my psyche (and that of everyone else, I assume). My routine was disrupted, with the university closed for the last week of the semester and the exam period. That semester we were given essays to write at home instead of taking exams, and my concentration was ruined. The feeling of being unsafe in my own home and the fear of sudden noises have continued to accompany me, in varying degrees, ever since.

Since then, I have lived with the threat of suicide attacks on public places and public transport during the Second Intifada (2000-2005) and survived the missile attacks on my city, Haifa, during the Second Lebanon War (2006). Experiencing war as a civilian is unfortunately part of the life of all Israelis. I can only hope that all parties in the region see reason and work together to reach a rational accommodation. Everyone deserves to live in peace, and I hope future generations will never have to share similar experiences.

1 comment:

Ivor Ludlam said...

I think Israel was attacked as a provocation. Were Israel to have responded, Saddam might have hoped for more support from his Arab neighbours.