The history 1991 Gulf War is often forgotten. More so is the brutality exercised by Iraqi forces during their invasion of Kuwait in early August 1990.
A tragic story within the Iraqi invasion is that of British Airways flight 149.
A Very Different Iraqi Military
In August of 1990, Iraq boasted one of the top 5 largest and most lethal military forces in the world. Battle hardened from almost a decade of war with Iran. The Iraqi’s were very well equipped by the Soviets as well as technology from several European nations.
Unlike the image of surrendering Iraqi soldiers during Operation Desert Storm or the highly incompetent Iraqi forces seen in 2003, August 1990 was a very different story.
The Iraqi Army, Navy, and Air Force blitzed into Kuwait, with brute force, between August 1st and 3rd, 1990.
British Airways 149
Known as BA 149, this was the regular route of British Airways between London’s Heathrow Airport and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The route included stops in Kuwait City and Chennai, India (formerly Madras).
Kuwait City boasted one of the more modern airports in the Gulf region. A popular layover, and refueling stop, for European air carriers operating routes between Europe and Asia. At the time, Kuwait also had a sizable community of expatriates, or “expats,” mainly from Great Britain. Meaning, people from other countries who moved for new professional job opportunities.
BA 149 took to the sky from London, on the evening of August 1st 1990. Flight crews were aware of tension along the Iraq/Kuwait border, and made it a practice to know the situation prior. All reports given to the crew of BA 149 indicated no cause for concern in Kuwait.
In the early hours of August 2nd, BA 149 was making it’s approach to Kuwait’s international airport. However, the crew had no idea, that since departing London, the Iraqis were in the process of invading Kuwait.
The Nightmare Begins
BA 149 followed the normal procedure of disembarking passengers and crew for the short stop in Kuwait City. The airport was suspiciously void of airport staff and no other flights were scheduled to arrive or depart.
The crew and passengers boarded the 747 after just over an hour layover and was preparing to depart the terminal for it’s next leg to India. The Iraqis had seized control of the airport and bombed the main runway, news broadcasts were now reporting the Iraqi army had entered Kuwait City. The captain of BA 149, Peter Clark, gave the order to evacuate the aircraft and return inside the terminal. Within the next 2 hours, Iraqi soldiers had escorted the 367 passengers and 18 crew members to a hotel on the grounds on the airport. The nightmare had begun.
Over the next few hours the passengers and crew were again moved, now to a hotel elsewhere in Kuwait City. It was clear they were now hostages of the Iraqi military.
Not only were the hostages helpless in this ordeal, but so was the idea of any evacuation plan. Some managed to escape with the help of Kuwaiti resistance. The majority were detained in filthy conditions. They also suffered abuse by the Iraqis.
Hostage accounts later would tell an ugly story of abuse on every level by the Iraqis. Many hostages witnessed from the hotel, Iraqi soldiers looting, intimidating, beating and conducting mock rapes and executions of civilians in Kuwait City. Some actually witnessed executions of Kuwaitis.
It was confirmed that one hostage, a British Airways flight attendant was raped by Iraqi soldiers. Several other passengers would also later tell of sexual assault by the Iraqis as well as numerous other incidents of physical abuse. One passenger, a Kuwaiti citizen, was murdered by the Iraqis.
The nightmare of BA 149 was not an isolated situation. Other groups of foreign nationals were “detained” inside both Kuwait and Iraq. Both the US and Great Britain sent high level envoys to negotiate the release and fair treatment of their citizens.
Less then 2 weeks after the transfer to the hotel in Kuwait City, the hostages of BA 149 were split up. Additionally, the were moved to military sites elsewhere in Kuwait. The hostages were separated mainly by nationality. After almost a month being held hostage, women and children were released and transported out of Kuwait. However for the rest of the hostages, they were split up again to be used as human shields at various military sites.
A Long Overdue End
As months went by with the male hostages still held, the situation of Iraq’s illegal occupation of Kuwait had developed was now reaching a deadline that would lead to war. By December of 1990, a diplomatic end to Iraq’s occupation had failed. Although unsuccessful, these talks did lead to the final release of the remaining hostages. Accounts of mental and physical abuse by the Iraqis was front page, but quickly overshadowed by the pending war.
Retrospect and Criticism of British Authorities
In the years that followed there were several investigations and legal actions pertaining to BA 149. Several passengers brought legal action against British Airways. Among the many allegations, one was that British Airways did not do appropriate due diligence prior to landing in Kuwait and disembarking crew and passengers. There was also a huge rebuke of Britain’s foreign ministry, especially it’s Embassy in Kuwait. Many of the hostages believed that the British Embassy did have a limited opportunity to assist and secure the release of all from BA 149 but did not take quick an appropriate action.
Some claim BA 149 was being used by British and American intelligence to insert operatives into Kuwait, both countries still deny this. Two decades later, members of Britain’s SAS claim to have been on BA 149 with the sole purpose of being inserted into Kuwait. During the initial phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, many airlines cancelled and limited flights to the Gulf region.
Thirty years later the emotional and mental wounds remain for the survivors of BA 149. Their sacrifice should not be forgotten.