Iraqi Invasion and Occupation of Kuwait (1990-1991)

Iraqi Invasion and Occupation of Kuwait (1990-1991)

The Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait began in the early morning of the 2nd August 1991. With Tareq S. Rajab away in Jordan and his two eldest children Nur and Ziad travelling abroad, his wife Jehan and their youngest son, Nadr, would remain in Kuwait for the entire duration of the Iraqi’s brutal occupation of Kuwait. The invasion had come as a surprise to many in Kuwait, with Jehan only finding out what had happened after being woken by the sound of explosions and sustained gunfire.  After managing to telephone both her daughter Nur and husband Tareq during the first day of the occupation, the international telephone lines were cut and neither Jehan nor her son Nadr, who’s wife was pregnant with their first child in England, heard from anybody in the outside world for over seven months. However, Kuwait’s internal telephone lines remained working, ensuring that news spread around Kuwait very quickly. 

On the first afternoon, Jehan along with her son Nadr and their neighbours rushed to pull off and hide as many street signs as they could in an attempt to confuse the invading Iraqi’s. Kuwait can be a very confusing place to drive through at the best of times and it was hoped that this would only add to the the army’s problems. What to do about the museum was now at the forefront of their minds. It was common knowledge that the Iraqi’s had headed straight into the National Museum along the beachfront during the initial invasion and it, like much of the rest of Kuwait was pillaged and looted. From the very first day of the occupation right up to the day before the liberation, there was a constant stream of trucks full of stolen goods heading back to Iraq. 

It was obvious that the family’s museum needed to shut and be hidden and fortunately, the museum was located below ground level. The museums heavy carved Indian doors were bolted shut and the signs above it were taken down and hidden before Jehan and Nadr walked down the museum’s steps to try and decide what to do with the exhibits. It was decided that the manuscripts and ceramics, located to the left after entering the museum itself, would be the first to be packed up and hidden. Although many of the maintenance men from the family’s nearby school, the New English School, were attempting to leave Kuwait, they came to help Jehan and Nadr with the packing. What ensued was described as “frantic though purposeful”. A guard was left upstairs to watch the road to the museum so that everybody down below could be warned of any unwelcome visitors. Whilst packing up the manuscripts, someone had asked Jehan what to do with a small 19th century grain of rice inscribed with the writer’s name and verses from the Holy Qur’an. Jehan replied that she would put it somewhere safe and it was hidden so well that to this day, it has never been found. 

With news of the outbreak of war, work to frantically pack away the Museums most valuable pieces commenced
Jehan Rajab in the process of packing up the Museum's most valuable objects. She is pictured here being helped by Abu Ali and a maintenance man from her school.

Within a few days the left side of the museum was full of boxes, suitcases and bags, the showcases now completely empty. All the boxes were hidden in side room’s and a large space behind one of the bigger showcases, before being blocked off and concealed from prying eyes. Area’s with doors were bolted shut and carpenters from the school used sheets of wood to seal the doors before painting over them to match the other walls. David Roberts lithographs, which were likely to have been of little interest to any Iraqi soldiers, were then hung on the false walls to complete the ruse. Storage cupboards beneath the display cases received the same treatment and like the hidden doorways, were covered and painted to look purely decorative. By the end of the occupation it was clear that Iraqi soldiers enjoyed forcing open cupboards and tearing everything in them apart. The soldiers that had taken over the family’s nearby school did not leave a single cupboard or drawer left shut, locked or unbroken. 

With all the manuscripts and ceramics from the left side of the museum now hidden away, the next problem was the five or six thousand pieces of jewellery, costumes, textiles, embroideries and stringed instruments on the opposite side. With nearly everybody who had helped with the left side now trying to leave Kuwait or unable to reach the museum, it was up to Jehan, Nadr and Rawa, Tareq’s niece. With just three of them, and the likelihood of army house-to-house searches becoming more of a threat everyday, the only option was to completely block off that entire section and to pretend it did not really exist. However, the Gold Room that was located in this area was sealed off and hidden as a further precaution, the marks from the false wall still visible today. The museum was sealed and the Rajab’s waited for the arrival of the Iraqi’s. Soon after the initial invasion, the Iraqi’s began rounding up foreigners as prisoners. Around this time Jehan received a phone call from Keaton Woods, the American general manager of the Meridien Hotel. Keaton, his wife and their two children were planning to leave the American embassy to go on the run and needed a place they could hide. At this stage, the American embassy staff were leaving Kuwait and heading for Baghdad. Jehan agreed to shelter the family and with help from Nadr, hid them in her eldest son Ziad’s house next door until women and children were allowed to leave Kuwait. Keaton was to stay hidden next door for another four months.

Jehan Rajab with an Iraqi AK-47 slung around her shoulder during the liberation of Kuwait
Nadr Rajab developing software to receive radio teletype (RTTY) to keep up with news from the outside world

On two occasion’s, Keaton was within but a hair’s breadth of being caught by the Iraqi soldiers during their house-to-house searches of the family’s properties. On one occasion, Nadr stalled the soldiers for as long as he could, talking to them loudly to let Keaton know they were there, giving him enough time to slip into an air conditioning vent and hide. He lived a monastic life during the occupation, dressing always in a Kuwaiti dishdasha, staying away from the window’s and never leaving the house. He was only visited at night. The Rajab’s are just one of many Kuwaiti families that hid close to one thousand Westerners from the Iraqi’s until they were permitted to leave the country towards the end of the occupation.

While their home had been searched and Iraqi soldiers had tried to rob them during the night on multiple occasions, as the end of the occupation grew nearer Jehan and Nadr’s plan to hide the main body of the museum from the Iraqi’s had so far been a success; however, that was to change. Just before the start of the ground war on the 20th February 1991, the Iraqi secret police and the army arrived at the family’s home, blocking the road with a machine gun. After searching the house once more, the secret police demanded Nadr show them the basement and unlike previous visits, they seemed to know that behind the blocked door at the bottom of the stairway was the real museum, proceeding to force their way in. The Iraqi’s were not there to loot, but to search for arms and munitions of which, there were none, and occasionally inquired at the jewellery on display but were satisfied when Nadr convinced them that they worthless. After searching the museum for over an hour, the Iraqi’s left, stealing nothing but two cartons of cigarettes and three cassette tapes. Just a few days later, the ground war began and Kuwait was liberated. Fortunately for the Rajab’s, the Iraqi soldiers and their accompanying secret police never returned.

During the Iraqi occupation, many people were taken as hostages and many were taken back to Iraq as prisoners-of-war, never to return to Kuwait. We will never forget them.

Family friends enjoying some tea with Nadr Rajab at the family's home above the Museum during the Iraqi occupation
Jehan Rajab alongside a damaged Iraqi T-55 tank after the end of the ground war and liberation of Kuwait in 1991

A small section of a larger interview done just a few days after the Liberation of Kuwait

This short clip, taken from a larger interview about the Museum took place immediately following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 and features both Jehan and her son Nadr. At this stage, there was no electricity and the false walls had not been taken down.

Find out more about Kuwait and the Tareq Rajab Museum during the first Gulf War in Jehan Rajab's book; Invasion Kuwait: An English Woman's Tale

Scroll to Top