Refugees in the Desert

By William Kwong

We went to Kuwait for greener pastures. We ended up as...

First, there was an explosion, rousing me from my sleep. Boo! Was that the elevator? it sure felt as if the elevator in the condominium where we lived suddenly crashed down to the ground floor.

Then the phone rang. I turned on the light and looked at the clock. It was 1:00 am. There wasn’t anything wrong with our elevator. It was something worse, as I found out when I answered the phone. It was the secretary of our big boss, the managing director, calling. “Sir, the Iraqis,” she said frantically. “They are attacking us! It’s war!”

War. I trembled right where I stood. It was happening... what I had feared these past weeks. It was always in the news: the possibility of a Gulf War, Iraq attacking Kuwait
With the political unrest in the Middle East, I had some apprehensions about accepting the job as general manager of the Toyota Company in Kuwait in 1989’. But to me, getting this plum post was the culmination of a lifelong struggle to make something of myself.

A Tragedy in the Family

I am the youngest of seven children. My father has a flourishing trading business in Butuan City. There he leased a space in a building that served as our home cum store. My father sold everything -- from hardware, to groceries, to textile and agricultural products like salt, copra and rice, the business was so successful that he was able to build a three story building twp blocks away from where we lived. He put up a grocery store in front, and a warehouse at the back of the building. My parents opted to stay in our old house. But believing it was bad luck that no one in the family was sleeping in the new building, he sent all of us seven kids to stay there with some housemaids to look after us. The building was inaugurated on November 18, 1960.
Shortly afterwards, the building where my parents were staying was gutted to the ground. Fire broke out reportedly from a bakery at one end of the building and spread quickly throughout the place. My parents, two housemaids, and our dog were not able to get out. I was only six and our oldest sister was only 13 years old when our parents died in that accident.

Our two grandmothers took care of us. But without our parents providing for us, we had to struggle to survive. I shined shoes and sold newspaper. My siblings and I even sold plastics bags in the market.

It did not help that I suffered asthma. Because of my illness, I had poor grades in school. But young as I was, I knew how to pray especially when I had attacks. When she was alive, my mother taught us to pray the Rosary and the novenas. She encouraged us to attend catechism classes in our parish church.
One day, after suffering a severe attack, I went to church, approached the Blessed Sacrament, and asked God to heal me. There days after, the asthma simply left me and I’ve never had an attack to this day!

No longer bothered by asthma, I was able to finish high school and despite my low grades I managed to win a scholarship and go to college. Shortly after I graduated from college, Delta Motor Corporation, the manufacturer and distributor of Toyota in the Philippines, hired me – first as a mechanic, then as a staff in the rally and sports section. After two years, I became a manager. And soon, at age of 24, I became a member of the Toyota Motor Group.

My job brought me to various places around the world. In 1983, my company sent me to manage the After Sales Service operations of Toyota in the United Arab Emirates whose central office was located in Dubai. There, I met a woman I was to marry, Erren who worked as operation executive to Europcar Dubai. Erren and I already had a child – a charmer we named Princess- when the offer from the Toyota Company in Kuwait came.

Toyota gave me an offer I simply could not refuse, at that time, I easily fell into temptations. I loved the good life, the night life, I loved the things money could buy. I accepted Toyota’s offer and left for Kuwait in January 1990. At first, I stayed in a hotel and then in May, I moved to a condominium. By July, Erren and Princess, then one year old, were able to come and join me.

And then this. Barely a month that we’ve been together and now we were in the middle of war we had nothing to do about!
I told my boss’ secretary over the phone to calm down and then hurriedly hang up. I called Erren and told her the bad news, she stared at me speechless, her face ashen with fear.

“Come, let us pray the Rosary,” I said, trying to comfort her. Together we prayed the Rosary amid the eerie roar of Iraqi planes approaching from a distance. Boom,’ Boom,’ the condo shook again and Erren and I scampered to the window to find out what was happening. We saw Iraqi fighter jets slicing through the dark sky heading towards the Kuwaiti king’s palace. They fired missiles, hitting a building along their path.

“My God,” I thought, “what have I done? I have brought my wife and my baby right into the middle of the Gulf War! I can never forgive myself if something happens to them!

Escape Plan

I would have gone out of my wits, had the phone not rand incessantly. For a while there, I somehow forgot my own fears as my company officials, calling from their respective homes, conferred with me how we could secure our office.

We agreed to meet in the office immediately. I hesitated to leave my wife and baby. What if the Iraqis came right to our doorsteps and attacked them? I shuddered at the thought but I had an obligation to attend to. Reluctantly, I left Erren and the baby, and drove to the Toyota head office in Alrai.

The first thing we did was save valuable documents that would be destroyed if our building was attacked. To secure or sticks of spare parts, we hailed them down to the basement of our ware house and welded its steel door. Then, we copied important records in our computer into backup disks. We buried our valuables in an officer’s private property near the company compound.

Next, we immediately secured our people. The Toyota staff and their families totaled 89 people – 80 percent of whom were Filipinos and the rest Hindus and Pakistanis. We decided to gather everyone in a building Toyota had leased to be our staff house. Before daylight, rumors were going around that the enemy soldiers were already rampaging on the city streets. To protect our women and children – should the soldiers come barging into our building we put all the men on the first and second floors, married women and the children on the third floor, and the single ladies on the top floors.

Immediately, we gathered to pray for our safety. Most of us Filipinos were Catholics although there were some Protestants and Born Again Christians in our group. Then of course we had the Hindus and the Muslims among the Pakistanis. We Catholics took out a crucifix, images of the Sacred Heart, the Sto. Niño, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, set up an altar, lighted some candles, and began our daily Rosary and novenas. Some of the non-Catholics joined us, while others opted to pray by themselves in other rooms. I told them it was alright, , but I suggested that we pray at the same time, even we prayed differently.

Then, I began, to think of our escape plan. How do you move 89 people together, amid the chaos of war, out safely to an airport where they can get a flight back to their homeland? The impossible task fell squarely on me as general manager of the company.

I gathered seven of my most trusted managers and we discussed how we could escape how we would escape out of Kuwait.
Our first option was go to Saudi Arabia. It could have been our fastest way out, because Saudi was just three hour’s drive from Kuwait. However, we heard the roads to Saudi were littered with landmines and that the Americans and their allied forces had set up their armory at the Saudi border. That meant we might be caught in the crossfire between the Americans and the advancing Iraqis.

Our second option was to go through Iraq itself and pass through the neutral zone up to Jordan where we could petition our respective embassies to fly us home.
We decided to go to Jordan. It was not going to be an easy journey. We would ride in our company vehicles and drive through our embattled city streets, then negotiate a 1, 500- mile stretch of desert land under the searing sun. It was a very dangerous trip, as we might encounter enemy soldiers along the way. But our third and last option was to stay and suffer the war.

We decided to escape. But when would be the best time to do that? We didn’t have a clue, we prayed some more, asking God to show the way. One day we were all gathered in the prayer room, when many of the people kneeling in front – about 30 or 40 of then – suddenly stood up, all to see what the commotion was all about.

“Look,” they were saying, “look at the candle!” and I saw it. One of the big candles on the altar had melted and formed into what looked like the image of Mary holding the Infant Jesus. We asked each other, “What could this mean?” We then noted that this was the ninth day of our novena. And realizing that, we knew we had received the sign we were looking for. It was our time to escape.

“Come on,” I told everybody, “pack up your things tonight. Bring all the food and water you can carry. Tomorrow, we go.”

That night, as we packed our things, Erren quietly told me, “No matter what happens, just save our baby!” I hugged her and together, we cried. (to be continued in the next issue.)

In our last issue we began the story of the remarkable escape of a group of Filipino employees of Toyota from Kuwait City as they fled the incoming forces of Saddam Hussein. We stopped where they were just about to leave. The story now continues...

As early as 5:00 a.m. the next morning, I went to the Philippine Embassy to inform the embassy officials that we were leaving. I submitted to the names of everyone in our group – an important information should we need to be accounted for.

When they found out we were escaping, the officials asked me if we could bring along the wife and two children of a labor attaché. The labor attaché was on an assignment in another country when the war broke out in Kuwait. I knew it was dangerous for us to bring along diplomats or their relatives because t this point, they no longer had diplomatic immunity and were hostage targets by the enemies. But it would have been so cruel to leave them behind. So I agreed to bring them along, and just took precautions that they would not be identifies as a diplomat’s relative. And so we prepared to go.

A long, Dangerous Journey

My family and one other family would lead a convoy. This included two Toyota Crowns, one Toyota Cressida. Two Hi-Ace vans, one coaster, and one Kia pride pick up. I assigned a prayer leader in each vehicle and we agreed to pray non stop until we reached our destination. Before we felt, we Catholics prayed rosary and I noticed the non- Catholics prayed with us. Then, we were on our way.

We passed through the city streets without trouble. But when we reached the dessert, our ordeal began. Outside, the temperature was 50 degrees centigrade. It was so long a ride that we consumed our food and water half on the way. Hungry and thirsty, I looked out on a stretch of arid sand. And I remembered stories we heard in the city that many of those who had gone ahead of us to escape the war had died in this desert.

“Lord,” I prayed in my mind, “please do not abandon us here. I am not afraid. I saw in the movie The Ten Commandments that when the Israelites escaped Egypt, and they were going hungry in the desert, You sent down manna from heaven. Lord, I don’t expect food falling from the skies, but please, show us where we can get food and water!”

I looked out once more, as far as my eyes could see, and I saw nothing but a sea of sand. Then, after a few minutes, out of nowhere, I saw a woman approaching us. I stepped on the brakes and greeted the woman in my broken Arabic.

She greeted me back in a different dialect. My heart skipped a beat, “We don’t speak the same language. How can she understand me”?
Undaunted, I asked her, “Where can we get food?”

She made some gestures, and I knew then that she understood my question. She motioned us to follow her. She led us to her house, a shack in the middle of the desert, and there she gave us food! It was not much but it was better than nothing. At least it buoyed up my people’s already sagging spirit. I easily pulled out some cash in my wallet and paid for the food, thanking the woman profusely.

Obstacles at the Iraqi Border

We made it to the Iraqi border! But there, we faced yet more obstacles. First, we had to report to the Immigration Office, a few kilometers away form the border. As we approached the building, we saw Iraqi soldiers handcuffing two Europeans. They dragged the foreigners into their military jeep and drove away. Earlier, we heard on our car radio that foreigners were being taken as hostages. We felt sorry for the Europeans and once more, fear gripped us.

I gathered my managers and told them to get everyone’s passport. I would go alone inside the Immigration Office and apply for exit passes for all of us. As soon as we gathered all the passports, my manager and I held hands together and prayed before I walked to the door.

At door, a guard was trying to control a hoard of refugees. They were pushing and shoving to get to the counter where immigration officials were sternly scrutinizing everyone’s travel documents. I don’t know, but after praying with my managers, I felt certain calm amid the chaos. Confidently, I walked to the guard at the door and asked him if I could talk to his boss. He led me to one of the immigration officers!

I talked to the officer in Arabic, requesting for our exit passes. Without much ado, the officers promptly stamped out passports! When I got out of our building, I saw my people still huddled in prayer. As I walked towards them, they all looked at me anxiously, their faces all pale. Careful not to catch any attention, I whispered to them, “Don’t make noise about it....I got our passes.  Now, just move slowly to our vehicles, without  fuss."

"Thank God," one of my managers sighed, as we all quietly inched our way back to our vehicles.  Yes, God defineitely had a hand in our getting our passes so quickly. You see, many people in the immigration office had been waiting for their passes for three weeks or so. I know we wouldn’t have gotten ours had we not prayed and asked God’s help.

But we were not out of the woods, or shall I say the desert, yet. From the immigration office, we had to pass next to the Iraqi Customs Office. There a customs officers checked all our luggage and allowed us to carry them all in. but what he said next nearly floored me.

“You leave all your vehicles here” he said. “What”? I said, hardly believing what I just heard. “How are we going to get out our destination?” I complained, and then pleaded, “Sir, please let us have even just one air-conditioned van for the children. Pity the children. It’s so hot in the desert..."

Without a word, the officer grabbed me by my shirt and dragged me a few yards outside his office. He pointed an AK47 assault riffle at my stomach and snarled at me, "Mister, one more complaint and you’re dead! And not one of your companions will get through!”

Then, as quickly as he grabbed me, the officer released me and shooed me out of the Customs building. Shaking all over, I went back to my people and told them we had to let go of our vehicles. So there we were standing in the middle of a long, seemingly endless highways, the desert all around us, our vehicles gone.

“Let us pray”, I said. We started praying the Rosary but hardly had we finished the first decade, a huge Mercedes Benz truck came rolling and stopped right in front of us.

There were two men in the truck the driver and his companion who got off the truck and approached us, as he walked towards us, one of my managers said, “Boss, this much be our ride. Notice how this man looks..."

Then man was 50 or 55 years old, well built, 5 feet 11 inches tall, with long dark brown hair, and sporting a beard. “Yes” said another one of my colleagues, "he looks like St. Joseph. This has got to be our ride!”

And so it was. The man came right up to us and offered us all a ride! And – you wont believe this – the Mercedes was a double-cabin type truck, and air-conditioned, too! The man kindly let the children and their mothers into the cabin, while the rest of my people, found themselves a place in the big truck. I took the seat next to the driver, thanking him endless for his generosity.

The Death Valley

Soon, we reached the neutral zone. We passed by what was known as the Death Valley because here war refugees died of hunger and thirst. Whenever preventatives from the United Nation came, the refugees scrambled for the food and water rations. People here killed even just for a glass of water.

On our way, we noticed on the other side of the road many vehicles returning to the Iraqi border. Some of the passengers were Filipinos and, recognizing that we were Filipinos, too, they shouted to us, “Go back! The Jordanian River is closed! They’re no longer accepting refugees!”

We were just four kilometers to the Jordanian border. We had already gone this far. God had protected us along the way and even provided our needs. Would He not let us into Jordan? We prayed the Rosary again. Afterwards, I talked to God once more: Lord, in The Ten Commandments movie, when the Egyptian soldiers pursued the Israelites, You parted the Red Sea so Your people could escape the soldiers. Lord, please open the Jordanian border and let even just our women and children in. but if it is Your will, please include us men, too. Lord, please touch the heart of the officer at the border so he will let us through.”

The guards at the border stopped our truck as we reached the checkpoint zone and officer approached us. I rolled down my window and greeted the officer in Arabic, “Assalam Mu Lay Kum. May the peace of our God be with you.”

“Mu Lay Cum Salam. And be with you also,” he replied. “Kip Halik? How are you?” I asked “Oh, I’m fine,” he said. “How about you?” “Inshallah Tamam. In God’s will, I’m fine, thank you," I answered.

“So what’s your intention?” he asked. “Oh, my intention is always good,” I said. “I only want to come to your country as a refugee because you know what happened to Kuwait. I have here with me my employees and their families. It is only through your county that we can all go home.”

Do you know that the border is closed?” “Yes, but if would will allow us, then we can go through.”

He turned and conferred with his fellow officers, then walked back to me. “Okay”, he said “You can get in.” Those were the sweetest words I’d heard since the war broke out! The officers signaled the guards to open the gate and they let our truck in. As soon as we were in, the guards closed the gate. We were all beside ourselves with joy! Thank You, Lord, I whispered, unable to control my tears.

We Filipinos headed for the Philippine Embassy while the others went their respective embassies. As my employees and their f families went into our embassy. I stayed behind to thank the truck driver. I offered to pay him, handing him all the money I got – 160 Kuwait dinar. He counted the money and the promptly gave it back to me. “Keep your money,” he said. “Someday, when Kuwait liberated, you can make use of it.” Then he went back to his truck and pulled out a big box. “Here,” he said, handing the box to me, “give this to your little girl and the other children.” I opened the box and, guess what, it was filled with fruits – apples, oranges, grapes and pears! I want to thank him and shake his hand. But he hugged me and said, “May God bless you all.”

He then turned, climbed up his truck and drove away. It was already night-time. I stood there waving goodbye, until I could no longer see the truck down the highway. And then I felt peace and a presence – God’s presence. I looked up at the night sky and again prayed, this time a thanksgiving prayer as I broke into tears. “Thank you, Lord, for giving us the old man...this ...” I stopped suddenly realizing...”your angel!”

Coming Home

Our Embassy officials readily helped facilitate our flight back to the Philippines. We also got in touch with the Toyota Company in Jordan and its president kindly attended to our needs.

Erren and I hardly had money when we had back to the Philippines. We had left everything in Kuwait. Now, we had nothing. For our home, we could only afford to rent a nipa hut that was very different from our five-star condo in Kuwait with its spacious rooms, swimming pool and health club. But I guess we can’t complain. We escaped from the Gulf War unscathed. We saved our baby!

Above all, I experienced God, His light shining on my loved ones, on the people under my care, and on me, amid one of the darkest moments of my life. And as if that was not enough. He gave me more. A pleasant surprise, really Kuwait was liberated on February 1991. Shortly after, my company sent me back to Kuwait to assess the damage done to our properties. Gloom enveloped me as I drove around the city. Dark ugly oil spills coated the streets. Billows of smoke rose from toppled buildings. The house of my boss was heavily damaged. I hated to see what happened to my condominium.

I heaved a sign of relief, though when I reached our place. The building stood erect. Since it was near the Palace and United States Embassy, the condominium, was heavily guarded. I requested a guard to le me checked my unit and he allowed me in, as he escorted me to my unit, the guard warmed me there might be nothing left in it.

“Before we came, looters had sneaked into this building and emptied the apartments,” he said. I bit my lips, preparing myself for the worst, as I unlocked the door of our house, “Alah Karim”, God walked by this place!” The guard exclaimed as we entered my unit. The apartment was intact. Everything in the house was right where I left it. I went around the rooms checking if something was missing. None, not even a single napkin was taken away! “Every apartment in this building was robbed except your,” the guard said. “you are most blessed by God.” I am. Truly I am.

Lord, You parted the Red Sea so Your people could escape the soldiers. Lord, please open the Jordanian border and let even our women and children in but if it is Your will, please include us men, too, Lord.