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The ‘Gulf’ Between then and now

By: Steve Brookes MBE

The work of the Coventry base of the Gulf Support Group in retrospect


It is not always recognised that Coventry has a very important role in international affairs, and is a centre of world reconciliation, and long may this continue, but for my then wife Josie and I, the central importance of Coventry was not other than passing local interest until 1990.

Up till then I had only heard it said that a phone call can change your life.

My phone call came on August 3rd that year and the resulting changes were intense, wide ranging and, frankly, painful.

My closest friend Eric Watson and Tim his son were on British Airways flight 149 en route to Singapore to meet his wife Wen Li. The touch down for refuelling at Kuwait airport was normal, albeit a bit behind schedule. But, that delay was to prove critical, for within an hour Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait and the airport was bombed.

Shortly after this, for Kuwait is very small state, Iraqi troops arrived and detained all the passengers and crew, and the news started to filter out about the events.

The phone call to my then wife Josie and I that night was from Wen Li who, because of my involvement in the airline industry hoped I may be able to find out what was going on.

I called the Coventry Telegraph and spoke to Theatre Critic Peter McGarry to see if the local press had any news through Reuters, not yet broadcast, and naturally Peter was concerned because Eric was at that time the Musical Director at the Belgrade Theatre.

By the next day, the Telegraph had made the news front page headline, and in the meantime I had called Rob Hayward (Member of Parliament for Kingswood Bristol) who had been interviewed on BBC TV because he had a friend in the BA crew and knew others on the flight. His response to my call was unexpected in that he had received calls from the Midlands area and asked if we would take a few calls for him.

Those few calls had become over 250 in the first days from August 4th to the 6th, and by then our details and number was shown on BBC Ceefax and .ITN text.

The numbers of British civilians held grew to a total in Kuwait and Iraq of around 5000, and we soon became swamped, at which stage the Telegraph and BBC local radio came to our aid by publicising our need for help to answer the phones - for by now we had gained two more lines from BT - and man our office, which was the rapidly converted front bedroom of our Chapelfields house.

I will at this point say that the initial help and support was tremendous and it soon became clear that we had, by accident established a very competent support organisation.

The link with Rob Hayward grew, as did a similar link with Joanna Copley in London whose sister ‘Cat’ was a passenger on the flight, and it was soon obvious that we had knowledge of around 50% of families and friends of those involved.

At this time we had contacted, but had been largely ignored by the Foreign Office, who it transpired knew little about anything anyway.

Rob moved back to London at the end of summer - the Commons Recess- and yet decided to continue his work of helping others, so, with some manipulation, he obtained a spare office in the West End, and set up the Gulf Support Group. We remained in Coventry, looking after the increasing numbers of relatives who registered with us.

Equipment was begged borrowed and bought (very cheaply) and a computer complete with excel style programme was provided along with some valuable funding from Coventry City, for already we were aware of the mounting costs of help.

In Kuwait and Iraq, meanwhile, the civilians had become the ‘Human Shield’ guests of Saddam Hussein, many held at so called strategic sites, and through help from Kuwaiti resistance, or by their own bravery, people had started to escape and return home. Upon these returns, we received calls to calls stating that names could be taken off our lists, but equally advised us that it would be good if we could talk to the wife of ‘Fred’ or the mother of ‘Jim’ (made up names) to say they were safe and being held at such and such a place.

This we did, and much to our surprise found that the recipients of the calls knew nothing about the information. So, we listed names and called the Foreign Office emergency unit operator. After some initial humming and delay in putting us through, suddenly frenzy broke out and we were ‘asked’ to come to London as a matter of urgency.

What had happened was that we had started to find out what the Foreign Office needed to know and that was the location of people and more importantly the strategic sites.

Over the months between August and December 1990. the stresses and pain was evident on all of us, as the phone calls became more frantic and fearful. Few of us were eating properly, and tempers became frayed. Personal relationships suffered and many never recovered. It is a sad reality that of all those, including friends and relatives of the Gulf Hostages that over 70% had relationship failures and unfortunately, deaths from stress and even suicide have been continuing to this day.

At the time, the unmoveable stance of the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher did not help in making people feel that the hostages would be released early, although over the weeks, the women and children were sent home to an uncertain future, and the real fear of death in the inevitable conflict was growing.

The ability to use words and know the press meant that I became almost a permanent fixture on radio and television as group spokesperson, and rarely a day went by without some appearance or sound bite being broadcast. The ways the media handle people was something I quickly learned, and I have vowed in my own new found journalistic feature writing never to apply the unrelenting pressure-to which I and others were subject- to talk to victims and obtain stories of immense grief for the next edition or headline. I once was asked by a respected member of a TV station if I had any ‘good strong grief’ for the 9 pm night news.

However, there were some interesting aspects of the work which remain fresh in the mind, not the least being meetings with senior diplomats, media personalities and Royalty. The day of our first meeting with Princess Diana is one we won’t forget. She was different from the subsequent mixed image given to her, and displayed a genuine and deep concern for the people we were helping.

Press conferences, briefings and meetings with Foreign Office Ministers became daily events, and it was always a pleasure to meet Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, who was consistently honest and open with us, and someone a lot of politicians could well have taken lessons from.

The rest as they say is history, as in December, Saddam realised that the West and the Allies were not going away, and so he released all the remaining hostages. Josie and/or I met each and every flight at Gatwick or Heathrow, and I will be haunted by the look of tired relief on each passenger, including Eric who just ran to us with no word needing to be spoken.

But the release was not, and still is not the end of the story, for the treatment of those who lost six months of their lives to threat and fear was unforgivable. The wife of a British businessman killed in the early days while trying to escape has so far received the sum of £10000.

We and the others who set up the support group suffered in our own ways, and although there were MBE’s for our work in helping others, life was never the same again.

Steve Brookes MBE

Copyright © - Steve Brookes 2002 - All rights reserved


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