Thirty-seven days to freedom

C A P T . V . R . K E K O B A D

Print edition FRONTLINE MAGAZINE : October 12, 2018

A true story of heroism by the crew of the MV Safeer when they braved the severest
adversity and managed to sail out of war-torn Kuwait in September 1990 with 722
Indian expatriates, including 265 women and children, and bring them safely to Dubai, in one of the biggest sea evacuations of people in a cargo vessel designed to carry only 40 persons. This humanitarian mission, carried out free of cost, is a shining example of the resounding success achieved by the collective efforts of Indians from all walks of life.

ON July 24, 1990, the MV Safeer, owned by Oyster Marine Management Inc. and
registered in Panama, set sail at 5:05 p.m. from Kandla Port in Gujarat loaded
with a cargo of bagged rice and bagged animal feed.

The voyage to Kuwait was a routine one and without incident. The Safeer arrived
at Shuwaikh Port in Kuwait and docked at Berth No. 2 at 4:30 p.m. July 31.
Discharging of cargo commenced at 4:45 p.m. and ceased at 9:30 p.m. when the
shift ended. The next day, discharging operations resumed at 7:30 a.m. and
ceased at 9:30 p.m. as usual. 

On August 2, the agent at the port, Frank Rosario,
called at 8:30 a.m. and informed me, a joint-owner of the vessel, about troops
out on the streets in what looked like a military exercise. He said cargo work had
not resumed and added that he would get back to me. I waited for an hour for his
call but in vain. I learnt from the news channels that Iraqi troops had invaded
Kuwait. I tried calling Frank for an update, without luck.

I tried to communicate with the Shuwaikh Port authorities but could not get
through. All communication lines were cut and there was no way of knowing what
the situation was in Kuwait and what was going on in the port. I contacted my
colleague Capt. Ibrahim Modak in Dubai and informed him about the invasion and
requested him to try to get in touch with either Rosario or the Harbour Master at
the port. Our prime concern was the safety of the officers and crew as well as the

Next, I proceeded to our Mumbai office and informed Hanif, son of Capt. Ibrahim
Modak, about the invasion. He said he was aware of the invasion and wanted to
monitor the radio and news channels for updates. We as shipowners had never
encountered a situation where our ship was caught in a war and we had to use all
available resources to 􀂀nd out about the welfare of the crew and the ship with its

Capt. Modak informed me that he was not able to communicate with Kuwait, and
I let him know that our attempts to communicate from Mumbai were also futile.
We decided to get the Panama consulate to intervene as the Safeer was
registered in Panama. Capt. Modak would try to contact the Panama consulate in
Dubai/Abu Dhabi, and we would try to contact Panama’s consular representative
in Mumbai.

Meanwhile, we were inundated with phone calls from families of some of the crew
who had come to know about the invasion. We assured them that we were trying
our best to contact the agent and once we got some news we would keep them
informed. I also met our commercial managers, M/s Parekh Marine Agencies, and
had a detailed discussion with L.D. Parekh, Suresh Parekh and Naresh Parekh on
possibilities of asking for consular intervention through the Government of India.

Indeed, August 2, 1990, was a day of severe impact and it had put us in
uncharted territory. I could not sleep that night as everything was in limbo.

The ship’s log book entry of that day said:
No activity whatsoever in the port.

Heard news on radio that Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Sounds of gun􀂀re and shelling
could be heard on the vessel and 􀂀re and smoke could be seen all over from the
1000 hours: Approximately 15 helicopters 􀂁ew over the ship and dropped a bomb
one mile ahead and one mile astern of the ship. All crew remained in the
accommodation throughout....

On August 3, TV news channels were broadcasting that there was heavy 􀂀ring
near the port area and that Kuwait was also under Iraqi air attack which was
intensifying by the hour, and the city of Kuwait was under siege. I spoke to Capt.
Modak early in the morning, and as there was no news from Kuwait about the
ship we had decided to make all-out e􀁽orts to reach out to the Iraqi authorities
in Mumbai and Delhi. Dr M.A. Patankar, who was the doctor for most of the
consulates of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in Mumbai, was well
known to Capt. Modak and Hanif. I requested Hanif to contact Dr Patankar and
seek his assistance in getting an appointment with the Iraqi attache in Mumbai.
The phones were ringing continuously at the office as family members of the crew
wanted to know about the safety of their loved ones on board the Safeer. It was a
delicate moment and we had to handle their questions with sensitivity. They
were told that as soon as we had some news we would personally call and inform

The ship log book entries on August 3:
Still no activity in the port. (All cargo operations had stopped in port.)
Sounds of gun􀂀re and shelling could be heard and 􀂀re and smoke could be seen
all over from the navigation bridge of the ship.

3rd August 1630 hours: Iraqi forces boarded Vessel and all officers & crew were
taken on the ship & held at gun point & interrogated. At the same time lot of
provisions and stores were removed by the Iraqi forces & the Radio Room was
sealed. The offcers & crew were brought back on the ship and the vessel was put
under Iraqi army detention.

The ship was continuously being guarded by Iraqi soldiers and no movement was
allowed outside the crew accommodation. All o􀁾cers and crew were con􀂀ned to
their cabins.

On August 5, Capt. Modak informed me that the Panama consulate in Dubai was
not able to help out with getting consular access on board MV Safeer. I informed
him that Dr Patankar was trying to get an appointment for us to see the Iraqi
attache in Mumbai.

First breakthrough
Our 1st breakthrough came when Dr Patankar arranged our appointment with
the Iraqi attache in Mumbai on August 7. Both Hanif and I went for the meeting,
which was brief and to the point. We informed him that our ship was currently at
Shuwaikh Port... that Kuwait and we did not have any information regarding the
ship or the crew. 
We informed him that the crew members were of Indian
nationality and that we needed his help to allow consular access for a
representative of the Indian Embassy in Kuwait to visit the ship and check
regarding crew welfare and conditions on board. He said he would do his best to
help us out and also requested us to contact the Indian government and seek
their intervention with the Iraqi authorities so that things could move on a
diplomatic level. We also requested him to help us with the release of the ship
from Kuwait.
The meeting had gone well and it gave us a level of comfort from the trauma
which all of us were undergoing since August 2, 1990. After this meeting, I met
L.D. Parekh, Suresh Parekh and Naresh Parekh in their o􀁾ce, Parekh Marine
Agencies, and informed them about our meeting with the Iraqi attache. I also
requested their help, through their contacts in New Delhi, to arrange a meeting
with the offcials at the Ministry of Shipping.

Following this, I spoke to an official at the Ministry of Shipping and briefed him
about the ship and its crew of 26 Indians detained in Kuwait. I also informed him
that the ship was owned by Non-Resident Indians and about the meeting and
discussions in Mumbai with the Iraqi attache. I sought the Ministry’s intervention
with the Iraqi government to arrange for consular access.

I was also given telephonic access to an official at the Ministry of External Affairs
(MEA), whom I immediately informed about the ship’s detention in Kuwait. The
official said they would use their best endeavours to get permission from the Iraqi
authorities to get consular access.

Meanwhile, pressure from family members of the crew was mounting as there
was no news from Kuwait, and a lot of time was spent in speaking to them on the
phone, trying to pacify them, and in meeting those who visited the o􀁾ce.
We had also heard that the Indian government was planning to evacuate Indian
expatriates resident in Kuwait. The Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) was in the
market to charter passenger ships for evacuating Indians from Kuwait. Naresh
Parekh was in touch with the SCI to explore the possibilities of it chartering the
MV Safeer for the evacuation.

Our greatest challenge was to get approvals from various authorities to allow
passengers to travel in a cargo vessel that had life-saving appliances for 40
persons. Our safety certi􀂀cates had been issued by the Panamanian authorities,
and we had to take their specific approval to allow us to carry passengers from
the war zone, which were extraordinary circumstances. The Panamanian
authorities had agreed to this provided we could arrange for extra life-saving
appliances on board.

Our other major challenge was that the hull and machinery insurers had to agree
to allow us to carry passengers on a cargo ship. If passengers were allowed on
board without their approval, the insurance policy would be voided. Our
Protection and Indemnity (P&I) Club, West of England, also had to agree to
allow us to carry passengers. We approached Mankad of P & I Services, Mumbai,
for his guidance in approaching the underwriters and getting their approvals.
Helping in this was L.D. Parekh, who interacted with Mankad on a regular basis.
Mankad and I met the Chairman of the SCI with our proposal that the SCI charter
the MV Safeer in these exceptional circumstances to evacuate some Indian
nationals as the Safeer was already in Kuwait. The Chairman declined our
proposal on the grounds that Safeer was not certifiedd to carry passengers. The SCI
wanted to charter passenger ships on a commercial basis.

The ship’s log book entries:
From August 6 to 9: No activity in port. Ship under detention. No cargo work.
Iraqi soldiers on the jetty with guns. Guarding ship and Port.

10th August: Iraqi port authorities came on board with Iraqi stevedores with the
intention of discharging cargo with shore cranes. The shore cranes were found to
be not working so they ordered the Captain to arrange discharging with ships
derricks by shifting the ship on the jetty. Suddenly they changed their minds and
told captain not to shift the ship. They stated that on the 11th they might
consider to sail the ship to Iraqi port of UMM QASR and discharge the cargo at
Umm Qasr. In order not to go to Umm Qasr the chief engineer, chief o􀁾cer and
electrical o􀁾cer went on the jetty and located the power supply switches for the
cranes and put them ON. The cranes could now work and the Iraqi authorities left
the ship with the intention to start discharging cargo on 11th August. The
shifting to Umm Qasr was avoided.

August 11 was a key date for events that followed.
What the ship’s log on that day said:

0740 Commenced discharging rice cargo by Iraqi authorities.
1205 Mr S M Mathur, Second Secretary of Indian Embassy at Kuwait, boarded the
ship to check regarding the welfare and safety of crew and ship. All crew and
officers were safe and in good health. It was a big relief for the crew to have Mr
Mathur visit the ship.

(If the ship would have shifted to Umm Qasr then Mr Mathur could not have
boarded the ship and we would have not got any news regarding crew welfare.)

By August 13, the cargo was being discharged under the control of the Iraqi

On August 14, Capt. Zain Abidin Juvale sent a radio message in disguise. It was
sent under the identity of MV Hayatt, which was another ship owned by us. It
“All crew safe, kindly convey same to families ETD uncertain, regards, Juvale.”

We were extremely relieved to get this message and the same was conveyed to
the families of all crew members. The MEA also informed us that Mathur had
boarded the vessel and the crew and the vessel were safe. We now knew that the
Indian government had started a dialogue with the Iraqi authorities and had
started the process of intervention through diplomatic channels. We as
shipowners had put up a proposal to the Ministry of Shipping to allow the Safeer
to carry Indian nationals. Officials at the Ministry rejected the proposal on the
basis that Safeer was a cargo ship 􀂀tted with life-saving appliances for a
complement of 40 persons and that if the ship were to hit a mine or be subjected
to an attack from air or sea the consequences would be disastrous with severe
implications for the government.

Turning point
External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral was on a visit to Kuwait, and he had also met
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. In that meeting he was given the
go-ahead that Indian nationals trapped in Kuwait would be allowed to leave by
land, sea or air.

On the Safeer, discharging of cargo continued under the supervision of the Iraqi

On August 21, S.M. Mathur once again boarded the ship to escort Capt. Juvale to
meet Gujral at the Indian Embassy in Kuwait. The Indian government was keen
that some Indian nationals could be allowed to leave by MV Safeer which was
already at Kuwait. Capt. Juvale also informed Gujral that he was in a position to
carry Indian refugees and requested that discharge of cargo be expedited, and
that permission be given to carry Indian nationals on board. He also sought naval
escort for the ship in Iraqi waters.

On August 23, Capt. Juvale again visited the Indian Embassy and was informed
about the possibility of evacuation of Indian nationals on the MV Safeer and told
that he should start preparing the vessel. This matter was discussed intensely by
the Ministries concerned of the Government of India and the shipowners.
Preparing the ship

Since Indian nationals were officially allowed to leave Kuwait, I proceeded to
Delhi after securing an appointment with the Ministry of Shipping. I met officials
from the Ministry in New Delhi and suggested that the Indian Navy could help in
providing additional life jackets and life rafts to the ship in Kuwait. This
suggestion was received well and I was given contact numbers of Indian naval
officials in order to explore the possibilities. The Indian naval authorities later on
con􀂀rmed to me that they could arrange for additional life jackets to be provided
to MV Safeer.

We were now making progress and I was asked to meet K.P. Fabian, then Joint
Secretary, Gulf, at the MEA to work out the evacuation plan. Fabian welcomed me
warmly and I requested him to facilitate communications with Capt. Juvale. I had
given instructions to Capt. Juvale through the Indian embassy in Kuwait to
prepare for the evacuation and to get in touch with the Iraqi military authority in
Kuwait in order to get directions for a safe passage out of Shuwaikh Port as the
port could have been mined.

I once again sent a detailed message to Capt. Juvale through the Indian embassy,
which was received by him on August 30 and to which he had replied on August
31. He also spoke to Fabian and informed him that preparations about the
evacuation efforts were in full swing. On September 1, Capt. Juvale visited the
Indian embassy and sent messages to the MEA, New Delhi, about plans and

On September 1, by 5:30 p.m. all the cargo was discharged and the ship was
being prepared for embarkation of passengers. The preparations included making
20 temporary toilets on the main deck aft along with sanitary arrangements. All
cargo holds and the main deck were cleaned thoroughly to accommodate
The Immigration Office in the port area had been ransacked, but the crew had
befriended the Iraqi forces and managed to get their passports back.Once all
clearances were in place, Safeer’s crew started working to create makeshift
facilities for the evacuees to use during the short haul from Kuwait to Dubai.

The job of selecting passengers to travel on the MV Safeer was a difficult one as
everyone wanted to travel on the ship. It was entrusted to the transport
committee of the Indian community. There were about 500 Indians who needed
urgent evacuation. They included persons who were very sick as well as children
and nine pregnant women. The evacuees were selected in consultation with
doctors. There were six doctors and 10 nurses who were also selected to make the
voyage from Kuwait to Dubai.

September 2: The ship is being prepared for embarkation of passengers. All safety
equipment and life-saving appliances are tested and found in satisfactory

September 3: The Master con􀂀rmed that he had received 387 life jackets and 14
life rafts which were delivered with the help and assistance of Capt. Matthews,
the chief nautical surveyor at Shuwaikh Port. The life jackets were supplied by the
Indian Navy and the life rafts were sourced locally.

September 4: Embarkation starts around 9 a.m. Ship officials decide to take 700
passengers, but just after the embarkation of 700 people, some people started to
cry and beg in panic to board the ship. The totall number was 722 evacuees,
including 265 women and children.
The ship was registered in Panama, but as there were 722 Indian evacuees on
board and 26 Indian crew members, Chief Officer Nazir Mulla 􀂁ew the Indian 􀂁ag
on the stern and the Iraqi 􀂁ag on the main mast. He had also hung signs of Al
Hind on the port and starboard sides. This was done so that the Iraqi naval boats
were aware that the Safeer was sailing out of Kuwait with Indian evacuees and
not to open 􀂀re.

1630 hours: 722 Indian nationals embarked.
1650: Pilot on board.
1750: Just as the ship was entering the channel outbound, there was a loud
explosion near the floating dry dock area. It must have been very frightening for
the evacuees who had just boarded the ship. The tug that was assisting the ship
rushed to the scene of the blast and returned to the ship. Thankfully, the Safeer
negotiated the outbound channel without further incident.
1807: Pilot disembarks.
2000 hours: V/L (vessel) commences sea passage to Dubai.

The Safeer was out of Kuwaiti waters but it was still not out of danger as British
and American naval forces had surrounded the international sea border. They
could 􀂀re at an unknown ship coming from Kuwait. The Master was instructed to
send radio messages to Western naval forces informing them that the MV Safeer
was proceeding from Kuwaiti waters with 722 Indian nationals on board and to
grant the ship a safe passage in international waters.

Not everyone was as lucky as the MV Safeer. As per Lloyd’s List, a journal on the
global shipping industry, during the war, 23 seamen of Greek and Filipino
nationalities were detained by Iraqi forces when their ship MV Sea Music, too,
was caught in the invasion of Kuwait. Their fate and whereabouts were not

After two days of sailing through the mined waters of Kuwait, with the risk of
facing 􀂀re from the Western naval forces, on September 6, at 6:24 p.m., the MV
Safeer arrived safely at Dubai anchorage. The Master was given clear instructions
not to give any information to the media about the conditions prevailing in
Kuwait in order not to antagonise the Iraqi authorities who had allowed the
vessel to sail from Kuwait and also not to jeopardise the evacuation efforts for the
Indians still remaining in Kuwait.

Capt. Modak, Dubai office manager Peter Mathias, and I boarded the ship at the
anchorage with nearly 800 packets of food and water bottles for all on board. Our
good friend Dr Kinnikar had also volunteered to come on the ship to check if any
passengers needed urgent medical attention.

The evacuees were happy that the owners visited the ship with food and showed
concern for their health as we had Dr Kinnikar with us. We did not know that
there were six doctors and 10 nurses on board making the voyage from Kuwait.
Later, I met the Chief of Immigration and the Chief of Police in Dubai in order to
clarify security issues before the vessel was allowed to berth to disembark the
September 7: Capt. Modak, Mrs Saadiqa Modak (daughter of Capt. Modak), Peter
Mathias along with our Dubai office staff and I were at the pier by 7:30 a.m. to
welcome the passengers. We had arranged 1,000 food packets and water bottles
to be given to the passengers while disembarkation was in progress. Volunteers
from the Indian community had also provided water bottles and light snacks for
the evacuees.
The Indian Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and representatives of
the Indian embassy were also there on the jetty to welcome the evacuees and to
make sure that they were transported immediately to the Dubai International
Airport for their onward 􀂁ights to India.
The Dubai Port Authority, Dubai immigration officials and the Dubai Police
worked tirelessly in ensuring the safe disembarkation of passengers. The vessel
berthed at Berth Number 3 at 8:30 a.m. All passengers were disembarked from
9:10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

This humanitarian rescue mission was completed and we carry the blessings of all
passengers who were reunited with their families. We applaud the efforts of the
Master, officers and crew of MV Safeer for showing exemplary courage in the face
of crisis and adversity, and for their professionalism and conduct throughout this
difficult period.

Article by Capt Viraf R Kekobad

Related Articles-

Saviour detained

AFTER the Safeer completed the rescue mission on September 7, 1990, it sailed for Bedi Bunder in Gujarat. There the ship was given detention orders as the consignees alleged that the Safeer did not deliver the cargo in Kuwait to the consignees.
The cargo was discharged on the orders of the Iraqi army and neither the Captain nor the shipowners had any control over this situation during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. The Protection and Indemnity Club got involved and gave the necessary guarantees to allow the ship to sail.
Some other consignees also tried, in various far eastern ports, to detain the vessel for non-delivery of cargo in Kuwait. This caused severe disruptions in normal trading of the ship and eventually the owners were forced to sell the ship and incurred heavy losses.

Acknowledge  Page 1 Page 2

WE wish to thank and acknowledge the efforts of all the parties who were responsible for making this mission successful. Our thanks to K.P. Fabian and his team at the Ministry of External Affairs; the Ministry of Shipping; the Indian Navy; the Iraqi authorities; S.M. Mathur and officials at the Indian Embassy in Kuwait; Joe Monteiro; Capt. Matthews, Nautical Surveyor, Port of Shuwaikh; Frank Rosario of our agency in Kuwait; the Indian community in Kuwait and Dubai, the Dubai police; the Dubai immigration authorities; Peter Mathias and all our office staff in Dubai and Mumbai; and Dr Kinnikar for their help and dedication without which this mission could not have been accomplished.
Special thanks
To my mentor, and senior colleague, the late Capt. Ibrahim Hussain Modak, for his continuous support, encouragement and guidance during the extremely stressful period when the Safeer was detained in Kuwait. I interacted with him regularly in strategising an action plan and kept him apprised of the day-to-day progress of events as they unfolded.
I was travelling between Mumbai, New Delhi and Dubai during this period in order to conclude negotiations with the Iraqi consulate/authorities and the Ministry of External Affairs and to finalise arrangements with the Dubai immigration/police authorities for security measures and clearances for passengers in Dubai. Hanif Modak was fully involved in assisting me with all our efforts in Mumbai and played a major role in pacifying the family members of the crew.
Capt. Modak was in Dubai throughout and was attending to all matters pertaining to the rescue efforts at his end, ably supported by Peter Mathias, our Dubai office manager.
To the late L.D. Parekh and Suresh Parekh and Naresh Parekh of Parekh Marine Agencies, Mumbai, who assisted us in establishing contact with the MEA and rendered their expertise and help in our interaction with the MEA as well as trying other avenues for the release of the officers and crew.
To S.K. Mankad, Chairman of P & I Services, Mumbai, for supporting and guiding us in all matters relating to insurance policies of MV Safeer and interacting with underwriters and West of England P & I Club.

To Dr M.A. Patankar for giving us the first breakthrough by arranging a meeting with the Iraqi attache in Mumbai.
To the Master, officers and crew for their exemplary conduct, dedication and heroic efforts for reuniting the passengers with their families.


A true story of heroism by the ship's crew who faced tremendous odds in face of adversity and eventually managed to sail out of war torn region of Kuwait, with 722 Indians expatriates which included 265 women and children and brought them safely to Dubai, in one of the biggest sea evacuation of refugees on a cargo vessel, designed to carry only a complement of 40 persons. 

This is a glaring example of the collective efforts of Indians from all walks of life who came together selflessly, in making this humanitarian mission a resounding success.​​

This humanitarian mission was carried out free of costs.

M V Safeer was the only ship which was allowed to sail out of Kuwait with 722 Indian Nationals ( which included 265 women, children and infants) on this historical and humanitarian voyage which has NO PARALLEL IN RECENT HISTORY.

This humanitarian mission was carried out in August - September 1990 free of costs by the owners.

Capt I Modak
                                  Capt V R Kekobad and Mr Hanif Modak