A Twist of Fate

By Dr. Utpal   Kumar Kataky, Dubai

Three women in Kuwait city spent restless and sleepless nights. Staff nurse Jacob in the Nurses’ hostel painfully recalled her telephone conversation with the evening supervisor. "Why should it have happened when I was on duty?" she almost said loudly. The second woman, Ayesha, sobbed intermittently, staring at the vacant wall in cell no. 15 of the Central Prison. "If only the clock went backwards", she pondered, "Everything could have been reversed." And Hema, the third woman, was equally disturbed trying to comfort the baby letting out volleys of screams possibly from abdominal colic or instinctive denial of warmth from his biological mother. She was in perpetual fear, for, being in possession of someone elses child, could lead to harsh punishment. " How long can I care for this baby?" "Would Ayesha be released that easily?" were some of the questions that came to her mind.

Earlier, Nurse Jacob, in-charge of ward 3, was sweating profusely as she telephoned her Supervisor to report the disappearance of the baby in room no. 4. In fact, before that call, she had frantically searched all over the ward, questioned all other staff members and even the visitors in the adjacent rooms. The nurse assigned for that room had fed the baby an hour earlier and put him to sleep before attending to another child. Soon the Evening Supervisor dashed to the ward and after a quick enquiry, phoned the Matron and alerted the security to check all exit points of the hospital. Within minutes the Matron, accompanied by the Hospital Superintendent, arrived to conduct an on-the-spot study of the incident. In the next few hours the news spread like wild fire – three month old baby Asif disappeared from Children’s ward in Kuwait General Hospital.

That was about a month before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Prior to that the city boasted of a community with per capita income as one of the highest in the world. The oil wealth boosted trade and the petro-chemical industry provided job opportunities to thousands of locals and expatriates. With affluence came comfort and most households employed domestic servants from India, Sri Lanka and the Philipines. These housemaids worked hard in return for a monthly wage, part of which they sent regularly to support their families back home. Ayesha from Sri Lanka, was employed by Abdulla Yusuf a Kuwaiti businessman. His wife, Amina, worked at a government school and they had an eighteen month old boy called Ahmed. Besides other household chores, Ayesha was expected to attend to Ahmed while the parents were at work. They lived in a large villa in the posh residential area of the city.

The Kuwait General Hospital, a 600-bedded hospital, started functioning during the late eighties and is one of the best hospitals in the Gulf with all major specialities and sub-specialities. The staff consists of well trained nurses, a team of highly qualified medical staff and efficient administrators. The hospital is surrounded by magnificent lawns, spotlessly clean interior and remarkably tight security at two or three gates. The Children’s Wing is spread over two floors, wards 3 and 4 and can admit a hundred and twenty patients at a time. In each floor there are ten four-bedded rooms and the remaining single cubicles for admitting children with escorts or for those that are special cases. Baby Asif was considered a special case and was allotted a cot in cubicle no. 4.

Mariamma Jacob, in her early twenties, had an outstanding career, having qualified from Trivandrum Medical College Hospital followed by B.Sc Nursing in June ’86. After spending a year in the same hospital as a trainee nurse, she applied for a job in the Gulf and was selected as a Staff Nurse for the Children’s ward in the newly opened Kuwait General Hospital. A dedicated, well-mannered and an efficient nurse, she was liked by her colleagues, her superiors as well as patients in the ward. A few years after her appointment, she was given the responsibility of being in-charge of the unit and was even on the promotion list. Unfortunately, her untarnished career had been cut short by baby Asif’s disappearance.

Ayesha was hard working and was loyal to her employer who relied a lot on her for tending to their baby Ahmed. Abdulla’s job warranted frequent tours to other cities in the Gulf and Amina had a hectic social life. She failed to pass the driving test a few times after which they decided to employ a driver for their Mercedes 500 SEL. Kazim, a young Zanzibari, was among many who had applied for the job and was adjudged the best. He was a school dropout and youngest of four sons of a poor Zanzibari family. His family back home relied on his support and, therefore, he started his new assignment with a lot of sincerity and zeal.

Days passed into weeks and weeks into months. Between dropping and picking up Amina from school, Kazim had a lot of spare time in hand. Often he would join Ayesha in having tea and snacks. They would exchange conversation about their families back home as well as gossip about their employers and their lifestyle. With the passage of time, casual chat became more serious and an inadvertent fondness developed for one another. Gradually fondness grew into closeness and closeness into intimacy. The employer’s absence prepared for them an excellent ground where nature took its own course. A couple of months later, to their utter shock and disbelief, Ayesha was expecting Kazim’s child.

The punishment, for a relationship outside marriage, is very severe in these Gulf countries. The Sharia law is strictly applicable and it says," The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, flog each of them with hundred stripes, let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if ye believe in Allah and the last day, and let a party of believers witness their punishment." When a child is born out of wedlock, a police case is filed, the couple serves a prison sentence and are then deported to their country of origin. The illegitimate child undergoes routine screening in a hospital, goes into custody of the Social Welfare Department and is eventually adopted.

When Ayesha and Kazim discovered about their predicament, they were totally devastated. As soon as they recovered from the initial shock, they began to plan for their future action. Termination of pregnancy is forbidden except for serious medical reasons. To leave the country would be impossible since their passports would be with their sponsors. As for Ayesha, absconding would be a possibility but she would have to depend on someone for food, shelter and security.

And that happened to be Hema, another Sri Lankan housemaid from a village near Ayesha’s. She had deserted her sponsors a couple of years back and was living in the country illegally. In fact, she lured other housemaids into leaving their employers and taking up several part-time jobs so as to earn more in a shorter period, while she claimed a monthly commission from each. Having settled down in that business, Hema made several phone calls, often anonymous to prospective part-timers, and, on one occasion, her bait happened to be Ayesha. As their conversation progressed, they realised that their families back home were well acquainted. One day, with the pretext of going out shopping, Ayesha met Hema and finalised Ayesha’s plan to elope. Hema had no idea that Ayesha was pregnant.

Ayesha and Kazim met secretly several times amidst growing apprehension as to their fate. Once they were out of the mess, Kazim promised to marry her. Although that was a consolation for Ayesha, she knew that her conservative family back home would oppose her marrying a foreigner. A few days later, Ayesha tearfully kissed good bye to Ahmed and slipped out of the back door while her employers were entertaining some guests in the living room. When they discovered that Ayesha had absconded, there was a lot of anger and frustration.

Hema was furious when she found out about Ayesha’s state. "Why didn’t you tell me earlier? You’ve come here to work or sleep around with men?" Ayesha had no answer to those questions. She felt helpless and guilty. She realised she would be a burden to Hema in days to come. On the other hand Hema thought she had an obligation towards Ayesha to help her out during her crisis. She recollected that some years back Ayesha’s father had helped Hema’s family in solving a land dispute without which her family would have been in dire straits. Therefore, as Ayesha’s pregnancy proceeded, Hema arranged to offer her all support on compassionate grounds.

Kazim, meanwhile kept a low profile. They often spoke on the phone and occasionally met at Hema’s place secretly. One day Kazim told Ayesha that his mother was seriously ill and that he had to leave for his country urgently. He departed the next morning leaving Ayesha in a state of apprehension. A couple of weeks later she received a letter from him stating that his mother had recovered but as he was about to fly out of Dar es Salaam, the authorities detained him and forcibly pressed him into military service. That was the last time Ayesha heard from him but believed that one day he would return to legalise their relationship.

After a month, one evening, Hema rushed Ayesha to the Emergency Unit of Kuwait General Hospital from where she was admitted to the labour suite. As she was being trolleyed through the long corridor , Abdulla Yusuf, who was waiting outside one of the consultation rooms with his wheezing son, spotted her and immediately reported to the hospital authorities. Soon Ayesha was identified as Abdulla’s runaway maid who was to give birth to an illegitimate baby. Thereafter the whole incident took an ugly turn. A police case was filed and a search was launched to find the father of the baby, who in the eyes of the law, was equally guilty. The baby boy, was snatched from her and admitted in cubicle number four of the children’s ward while Ayesha was shifted to the Central prison awaiting deportation.

Meanwhile Hema was totally bewildered by the incident. "Every thing would have gone smoothly had it not been for the presence of Ayesha’s sponsor at the emergency," Hema thought. The clerk at the Registration Desk of the Emergency Unit had not suspected Ayesha’s fabricated story that her husband was in Sri Lanka and would join her in a few days. Ayesha would have got away with the situation at least for the time being. Within the next few days a brilliant plot hatched in Hema’s mind. "If only I can unite Ayesha’s son with her, I could repay all that her father had done for us," she thought. With a fake identity, Hema would pose to be a visitor in the Children’s ward during the visiting hours. She would rehearse on a few occasions before being able to locate precisely where Ayesha’s baby was actually placed. Without raising any suspicion she would watch every movement of the staff and wait for the opportune moment when the baby would have been fed and had gone to sleep. On that crucial evening, everything went on smoothly as planned and Hema, quickly and cautiously lifted the baby from the crib in cubicle number 4. She carried him inside her abayya (black tunic), made her way to the elevator and descended to the ground floor. Then she casually walked past the reception to the main exit and got into a waiting taxi to reach her apartment within the next fifteen minutes.

A few days later, at a closed-door session at the conference room of the hospital, a full-scale enquiry regarding baby Asif’s disappearance took place. Present at the meeting were the police chief, the CID officer, the Director of the hospital, the Matron, the Charge-Nurse of the Children’s ward and the Chief Security Officer. Earlier a few probable eye witnesses present at that time in the ward and near the elevator were questioned. Ayesha was stunned when she was interrogated in her cell about the incident. Hema had not been able to convey to her what would have been excellent news. Hema also knew how desperately Ayesha wanted to nurse and cuddle her infant. The enquiry was soon over but no conclusive evidence was found regarding the baby’s abduction. Nurse Jacob received a two-week suspension order for lack of alertness. The two security personnel at the main exit of the hospital were terminated from service.

And on the 2nd of August, when the people in Kuwait were in deep slumber, Iraqi tanks, armoured vehicles and machine guns rolled onto the streets of the city. The airport was sealed off, telecommunication was disrupted and in the next few days the Iraqis captured all the key installations leading to world-wide condemnation. Looting and arson had taken place on a large scale and hospitals were flooded with casualties. Most Kuwaities escaped across the desert in their large jeeps to adjacent Gulf States. Stranded foreign residents concealed themselves in their apartments waiting to be airlifted to their respective countries. As the prison guards too ran for their lives, it was a great opportunity for prisoners to escape. Ayesha silently thanked the aggressors for her freedom and cautiously trudged towards Hema’s flat which was partially destroyed by the shelling. To her utmost surprise she found Hema in possession of her child. Great big tears rolled down her cheeks as she hugged the baby. "This is the greatest moment of my life," she said after she heard the story . She expressed her heartfelt gratitude towards Hema.

As the Allied forces prepared for an assault to liberate Kuwait from the invasion, people residing there continued to escape by various possible routes. Continuing to live there was gradually becoming a nightmare. Basic amenities were lacking, humanitarian assistance was non-existent and, worse still, there was scarcity of food items including infant formulae. Some risked their lives taking lifts in whatever conveyance was available across the desert in the scorching heat. Others abandoned their homes and managed to sail across the Gulf to a neighbouring country. Governments of countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka air-lifted their stranded citizens to their respective countries, in what turned out to be a costly and laborious exercise. Hema and Ayesha with her infant, together with a planeload of other Sri Lankans, were greatly relieved on the day they were able to land at Colombo International Airport. Mercifully the immigration officials at Colombo did not bother to ask about the baby’s birth certificate since most residents, fleeing in panic had lost their documents.

(Names of people and places are fictitious)