Tuesday 16 June 2009

The Gas Mask - an excellent dietary aid and facial sauna!

When the ground war started in January 1991 we were well prepared. Told to expect chemical or poison bombs we had to have a sealed room allocated to which we ran as fast as we could after the sirens went off. Then once inside we had to make sure all cracks were sealed, fill a large container full of water and sit with our gas masks on until the all clear sounded. We had also been told that it might be a good idea to wear rubber clothing!!! I do have a photo somewhere of someone who actually did that the first time a scud was sent over from southern Iraq. They looked like something out of the Rocky Horror show - complete with marigolds! In fact the whole thing had a kind of surreal gothic sci-fi aura about it.

The student population had been decimated due to hysterical parents demanding the return of their precious offspring. Being 34 and not so precious, my mother had instructed me to "remember you're British, darling", so I stayed through all the fun. Even though many had returned to the bosom of their families, there were still about 30 students and staff ensconced at the Institute for the duration. This meant that there were two rooms allocated to be used as sealed units.

When the siren went off for the first time, I wisely headed towards the one that had the loo. The other room (which was right next door) was without "facilities". Needless to say someone in that room needed to use the "facilities" pretty soon after lock down.

I probably need to explain here that we had no idea what might happen. For all we knew a whole raft of scuds with chemical warheads could've been winging their way across the desert. So the first night we heard those jolly sirens we kept to the rules, including (or so we thought) not opening the door so the poor girl in the room next door could nip along to the loo.

What followed is a bit hazy. I mean why did the Principal, whose bedroom I was in, keep a pickaxe next to his
bed? And whose idea was it to start breaking the wall down between the rooms? Remember this was a first century construction, so there was none of your Barratt Home flimsy breeze block and internal wall cavities. This was built by Herod and the walls were three foot thick! After a while most of us were covered in dust and the demolition workers were finding the gas masks a bit of a hindrance. Also some poor s*d had to keep an ear to the radio, just in case there was any news.

Meanwhile next door and unbeknown to us, there had been a steady stream of people leaving the sealed room to avail themselves of the "facilities" down the corridor! After about five hours, and just when we were making aural contact, the all clear was sounded and we all trotted back to bed. The Principal and his wife now had one heck of a mess to clear up and a brand new open doorway through to their neighbours (the occupants of the other sealed room), a lovely
Japanese couple with two very young children!

After this initial furore caused by one Saddam Hussein, we quickly got into a routine with the scuds. No one ever wore their gas masks (or marigolds!) again and we got the sealed room routine down to a fine art. I think there were about thirty of these altogether and we spent the time playing
Rook, reading, chatting or sleeping (as most of the scuds were sent over at night).

In between times we studied, had classes, went to the movies, played volleyball and became experts at Rook.

The first Gulf war ended on February 28th 1991, which just happened to be the Jewish feast of Purim. Then, before the authorities would let any of us foreigners leave the country, we had to give our gas masks back and have our passports stamped to prove it!


  1. Oh heavens, gas masks freak me out. Even as kid seeing them behind glass at the local museum they gave me the creeps.
    Its amazing that you stayed through such rough times. Bombs are bad enough but possible chemical warfare? Oh god no, I'd have been off!
    The sealed room, the gas masks, it all sounds like something from a WW history book. Hard to believe this was the early nineties. Even harder to believe that war is still happening in 2011!

  2. War has always been! It's part of the human condition :((( We have the ability to be so much more thorough now!

    It was quite exciting to be there, but it played havoc with your sleep :( Was watching a programme the other day about the blitz and I am in awe of the people that lived through it.

  3. I detest the things. Having had to put on one..actually a respirator, and wear ot 15 minutes was torture as it was difficult to breathe and ones tendency toward claustophobia comes galloping out of the woodwork and attacks full on!


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