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Last Updated:  Thursday, 6 March, 2003, 11:08 GMT
Maids relive Gulf War fears

Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in Colombo

Kuwait City
Around 1,700 maids lost their jobs in Kuwait
As preparations are underway for war in the Middle East some migrant workers caught up in the last Gulf War are still in the process of receiving compensation for lost income and injuries.

Some 70,000 Sri Lankan maids have been compensated but more than a decade on, some are only now receiving cheques from the UN Compensation Commission.

Nearly 1,700 Sri Lankan maids who lost their jobs in Kuwait during the last Gulf War recently took part in a compensation ceremony.

It was quite a show - drummers, dancing girls and a film depicting burning tanks in the desert and fighter jets.

But women like Anula Wathi from Southern Sri Lanka now know more about war than the ministers patting them on the back.

She explains how she was in Kuwait for three and a half years, working as a housemaid.

On fire

Suddenly one night when she was sleeping her boss woke her up and told her to get up and told there was a war on - Iraq had invaded.

I made money but I banked it there in Kuwait so I lost everything
Karuna Piyaseeli
Former shop worker
"I got up and saw the school and shops were on fire," she told me.

The family Anula worked for helped her escape to Saudi Arabia but some Sri Lankan maids in Kuwait were left to fend for themselves.

Karuna Piyaseeli was a sales girl in a shop who escaped by bus to Jordan with group of other Sri Lankan workers.

She says they spent 19 days sleeping on the ground in the desert without enough food and what few valuables they had managed to salvage were robbed.

"The Iraqis, they took our things our gold, our food, our clothes," she explains.

At the compensation ceremony the women's names were called one by one to pick up a cheque for the equivalent of about $3,000.

No contact

But Karuna said this did not really compensate for her losses: "No. It is not covered. I worked there five years. I made money but I banked it there in Kuwait so I lost everything."

Former child soldiers in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankans chose to work abroad because of hardship at home
Not only did thousands of young women like Karuna have hair raising stories of escape but they had no way to contact their families back home.

Karuna left behind a husband and son who just camped out at Colombo airport hoping to find her coming off a flight from the Middle East.

She said her family had suffered enormously.

"My son was in the airport on the floor sitting and crying - waiting for me, " she says, remembering her return to Colombo airport.

Today there is no lack of workers eager to go to the Middle East for employment.

About 180,000 Sri Lankans - mostly women - are currently working in Kuwait alone and a million in the region as a whole.

But if there is a war in Iraq and it spreads to neighbouring countries, migrant workers may again find themselves the losers.

And judging by the last Gulf war it may be many years before they are financially compensated.


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