QARUH ISLAND // The first time Col Abdullah Dashti, 49, raised a flag on a tiny island in Kuwait's southern waters, it was more than just an expression of patriotism; it signified the beginning of the end of an occupation that shook the entire region.
When he again planted a flagpole in Qaruh Island's sand on Tuesday, he began Kuwait's celebrations marking 20 years since Saddam Hussein's armies withered away in the face of an onslaught from a superior force.
"I'm very honoured and very proud to raise the flag once more," Col Dashti said. When he and two Kuwaiti sailors hung the flag from a tower on the island after it was recaptured by coalition forces, on January 25, 1991, "it was exactly like this", with scattered clouds hanging over the blue water lapping at the shores of the coral island, he said.
"The island was attacked by US marines and then they asked us to raise our flag. We started to look, but couldn't find one," he said. A US navy commando gave them their chance to make history when he gave them his own Kuwaiti flag.
The commemoration on Tuesday included a "re-enactment" of the Kuwaiti military storming the beach. Troops fired blanks and set off flares before charging from the beachhead, and navy frogmen emerged from the sea with a picture of the emir.
"This means a lot," said Brig Jassim al Ansari, 55, who was the commanding officer of one of the Kuwaiti ships involved in the operation. "This was the first piece of land liberated, and it boosted the morale of the whole of Kuwait: people inside and abroad."
About 20 boats, including Kuwaiti navy ships that took part in the battle 20 years ago, dhows and pleasure craft, circled the island, which is 40 kilometres from the Kuwaiti mainland. Approximately 300 military personnel and 100 civilians watched the ceremony, the first event to take place leading up to Liberation Day, which is observed on February 26.
Members of Kuwait's navy, which was composed of a handful of ships and headquartered in Bahrain during the Iraqi occupation, landed after US forces bombed the occupiers and cleared channels through the mined waters.
Brig al Ansari said: "There was no fight, they didn't even resist."
Col Dashti said the Kuwaiti navy was active throughout the occupation in search-and-rescue operations looking for American pilots who had ditched into the Gulf. He said the allies reclaimed the island - which is usually unoccupied save for a few coast guard personnel - as part of a 45-day operation to capture Iraqi scouts occupying nearby oil rigs and liberate Kuwait's offshore territories. Despite the fighting and a missile attack on one of the ships, no Kuwaiti military personnel died during hostilities.
Many Kuwaitis on the island for the commemorations were too young to remember the occupation. "It's like we can see it again, what happened," said Faisal al Zuwaied, 23, an engineering student representing the Kuwait Volunteer Work Centre at the ceremony. "They should keep doing this so that generations to come can remember the liberation."
Others at the re-enactment were among the hundreds of thousands of citizens who left the country or were unable to return while abroad. "We were expecting the liberation, the news kept saying 'soon, soon, soon', but it took seven months," said Fadel Jerman, 50, an adviser for Redo, a non-profit organisation in the renewable energy sector.
Mr Jerman was studying in Jordan when the Iraqi armies moved south, and was among the first citizens to return home - in early march of 1991 - where he began working as a translator and guide for the US Army Corps of Engineers.
"It wasn't just the liberation of our country; it was also the liberation of our families. We know what it's like to be homeless ... it was a tough experience," he said.
Since liberation, Kuwait's relationship with Iraq has been strained by debt and reparations, missing citizens and stolen artefacts. But recent diplomatic moves, such as the arrival of an Iraqi ambassador in Kuwait last year and the visit of Kuwait's prime minister to Baghdad this month, are paving the way for better ties.
"It won't happen again because the world has changed," said Ahmad Hussein, 43, a member of an international organisation of religious teachers, the Ulama of Islam. "That crazy thing that Saddam [did]: nobody would repeat it."
Mr Hussein was in jail with hundreds of others in Basra "for being Kuwaiti" when the coalition forces advanced on the city. He said the prisoners realised the liberation was under way when Iraqi troops started pouring into the city. Two weeks later, they were free.
"All the days we are free we must thank God for the liberation," the Shiite religious teacher said.