Heroes of Greater Tunb receive medals
RAS AL KHAIMAH // At dawn on November 29, 1971, the first sign of war was a helicopter flying over the single police station on Ras Al Khaimah's Greater Tunb island, leaving a trail of papers fluttering down from the sky.
Each leaflet was a manifesto in Farsi telling the residents of the island to surrender to Iran.
"But we didn't know this language," said Mohammed Ali, who is about 60 years old and was one of six police officers on duty that morning.
The six men and their families received President Sheikh Khalifa's Head of State Merit Award last month for their actions.
The men had expected only a peaceful two-month posting on island of fishermen and farmers. Mr Ali knew nothing of the years of tense negotiations among Iran, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah about the sovereignty of three islands at the mouth of the Gulf - Sharjah-administered Abu Musa and RAK-administered Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb.
While retaining full sovereignty over the island, Sharjah's Ruler had agreed shortly before the formation of the UAE to allow Iranian troops on part of Abu Musa for an annual payment of £1.5 million in aid for up to nine years. RAK's Ruler, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed, refused to lease the islands.
The Tunb police knew none of this until they saw six Iranian warships - two bound for each island.
The men dressed in five minutes, picked up their shotguns and British-made machine guns and stationed themselves at the windows of the two-room station as the Iranian soldiers came ashore.
A landing force of up to 200 Iranians made its way on to the island and starting evicting residents.
Mr Ali said the Iranians opened fire first.
"Our people also started to shoot against them to save themselves," said Mr Ali. "We said: 'If we're going to die, we're going to die, so we must fight'.
"We had no choice."
Four of the officers were injured and their leader, Salem Suhail, was killed. Another, Hantoush Abdullah, was taken prisoner. Three Iranian soldiers were killed.
Mr Ali scratches his right thigh when he recalls the battle.
"It's still there," he said of the bullet wound. "After the war was finished, we were bleeding for half an hour and they took us to Bandar Lengeh."
Mr Ali recalled that the men were treated well after their capture. They recuperated at Bandar Lengeh's military hospital for about 12 days, then spent five days in a military camp before they were flown to Dubai.
But Mr Suhail's body remained on the island.
The survivors remember watching Mr Suhail's defiance, his refusal to lower the Ras Al Khaimah flag from the police station when he was ordered to by the Iranian soldiers. When he refused, he was shot.
"We knew something was terribly wrong when communication with the island was cut abruptly," said Ali Suhail, Salem's older brother, who was a police officer at RAK's main police station. He was on duty at the time of the invasion, and recalled an urgent message in Morse code being cut off in mid-transmission.
"My brother was barely there a month before he was killed," said Mr Suhail, who is in his 70s.
Unmarried, Salem Suhail was 20 when he was killed. He was one of five brothers, three of whom joined the police force.
"He was a very passionate, stubborn person, and so I wasn't surprised when I heard he was killed defending something he believed in," said Mr Suhail. "He died a hero's death."
Many of the island's residents were observing a sunnah fast, in which Muslims fast for several days during the month of Shawwal.
By evening, about 150 residents were sent off on fishing boats to Ras Al Khaimah, and endured a journey of more than six hours without anything to eat or drink. Sheikh Saqr Al Qassimi, Ras Al Khaimah's Ruler, and his sons, Sheikhs Khaled and Sultan, were waiting for them at the emirate's port. The refugees were taken to his palace for iftar in cars arranged by the palace.
Mr Suhail was there as well, waiting for his brother's body.
"I wished they sent us back his body. I was told later the Iranians buried his body on the island," Mr Suhail said. "I never got the chance to say goodbye to him.
Their bravery is still recalled by modern-day officers.
"All of these men, they were very quiet at that time. Nobody had fire in his head," said Mr Ali's friend Edress Abu Baker, a police officer who has worked with him for decades. "Police do not enter political discussions. Our men, they were not prepared."
Updated: January 2, 2012 04:00 AM