x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Depopulated Kuwaiti island with rich past looks to brighter future

After Iraq's invasion in 1990, the latest conquest of a spit of land rich in history, the Kuwaiti government is looking to restore the community.

Members of a Greek archaeological team at work on Failaka Island.
Members of a Greek archaeological team at work on Failaka Island.

FAILAKA ISLAND // Failaka, an island that was a hub of the Gulf's ancient sea trade and a southern outpost of Alexander the Great's empire, has seen many civilisations come and go in its long history - the last to leave were the Kuwaitis themselves.

The depopulation was not by choice. After invading Kuwait in 1990, Iraqi soldiers intent on ransacking the village ordered about 3,500 islanders off the island. "Our elders told the Iraqi military, 'We are related to the island, we cannot leave it'," but they were told there were no supplies of food and water and were forced to go, said Mohammed al Failakwi, 48, an army officer who was born in one of the island's old mud huts and shares its name.

When they returned after Kuwait was liberated the next year, they found the land strewn with military equipment, shrapnel and mines. Leveled buildings and houses ridden with bullet holes now line the streets of what was once a thriving community. "The first group went to the island after three months; there were mines everywhere, so many houses had come down. You couldn't drive more than 20 metres before getting a flat tyre," he said.

As a boy, Mr al Failakwi learnt to navigate his boat using the stars off the island's shores, a skill that he still employs. Every weekend, he and his family sail the 18km stretch of water from the mainland to stay in touch with their roots. He said: "The older guys are still homesick. They go over every weekend and talk about their memories and the old days." The village's infrastructure was damaged so badly by the occupation and liberation that the islanders - known as Failakwis - settled in the capital rather than return. The island is still a popular weekend and summer retreat for thousands of Kuwaitis, but now the government hopes to entice permanent residents back. A major development scheme with an estimated cost of 500 million Kuwaiti dinars (Dh6.29bn) is in its final stages of planning.

Azhar Sheikh, an Indian receptionist at Failaka Heritage Village, which contains the island's only hotel and about 60 chalets, said: "There are a couple of hundred empty houses here and only a few of them are used. The last few years we've heard they are going to build hotels here, but they've been talking for a long time." In comparison with many parts of Kuwait, the island has archaeological heritage in spades. Archaeologists have explored a pre-Islamic settlement of Nestorian Christians that includes a church and a Greek temple built by Alexander's general, Nearchus, in the 4th century BC.

The Greeks named the island Ikaros, a word still used by the locals today. The more modern incarnation of the island's name is thought to be derived from "fylakio", a Greek word that can mean outpost. When the islanders were forced off the island they moved into a new residential area that was being built on the mainland. After the war, the government gave each islander 150,000 dinars for their old homes. Mr al Failakwi said 19 families, most of whom had two houses on the island, kept one and about 300 Failakwis usually return to spend weekends.

If the government's plan comes to fruition, the villagers' idyllic lifestyle of eating fish and crab they catch and relaxing in nights cooler and less dusty than in the city could soon be about to change. Mohsen Khaled, an Egyptian consultant in the urban planning department of the Kuwait municipality, which has been working on the plan since 2001, said it has taken so long because "it's not an easy decision to make. You only have one island." He said the plan includes new hotels, more chalets, camping facilities, facilities for landing helicopters and an additional marina.

Sabikah al Khalid, the department's assistant manager, said the plan suggests the permanent population of the island would rise to 5,000 Kuwaitis and foreigners "to give it life". She said the municipality is checking how the plans can fit in with existing land owners such as former residents and the ministry of defence, which operates two small military bases there. Adel al Roumi, the chief of the technical body to study development projects for the island, said this week that the project will be presented to foreign consultants by the end of June, the state news agency, Kuna, reported. The government added momentum to the project yesterday when the prime minister and other cabinet members inspected the island.

Although the government hopes to develop the island into a major tourist attraction, the island's former residents suspect that the plan could ruin the tranquillity that keeps them coming back. "We don't agree with any development on the island because anything new is going to bring more people. They're going to destroy the calm, what a problem it is going to be," Mr al Failakwi said. He believes that more lodgings will encourage some youths who go there to drink alcohol or abuse drugs.

@Email:jcalderwood@thenational.ae