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The multiple histories of flight BA149

Former passengers and crew of flight BA149 have launched a legal case against His Majesty’s Government and British Airways. They content that the scheduled refuelling of a civilian aircraft in military-occupied Kuwait, an invasion that became the First Gulf War, was a means for the government to deliver intelligence into the country at the cost of the safety of the crew and passengers. Those aboard the plane and the British Airways employees already in the country were nearly all taken hostage by the Iraqi army and held as ‘human shields’ for up to five months. 

‘The Gulf War did not take place’, declared the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. His controversial essay did not aim to efface the violent reality of the American led coalition against Iraq, but targeted the simulacrum of mass media coverage: the media, he claimed, conjures a reality of its own rather than reflecting what it claims to witness. However, the announcement of the legal case proposes that reality cannot be reduced to a binary of the truth and the media fiction that obscures it. Instead, the case demonstrates that re-assembling reality is an arduous and time bound process of discovery where we cannot expect to arrive at a ‘whole truth’, but must continually make space in narratives we think we know, altering history detail by detail. Thirty years after the First Gulf War, amidst geopolitical turmoil, this court case brings into sharp focus how partial a reality distorted by the media is. But the legal action pursued by the hostages suggests that it wasn’t just the portrayal of the war through screens that distorted the truth. The reality documented in the archives is not neutral either.

The hostages’ testaments trouble British Airways’ defence. Upon the announcement of the case, the company issued a statement declaring that while their “hearts go out” to the victims, the Government records confirm that the company was “not warned of an Iraqi invasion”. In 2021, the then Foreign Secretary Liz Truss stated that the British Embassy in Kuwait reported to British Airways that “while flights on 1 August should be safe, subsequent flights were inadvisable”. The BA149 departed from London at 18:04 GMT on the 1st, after a two hour delay due to “technical problems”. At “00:00 GMT on 2 August 1990”, while the flight was airborne, the British Ambassador in Kuwait reported the Iraqi invasion to the Foreign and Commonwealth office. This second call made by the ambassador in Kuwait had not been revealed until 2021, protected by the Public Records Act.

In the few syllables of “technical problems” lies the first gap that the victims’ stories begin to fill-in. If time was of the essence to land safely in Kuwait, then the two-hour delay seems risky. Those on the plane have since reported that a group of men boarded the flight during this delay. As soon as they did, ‘cabin crew doors to automatic’ chimed over the intercom and the plane began preparations to take off. The government’s statement shows that British Airways were warned that the 1st of August was their safe window. What the company did not receive was an announcement of the invasion. However, Matthew Jury from McCue Jury & Partners- the firm defending the hostages- revealed that on the evening of the 1st of August, the family of the British Airways manager in Kuwait left the country. By insinuating that the company were aware of an impending danger and able to take precautions, these pockets of information attest to the paradox of how something that is based in official records can produce counter-narratives that twist and writhe, distorting a clear reconstruction of events. 

The stories of the BA149 hostages begin to assemble a more three-dimensional image of the War in contrast to the media pageantry and broadcast footage. Instead of Hussein’s orchestrated and televised encounters with the hostages and their families, the victims describe how they were subjected to starvation, deplorable living conditions, mock executions, beatings and rape. On their return, crew members felt forced to leave their jobs prematurely because of Post-Traumatic Stress. One of the passengers was only twelve when taken hostage and describes a life ‘robbed’ and ‘overshadowed’ by the experience. But their testaments fracture our understanding of the past and deliver prismatic perspectives upon history. Suddenly, the path to the truth proliferates with byways. Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality blames this vertiginousness on media distortions. But reality is not just mediated by the media: the hostages intimate that there were a series of cover-ups and deniable operations that occurred behind our screens.

At the crux of a legal case lies responsibility, yet how do we assign culpability when the truth exists separately to what has been documented? Responsibility for the “mistreatment of [the] passengers and crew”, Truss claims, “lies entirely with the Government of Iraq at the time”. While mistreatment feels like a cruelly saccharine word compared to what the hostages were subjected to, Truss acknowledges that this event has been festering since 1990 and the scars it has grown during that time only make it harder to see how the wound was inflicted. By locating the obfuscation of truth solely with the media, the veil of hyperreality itself obscures the granular interactions that go into distorting reality, which happen in phone calls, protected documents and official statements. 

For the victims, this war was not a discreet or self-contained event. The livelihoods of those involved grow into the shape that the conflict has cast for them. Instead of what Baudrillard calls the ‘non-event of this war’, the legal case presents us with the continual event of war. As more information crawls to the surface, the victims continually adjust their concept of the reality that the world and the justice system will acknowledge as real, against the haunting persistence of their all too real experiences. Now, as tens of thousands of civilians are embroiled in vicious conflicts, we should consider what might happen to their stories in thirty years’ time. If nothing else, the case reminds us of the importance of dignifying individual voices.

Image Credit: Pedro Aragão/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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