Shant Kenderian, an American who was drafted into Saddam Hussein’s navy and captured by American forces, came to UCLA Thursday to promote his book and discuss his harrowing experiences on the front lines of Operation Desert Storm.
His book, titled “1001 Nights in Iraq: The Shocking Story of an American Forced to Fight for Saddam Against the Country He Loves,” tells the story of his unlikely survival through two wars and interrogation in an American POW camp.
The lecture, sponsored by the Armenian Graduate Student Association, was part of a series of events that invites Armenian-American authors to discuss their books on campus.
Andrew Behesnilian, a medical student and the project manager of the event, said the goal of the event was to allow students to interact with published authors in the Armenian community.
Although he was then a permanent resident of the U.S., during a visit to Iraq in 1980, Kenderian was barred from returning to his mother and brother in Chicago for 10 years when Saddam Hussein sealed Iraq’s borders and invaded Iran.
Within weeks of receiving his green card and permission to return to the U.S. at the war’s end, Iraq launched an invasion of Kuwait and Kenderian was drafted back into the navy.
Though he was born in Iraq, Kenderian said did not consider himself an Iraqi, in part because he has no living relatives in the country.
“I felt like I didn’t belong (in Iraq) and that hurt me,” he said.
Desperate to return to his family and adopted country, Kenderian volunteered for an assignment he described as a “triple suicide mission” on the front lines because he hoped he would be captured as a prisoner of war by American troops.
He said he did not mind heavy interrogation and solitary confinement “as long as I was in American custody.”
Kenderian said his book presents readers with a unique firsthand account of war.
“It gives you a feeling about war, a different perspective than the news or movies,” Kenderian said of his book.
He described the hardships of survival such as being forced to fight without adequate food, shelter or ammunition.
“We had no food, we lived on one bagel-sized piece of bread per day and drank a lot of water,” Kenderian said.
But draftee said he was relieved that he did not have to use a gun during the war because of his conflicting loyalties.
Key to his survival, Kenderian said, were the lasting friendships he made with his interrogators and a prison guard.
“It’s a very special bond, and it’s a very painful bond. I am still in touch with these people,” he said.
Areen Babajanian, a fourth-year economics and international development studies student said he thinks the story of Kenderian’s experiences is compelling.
“I’m just really interested in the premise of the lecture and the events he went through,” Babajanian said.
Raffi Kassabian, a law student and the executive officer of AGSA, said he thinks that Kenderian’s experiences are particularly compelling because the author has no political message and shares stories of human relationships.
“The story sends a universal message that everyone can relate to, whether it’s religious or cultural,” Kassabian said.