• Chapter 105: Death & Destruction

    May 18, 2016
  • Rape and torture not resulting in death were also common. Almost everyone I talked to in four days had a story of some friend or relative being so abused. One day a man handed me his business card, which said he was Bassam Eid Abhool, assistant electrical engineer at Kuwait International Airport. His fingernails were perhaps one-eighth of an inch long; tiny, soft, fragile little strips of ragged cuticle. "Ah, you see my fingers," said Abhool. "Iraqis, of course." His story was typical: picked up at random walking in his neighborhood; taken to a police station; hung upside down naked; beaten, tortured, interrogated; released with a warning. Much of the questioning was political. "They would say, 'You know what your Emir do for your people? Marry 200 women and take all your money — is this not true?' I would say, 'I don't know.' They would say, 'The Iraqi people have come to give freedom to people of Kuwait; is this not true?' I would say, 'I don't know.' "

    On Abhool's second day in prison, his interrogators got down to serious work. "Two guys take my hands and they close my eyes, and they take the pliers and they take out, one by one, my fingernails. Then they put my fingers in water with salt," Abhool recalled in a soft, dispassionate voice. On the third day, his captors crushed his fingertips with the pliers, but on the fourth day they let him go. "Later, I see them in supermarket, and they say, 'How are your fingers, are they good?' I say, 'No, they are not good.' They say, 'Come back to the police station, we will make them good.' They laugh and laugh."

    There was real resistance here, and it was never completely overcome. Dr. Hadeedi and his colleagues entered wounded resistance fighters into the hospital as car accident victims to fool Iraqi watchers and hid an entire fifty-bed ward and operating theater in three basement storerooms. Five-person resistance cells worked in a loose food and money distribution network that provided those in need with staples and cash every week. Some people fought with arms up to the end, despite an Iraqi policy of collective reprisals that meant half a dozen Kuwaiti deaths for every Iraqi death. A favored tactic was to invite a lonely Iraqi soldier home to dinner and at evening's end stab him and bury him.

    But for most people here the seven months were mostly a time for hiding. The post-liberation boasts of opposition were often about how the rich hired cranes to put their Ferraris on their rooftops, how every neighborhood was stripped of street signs and house numbers, how valuables were secreted in backyards and young men in cubbyholes.

    The liberation was, above all, a release from the grinding daily horror of hiding. I went to the street where the Iraqi governor, Ali Hassan Majid, had lived in a commandeered mansion. The women who lived across the street hadn't been outside in months, because of fear of the Iraqi guards who leered at them. Two women, one older, the other just 18, showed photographs of themselves from before the invasion, portrait shots in full hairdo and makeup. "Look at us now," said the older one. "We are ugly now. Look at our clothes. We could not wash." "Look at my hair," said the younger one, holding out a tousled rope of henna-rich auburn. "It is terrible, is it not?"

    The release from captivity took the form of that most pleasant of releases, a party. The bash began unexpectedly, early in the morning of February 26. "We woke up and saw the Kuwaiti flag flying from the police station," said Nassar Seleh. "You cannot imagine our feelings when we realized the Iraqi troops had gone from the city. In the night we had heard the tanks moving in the street, and we had dared hope they were going. But to wake up and find all of them gone — the city is ours again!"

    Suddenly everyone was a rebel. The streets were filled with young men firing rifles and pistols, making the celebration almost as dangerouse as the battle for liberation itself. Early reports cited six such deaths in the first two days; I know of three, whose fresh graves I visited in Sulaibikhat Cemetery. "Abdullah Jassim, Who Died For Kuwait," read the stone on the mound of a man hit on top of the head by a falling round.

    Suddenly everyone could be brave. People tore the Iraqi license plates from their cars; two days before, that had been a jailing offense. They displayed photographs of the Emir, wrote anti-Saddam graffiti ("Saddam, Pushed By Bush"), waved Kuwaiti flags, shouted "Kill Saddam!"; those had all formerly been hanging offenses. One car sported twenty-three photos of Kuwait's leader, his smiling face plastered on the trunk, hood, and windows, all of it festooned with bright gold and silver Christmas tree garlands. Pick-up trucks dragged effigies of Saddam by the neck through the streets, and a group of laughing teenage boys led a skinny white donkey labeled "Saddam" down the boulevard.

    At Al-Amiri Hospital a long line of cars queued up to take souvenir shells from an Iraqi anti-aircraft gun, and families posed for pictures next to it. In a heavy rain storm four young women sat in a row on the trunk of an Impala, having made a seat by knocking out the rear window. They waved to the crowd like princesses, and yelled over and over, "I am Kuwaiti! I am Kuwaiti!"

    For Americans the party offered the novel sensation of being adored in a foreign land. An American couldn't pay for anything that week in Kuwait, couldn't walk ten feet without being stopped to accept thanks, couldn't talk to anyone without getting an invitation to dinner or lunch. "Welcome, soldiers, you are welcome" three little girls in party frocks serenaded the U.S. Marines at the newly reopened American Embassy. "George Bush, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very good," an old man offered. Two women jumped from a car to proffer a daisy and a tray of cookies. "Thank you! Thank you! And thank Mr. Bush," said one. "Welcome to your country," said the other.

    At one raucous do, centered on three Kuwaiti armored personnel carriers whose crews stood unusually erect in the manner of young men posing for posterity, four teenage girls wearing sweaters covered with photos of Bush, John Major, and Margaret Thatcher (each framed with little red and gold and silver spangles) worked the crowd of American soldiers and reporters with their autograph books. I wrote, self-consciously, "To Maha, on a wonderful day, 3-1-91," under an inscription from a "Captain Henry Douglas: 'To a lovely Kuwaiti girl.' "

  • There were few Iraqis left in Kuwait City against whom retribution could be exacted. But on the outskirts of town I did see one scene of vengeance — pretty much the last thing I saw there. Five days after liberation I drove up the road toward southern Iraq, the route Saddam's soldiers had taken in flight. Every fifty or 100 yards there was a fresh kill from the slaughter the allied forces visited on the fleeing Iraqis. From each charred and trashed vehicle the belongings of the dead Iraqi driver and the dead Iraqi soldier-passengers were spread in a dirty plume on the asphalt.

    Most of the bodies had been carted away, but a fair number remained. At every spot where there was still an Iraqi corpse, a crowd had gathered. Every few minutes a new group would approach, and someone would pull the blanket down to see the enemy's face. The corpses were already decomposing, their faces yellow and black and green, their features melting together under a buzzing of flies. One by one the Kuwaitis moved cautiously forward and paid their last respects. One middle-aged man bent down, over half of a machine-gunned body wedged upside down in the driver's seat of a stolen Toyota. He spat, carefully, on the face. His friend got it all on videotape. They pulled the blanket back up and got in their car, heading up the road to spit on the next of the waiting dead.

    “Criminals do not die by the hands of the law.
    They die by the hands of other men.” 
    ― George Bernard Shaw