by Paul D Kennedy
© Paul D Kennedy, February 2000
Paul D Kennedy was the Irish government’s liaison officer for the Irish community in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation.
This article was first published in the Arab Times in the Liberation Day section, to commemorate Kuwait's liberation from Iraq in February 1991.
I suppose everyone who was in Kuwait for the duration, or at least until the Westerners were allowed out, heard the one about the Iraqi soldier who turned up at a local hospital with severe stomach cramps. When the examining physician, a Kuwaiti, asked him what he had eaten, he replied:
'Bread and cream cheese'.
'Where did you get it?'
'Found in house.'
The soldier then pulled the remains of some bread and a few blue tins from his pocket and showed them to the doctor. The doctor could not help laughing.
'Habibi, this is not cream cheese. It’s Nivea. You shouldn’t steal from houses what you don’t know.'
The good doctor wasted no time in spreading the story around. The apparent stupidity of the common Iraqi soldier, who couldn’t tell the difference between cheese spread and facial cream, cheered us all up no end.
For most Westerners who were in Kuwait in 1990 between August 2nd and Saddam’s announcement on December 6th that we were free to go home, daily life was an existence suffused with fear. Though this sense of personal fear waxed and waned every few hours depending on events, it was ever-present.
For citizens of Aggressor Nations, as the Iraqis dubbed the Americans, British, French, Germans and Japanese who were in hiding, the predominant fear was of being discovered and picked-up, of becoming what Baghdad called a Guest For Peace. Becoming a GFP meant being incarcerated in a military or industrial installation as the first-in-line to die when the Allies’ bombs started to fall. Though Saddam thought that he was creating a brilliantly effective shield for his military assets, we knew that the loss of a few hundred citizens would not prevent the Allies from taking his installations out when necessary. So becoming a GFP was the beginning of the final countdown.
For those of us who were free to move about but not leave Iraq – Irish, Canadian and Antipodean passport holders - personal fear was perhaps less pervasive. There was of course the ever-present possibility of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And at every check point, as a semi-literate member of the most educationally-subnormal army in the world peered at our documents, mouthing slowly as he spelled out the words, we always experienced a sinking feeling that the rules had suddenly changed, that our country had been reclassified as one of the Aggressor Nations and that we were about to become GFPs ourselves.
All of us had to find ways of dealing with our fears. We soon discovered that an effective if peculiar antidote was to see the bits of humour in it all, especially when the fun was at the expense of the Iraqis.
The looting began almost as soon as the Iraqis hit town. The shoe-shops were the first to be thrashed.
On the morning of August 2nd 1990, the regular Iraqi army came in wearing regulation army boots. A few hours later the new popular army, Saddam’s conscripted band of ignorant social dregs, began shuffling in on flip-flops.
At the time I was living in Al-Muthanna, a vertical village of car parks, shops, and over 400 apartments in 13 stories. A few days after the invasion I was in Bob’s apartment on the eight floor, looking down into Hilali Street. John was with us, watching the action as the shops below were being unsystematically emptied.
'Look at those guys.'
In broad Bostonian tones Bob drew our attention across the street to the graveyard wall opposite. On the footpath were more than 40 shoe boxes. Five soldiers had discarded their army boots and were trying trainers on for size.
The soldiers were squatting down doing duck-walks a-la-Chuck Berry, stamping around to make the runners fit. One of them was extremely rotund, a series of vertically-placed fat spheroids, meaty head and substantial torso topping a massive bal-de-suif. As he bent over, shoving and stamping his misshapen feet into the shoes, his gigantic arse ballooned skywards, pants stretching dangerously over the quivering blubber.
'I wish I had an air-gun,' said Bob.
'Or something a bit more powerful,' I ventured.
'And-and-and pollute the at-at-at-atmosphere irremediably,' John spluttered with laughter.
Eventually the five soldiers, satisfied with the fit of their new footwear, began prancing around admiring each other. We could see that their choices had been influenced primarily by comfort.
'Somehow, camouflage uniforms and pink trainers just don’t look right,' I said.
'Perhaps,' said Bob. 'But runners will be a darn sight more useful than boots to these guys when the US cavalry arrives in a few days.' During the first week of the occupation, Bob was still an optimist.
A few days later myself and John were wandering the roads around Al-Muthanna. The pavements were littered with discarded boots and flip-flops. We walked up the front steps of the complex. There was a shoe-shop to the right of the main entrance. We looked through the front window.
The window shelves and the inside of the shop had been stripped completely bare and the flour was strewn with squashed empty shoe-boxes.
'I-I-I suppose even the I-I-Iraqis have a sense of h-h-humour,' John said, pointing at one of the window shelves.
Some wag had planted a black cruddy-looking army boot on the shelf with a large Adidas price tag propped against it: KD10.
One would hesitate to say that Saddam and his inner circle of thugs are intellectually challenged. They have survived and prospered too long for that to be true. But the bogmen they sent to Kuwait as the new popular army were certainly not over-blessed with common sense.
One of the things we noticed during that first week as the shops in Al-Muthanna were emptied was the sheer destructive mindlessness of the looting. Four or five Iraqis would drive up in an empty wanette or half-lorry and begin stacking the truck with TVs and computers. Then they would bring out some furniture and throw it on top of the electronics. Once the lorry was filled to capacity they would with great effort heave a large refrigerator to the top of the truck. We could only laugh as the overloaded lorry proceeded down Hilali Street, the giant ‘fridge bouncing up and down on top. Nothing electronic was likely to survive the bumpy four-hour journey to Basra.
Most of the shops in Fahd Al-Salem Street have window grills that were pulled down and padlocked to the ground when the shops were closed. One day during the second week I decided to try for money at the ATM near the old Bristol Hotel. Strolling up the street, I saw a bunch of soldiers attempting to open the locked grill of a clothing shop using a yellow forklift truck. One of Saddam’s fine heroes had inserted the forks of the truck through the lattice of the grill and, by raising the forks, was trying to force the grill upwards and snap the lock.
But as the forks rose, the lock held and the grill stayed closed, while the front end of the truck nosed down, the back wheels lifting off the ground. Egged on by his fellow geniuses on the ground, the hero in the cab kept trying harder and harder, raising the forks and the rear wheels higher and higher on each attempt. The truck rocked and swayed but that lock never budged. I could see it coming, but it was still a shock when the soldiers on the ground scattered sharply as the fork-lift tipped sideways and toppled, trapping the hero’s leg under its side.
A few days later I took another wander around Fahd Al-Salem Street. There was a shop with broken windows but with its front grill still intact. A plump doe-faced soldier had his hand through the lattice and was trying to pull an electric kettle through the opening. Unfortunately his heart’s desire had a large bulbous body which could not possibly fit through the holes in the grill. I watched for nearly twenty minutes as the soldier wrestled with the kettle before it finally dawned on him that either the kettle was too big or the hole was too small. He walked away with a peeved uncomprehending look on his face, leaving behind watches and other small valuables he might easily have taken instead.
Looting is hard work, even for those with common sense, especially in the height of summer when it can hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.
Early one afternoon during the second week, I was staring down into Hilali Street, watching four soldiers attempting to load a half-lorry with some large boxes they had taken from Al-Muthanna. I could see the sweat on their faces as they tried to heave the boxes onto the truck, their slung AK-47s hampering their efforts.
Two Pakistani gentlemen, recognisable in flapping shirt-tails, came up the street and tried to walk around the struggling soldiers. One of the soldiers noticed them, unslung his gun and pointed it at the Pakistanis. The two civilians were about to be press-ganged into loading the truck.
The arms of the Pakistanis shuffled upwards. The soldier said something curtly. One of the Pakistanis put his hands forward in a sort of crook shape and two of the other soldiers placed their guns across the outstretched arms. The second Pakistani did the same and received the other two guns. The Pakistanis stood stock still, shivering, while the soldiers, no longer encumbered with poking guns, went back to loading the truck. When they had finished they retrieved the guns from the Pakistanis and waved goodbye. As the truck pulled away the two Pakistanis continued on up the street, walking in a sort of slow dazed stroll.
Some of us who were free to move around Kuwait spent our time organising food, comfort and travel arrangements for those in hiding. We were often stopped at check-points, where our papers were scrutinised and the car we were in was sometimes searched. Brown undies time we called it. But a smidgen of black Iraqi amusement gave me a practical advantage.
On one of my first visits to potential GFPs in hiding I was carrying two Irish passports I had obtained from my embassy in Baghdad and which were destined for a couple of Britishers. Razzmi, my driver, had chosen our route carefully so as to avoid check-points but as luck would have it, a click or so short of our destination we ran into a roadblock manned by Republican Guards. Heavy cement barriers had been arranged transversely across the road, staggered alternatively left and right. Making a run through was not an option. We stopped, Razzmi wound down his window and we handed our Kuwaiti civil ID cards to one of the soldiers.
The soldier glanced at Razzmi’s civil ID, muttered a brief pleasantry in Arabic, and handed the card back. He then scrutinised my card carefully, turning it over several times, leaned in the window and enquired:
'You name Boll?' He seemed to be having difficulty with his facial muscles.
I nodded a 'yes'.
The soldier said something to Razzmi. He then walked over to one of his colleagues. They spent a few moments conferring, their backs turned to us, after which the soldier took my card over to an officer standing at one of the barriers.
The two Irish passports, which I had wrapped in cling film and hidden inside my underpants, were beginning to burn a hole in my groin.
'Something wrong?' I tried to steady my voice.
'No problem,' said Razzmi. He smiled and tapped my knee in a gesture of reassurance.
I watched the officer grin, shrug, and say a few words to the soldier who came back to the car. He leaned in the window and asked again.
'You name Boll?'
Again I nodded 'yes'.
The soldier leaned across Razmi and handed me my civil ID card with a somewhat contemptuous flourish.
'Foddal,' he said and waved us on. As we drove off I saw the officer observing me with a sort of wondering look on his face.
I asked Razzmi what the problem had been.
'No problem, no worry,' he said in a sort of embarrassed way. 'Very good.'
The same thing happened again and again when I was stopped at checkpoints. The soldiers would take a look at my ID card, have a giggle together, or an outright laugh, and then, forgetting to search the car, wave us on. Razmi always avoided giving me a credible explanation.
One evening I was sitting with a Syrian friend who had been helping to distribute supplies in Jabriya and surrounding areas. He had heard how lucky I seemed to be in going through checkpoints without being searched. I told him what had been happening and showed him my civil ID card. He smiled broadly.
'You’ve got a great name for this kind of life.'
'What do you mean?'
'These guys are too busy laughing to bother searching you.'
'I’m not. You know, there is no letter P in Arabic. The P in Paul becomes a B when written in Arabic.
'Your name spelt in Arabic is pronounced Boll.'
'The Arabic word Boll is slang for piss. Mabruk.'
© Paul D Kennedy, February 2000