I left Kuwait for Baghdad by road on December 18th 1990. I returned in the summer of 1991 by air. The country was a veritable shambles when I left. Less than eight months later it was still wrecked. Though the roads had been cleared little had as yet been rebuilt. In the decade since then Kuwait has been restored, and is now reforming itself for globalization …..
….. by Paul D Kennedy
The day before I left I drove around Kuwait with some friends. The deserted suburbs had the eerie silence of a ghost-town. Though the visible damage was small, there were few signs of life except for the occasional Iraqi checkpoint. What was left of the population was skulking indoors.
But the City was less deserted and it was badly damaged. Some of the suqs had been burnt; all had been looted. Down the main streets most of the stores had been broken into, their security shutters lying tattered on the ground. The shops were empty, the only reminder of the goods they once held being the cardboard boxes that littered every footpath.
My foremost memory today is the rubble of broken brick and plaster strewn across the street and those cardboard boxes – thousands of them everywhere.
I can also vividly recall the gigantic mural, several stories high, of the Gawad’s odious portrait at the Jahra Gate (aka the Sheraton) roundabout, and the thousands of almost undamaged cars, on the desert between Soor Street and the First Ring Road, with just their wheels missing.
There seemed to be no Kuwaitis in the City, at least none were visible. But there were groups of Palestinians and other Arabs in the streets. Some had set up small pavement stalls selling cheap clothes, household goods, cigarettes and beer. Others were simply hanging about in tired groups at the street corners.
And here and there little gangs of the New Popular Army — the Gawad’s answer to the half-a-million well-armed and disciplined men the Americans had assembled just a few hundred clicks south of the City — were milling about, searching the dustbins and empty shops for anything that might still be worth lifting.
On the morning of the 18th December 1990 I left Kuwait with four other expatriates, a Kuwaiti minder, a Palestinian, Razzmi, and two drivers. We had two cars, a big old extra-wide Chevy held together with baling wire and a few prayers and a slightly more modern Japanese saloon car. After meandering a bit to avoid the hang-dog Iraqi checkpoints, we headed for the north along the Fourth Ring Road.
As we passed Jiwon, the Iraqi army presence was much more professional looking and the area around had been cleared up a bit. But at Sulaibikhat roundabout the devastation from the recent car bomb was still visible; several vehicles were strewn across the centre of the roundabout and the bus-stop was just a twisted pole and a pile of rubble.
Up the Jahra road things look even more badly banged about; several houses had their front walls down and forecourts strewn with rubble and Sulaibikhat cinema looked as if it had been burnt out. This was the road down which the barbarians had come charging 139 days before.
We continued west to Jahra, then skirted the town and headed up the Mutla Ridge. As we ascended the escarpment we could see the Iraqi troops dug-in on both sides of the road, the line stretching as far as the eye could see. It reminded me of those old World War I movies.
The soldiers were lolling about in the trenches, most of which were only about shoulder height. There were field guns and anti-aircraft guns everywhere, pointing in all directions. It was a very large army, tens of thousands of men and their equipment, stretching across the desert in the wan winter sun all the way to the horizon.
This looked as if it was Saddam’s line in the sand. And what a superb line it would have been, if the Iraqis only had to defend themselves against advancing infantry. But exposed overhead to the world’s most powerful air-force it was an obscene and obstinate joke. I thought of smart bombs that exploded napalm a hundred metres above ground level creating fireballs that sucked up all the oxygen.
Razzmi started to make cutting remarks about Saddam’s sacrificial animals. He described the Iraqi soldiers as el hameer and kahrabeen. I wondered why Saddam would not leave of his own volition.
“Its simple,” said Razzmi. “If he leaves now, he will be showing that he was wrong to invade in the first place, or that he is a coward in the face of the Americans.”
“But he’s going to lose. He can’t win.”
“True,” said the Palestinian. “But when his army is driven back, he’ll be a hero for taking on the Americans. So in that way he does win.”
“Great!” I gestured at the lines. One of the soldiers waved back cheerily. “But all these guys are gonna fry.”
Razzmi shrugged his shoulders and said:
“That is the way it is.”
I had a sudden thought. “And where will this leave the Palestinians.”
“On the outside looking in,” Razzmi shrugged again. “As always.”
I returned to Kuwait one evening in August 1991. Flying up from the south I could see the oil lakes and fires, the result of the Gawad’s obstinacy and scorched-earth policy, and began to choke.
As the plane banked for its approach a wide swathe of desert came into view. But this was not the sandy-coloured undulating expanse I remembered from other flights in and out of Kuwait.
The shallow valleys of the desert were now vast turgent lakes that glistened blackly in the evening sun. They were surrounded by low dun-coloured ridges that enclosed the ponds of spewed oil. Here and there fires gushed gently skywards through the black gunge, the smoke drifting sideways at the top of the flames.
We dropped towards Farwaniyah and the plane circled the City slowly like a nurse gently unwrapping a body covered in sores. I recognised many familiar sights: roads, buildings and towers. The area was pocked with gaps and fissures, little black gaping wounds on the surface-skin of the City. As we came into land a burnt-out supermarket was plainly visible.
The next day I cruised Kuwait with a friend, one of my companions from that trip north in December 1990.
We toured Ahmadi, once a Euro-village of neat little cottages, trees and gardens. It was extremely decrepit looking, the trees dying from a lack of water and pollution from the oil fires. Most of the small houses seem to have been burgled. But the bigger buildings, such as the KOC club, had been deliberately wrecked and burned.
We wandered through the smashed kitchens and thrashed rooms of the Guest House, where a gang of Berserkers seemed to have spent an afternoon.
In Fintas we came across a deserted block of flats. Outside was a dugout, a shallow pit, about a meter deep, covered with some corrugated iron sheets held down with loose bricks. The vulnerability of the Iraqi defences was overwhelming in its childishness.
We wandered into the building to explore. Every single apartment had been thoroughly looted. In one executive-type apartment the frame of a corner window had been removed and the window gap bricked up with a slit for firing through. The bricks were loose, not cemented in place.
In the room we saw two portable braziers and some old rolls of bread. Nearby were dried human turds. Despite the fully-equipped kitchen, bedrooms and multiple bathrooms the flat once contained, the Iraqi soldiers had bivouacked in the main reception room, cooking on the spot and going to the toilet on the floor next to where they were eating.
We then headed north, crossing over to the outer ring roads, and went to Mutla Ridge and the so-called Highway of Death. The road had been cleared and the burnt out lorries, trucks, cars and wagons had been shovelled over onto the desert. The place was littered with ordnance and we could not get across to view the trenches at close quarters. Some of the burnt-out trucks had been daubed with offensive messages of victorious glee. We went back to the City in sombre mood.
Kuwait now is a lively modern metropolis with bustle and traffic jams galore. Most of the signs of the interregnum are gone. Even some of the monuments that were erected after Liberation, such as the Iraqi tank on a plinth at Jahra Gate roundabout, have been removed as if people are determined to forget the horrors of ten years ago.
And the economy, as it is prepared for integration with the rest of the world, is in better shape than it has been for twenty years.
But tonight as you take futoor perhaps you could spend a mouthful of time thinking of those men in hiding for whom a scrapful of food was survival. And spend perhaps a few moments more on the POWs who have yet to return, if indeed they are still alive.
Perhaps you could spend another minute or two reflecting on then and now and on what it all meant. And if you come up with reasonable answer, perhaps you could let me know. I’m still trying to figure it out.
© Paul D Kennedy, December 2000
This article was first published in the Arab Times in the After Iftar section during Ramadan 1999. Muslims fast throughout the day during Ramadan and Iftar is the time just after sunset when the fast is broken. The hour or two following Iftar is considered by Muslims to be a time that should be set aside for reflection.