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On Thursday, August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces overran Kuwait.  I was living and working in Kuwait and heard two tremendous explosions–shots heard around the world one might say–at 530 a.m.  I begin this blog on the 20th anniversary of this date, an event whose consequences are with us, both Americans and many other nationalities, still.

I have written and revised this manuscript repeatedly since I left Iraq in December 1990 after 125 days of captivity.  My intention is to upload parts of my existing manuscript in serial form from now until December.   If you enjoy the story please tell me and forward the link to friends you think might also enjoy it.  I will be deeply grateful for any feedback on the writing and/or on my choices, whether this feedback be supportive or critical.

The text is copyrighted but in flux.  If you are or know an agent or publisher interested in working with me, please contact me.

The header image is adapted from the photo “Refinery” by arbyreed on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

August 2, 1990

I was sitting alone drinking morning coffee when I heard the first explosion.  It compressed my eardrums, rattled the windows, tumbled some precariously piled dishes in the sink, and raised the hairs on my neck. I ran to look at the Persian Gulf, assuming fumes had ignited at the oil docks and expecting to witness a tanker fire and pitch black smoke darkening the sun as a massive spill of crude heaved into the water like lava. Instead a fighter plane wheeled away from the coastline to the south, like a gull on a thermal updraft. No smoke rose from the tanker loading since the day before. It was soon quiet again.

Then suddenly, a second plane—a MiG-23—screamed toward me, low to the water from the Gulf side of the tanker.  As it neared shore, I saw a flash under the left wing and a grayish white dart sped overhead, disappearing behind the roof of my building. I ‘d never seen a plane launch a missile but knew immediately what this was as it momentarily mesmerized me with the exotic beauty of its bright yellow flame and glossy white body, beautiful but lethal.  Its sound had a higher pitch than the jet. It effortlessly accelerated, tracing a path the jet would have followed had the pilot not banked to the south before looping back out over the Gulf.  The missile detonated, a second blast like the earlier one.  It hit somewhere between me and the coastal ridge.  I looked at my watch.  Five-thirty a.m.

Sweat coated me from my morning walk.  Starting around four a.m., the only time a summer day there felt tolerable, below 100 degrees, I had plodded up the beach road as far as the gates to the docks to read the name of a tanker loading there  “Ship spotting” kept me sane in this lonely time.  In Kuwait I was confined by choices and climate, but seeing these ships, sometimes a dozen at once,  and reading their names connected me to the outside world.  So I watched tanker traffic, noted names, and traced funnel designs in a notebook.  If I couldn’t make out a name with binoculars from my roof, it was an excuse to follow an inland dirt road to the pier, past a large fenced garden where poultry and goats roamed through rows of tomatoes, and past a walled date grove where clusters of fruit got bigger and yellower daily.

Others in the port town of Manqaf, Kuwait, were also out at this hour in summer: a shepherd led two dozen or so fat-tailed sheep, a large man slowly walked while reading the Koran, a middle-aged Arab couple strolled hand in hand, always dressed in white.  Along the beach road—an avenue, really, with palms that were watered daily by a truck—new Jaguars and Mercedes passed and I imagined the drivers heading homeward after late revelry.  Old Chevys and white school buses transported South Asian laborers to their work sweeping the desert, working in the oilfields, or watering sand gardens.  And out on the beach and in the water were the Russians, mostly men and always nearly naked, sunbathing or fishing.

That morning, sweaty, I returned to drink coffee and watch the sun rise over the Gulf, my morning rituals: sometimes writing in my journal, always watching the sunrise, imagining the point where it first gleamed over the horizon to trace a straight line to Shiraz, the Iranian city about two hundred fifty air miles to the east.  Connecting me with Shiraz was the woman I loved.  She had once toured there.  Diana.  Diana had visited that ancient city fifteen years earlier while teaching English in the Shah’s Iranian Air Force.  Now Diana’s name was a touchstone that helped me get through the long months in Kuwait, painful because of the strong link between us.

This was supposed to be my last weekend in Kuwait.  I had an airplane ticket for August 4 to Rome, where I would meet Diana for a month’s leave.  I had thought about her during the walk that morning: how fantastic it would be to see her, to make plans with her about my return from Kuwait, just to hold her, to watch her smile in response to my calling her name, even to show her my notebook with its funnel designs I made with the colored pencils she had given me before I left.

Diana and I had met in coastal Massachusetts three years before and become friends at our jobs writing the curriculum that would prepare non-English-speaking Kuwaiti flight cadets to read McDonnell Douglas flight training manuals.  Our lives then were at similar stages of marital unraveling.  She was divorced, and I had filed for divorce from Circelia.  Diana had no children, and Circelia and I had four, whom I missed, all in elementary and middle school.  I told myself it was for them I’d taken this job—the pay would allow me to provide for their future.  Diana and I had become closer than we expected over projects related to work and other interests like kayaking and studying some shipwrecks along Cape Ann.  When our employer, Bob was asked to provide two English teachers for Kuwait, Diana and I wanted to go, and Bob thought it a great idea, but less than a month before we were to travel, Kuwaitis rejected the idea of hiring a woman to teach English to their cadets.  Diana wanted me to withdraw from the project too, but I told her our relationship could survive a year’s separation.  I wasn’t hearing her:  she was indignant about the injustice of being rejected only because of her gender, not just unhappy about a year’s separation.  I thought she agreed the extra money I’d earn there would offset the pain of separation.  The money would let me give more to my children, and Diana and I could plan our future.

When the echo of the missile explosion stilled, I wondered what had happened.  I felt strangely detached, tasting only as little danger now as if I had been watching the beginning of a war movie.  I looked out toward the water expecting more missiles.  I wanted to talk, but no one I knew was awake.  Tom, the colleague who took the job that Diana would have had, lived in the same complex, Alia Towers.  But he would still be sleeping.

I decided to climb onto the rooftop cistern.  It was my private eyrie, my place to contemplate the full moon on nights when I most missed Diana.  The moon would be full when we met in Rome.  Now I watched thick black smoke inland, rising from the main Kuwait telecommunications center, and the tower, a tan structure rising twenty stories above five-story buildings, seemed tilted about ten degrees, a long vertical crack on one side, its backbone broken.  I knew this center well, since Tom and I would go there to pick up our mail and make calls to the United States:  Clearly something big had just happened, yet somehow I still projected that in two days I’d be far away in Rome telling Diana all that I’d seen this morning.

I would have so much to tell her, not only about how a missile strike sounded but also how captivated I was living at a center of the oil universe with its pumping stations and controlled fires, which Tom and I drove past to get to work, and tankers loaded here from all over the world.  Living here satisfied my desire to see the dynamics of this energy locus.

Unable to sit by myself any longer, I went to talk with Tom, to wake him up if necessary, and listen to the radio.

“Gosh!  I didn’t hear anything,” he said, inviting me in to his apartment that looked like an oriental carpet shop.

I wondered how  he’d heard nothing, even with his staying up late and drinking homemade spirits.

“Let’s turn on the BBC.”  It was now just before seven. He shuffled to the counter and, straightening the dishdasha (Kuwaiti male garment) he wore as a pajama, back to the breakfast table. He picked up an antique sterling silver coffee pot he must have bought at the flea market where he rummaged every weekend.  Souk al-haraj, he called this market; sometimes I went with him.  I had recently bought a carved wooden fish there, about a yard long with the girth of my leg;  I had already imagined taking this back to Diana as trophy of my time by the Gulf.

“Would you like some?” he asked.  The exotic aroma of cardamom spice steamed toward me. BBC news theme music played as Tom filled my cup.

“This is London . . . three hours Greenwich Mean Time.” The lead story was the civil war in Liberia—until that was interrupted.  “Unconfirmed reports from Kuwait say that Iraq has invaded its Persian Gulf neighbor in the early hours this morning. There are reports that several border posts have been overrun by large numbers of Iraqi troops and several armored columns.”

We both sat silently for a while, looking at each other, my mouth dry in spite of the coffee.

“Let’s drive north to Abu Halifa, to see Ted,” I suggested after a half minute or so, my mouth dry in spite of the coffee.  Ted was our McDonnell Douglas boss.

But he told me to go alone.  “I’m going to cut up and wash some old carpets to make pillows,” he said, amazing me by his apparent indifference.  I knew it might be risky driving up there, but Tom and I had no phones.  I wanted to talk with Ted.  At work a week or two earlier Ted had mentioned that Iraq seemed to be holding maneuvers along the border although the embassy thought it was nothing.

“Theatrics,” Ted had said.  “But we need to have a plan, just in case.”  Tom had missed that meeting because he was still in Michigan, not yet back from his month’s vacation.

Around 8 a.m. while I drove north, I noticed a transport plane circle the area and disappear behind the buildings. The urban desert was open enough near here for even the transport to land although there was certainly no airstrip.  Three military helicopters also landed, and I knew of no helicopters in the Kuwaiti army.  I accelerated and hurried the rest of the way inland to Abu Halifa, where Ted and other employees of the McDonnell Douglas project lived in the tallest building in southern Kuwait. Tom and I had chosen to live near the port to witness the ship traffic, save money, and avoid the walls of a foreign enclave.

I parked in my usual spot and took the elevator up to Ted’s twentieth floor penthouse.  I’d been there many times early mornings on weekends to pick him up for fishing.  Originally from Florida’s Gulf coast, he had brought a trunk of gear and an exuberance to fish in the Persian Gulf.  This morning he was not his usual calm self, though.

“The embassy called earlier. They advised us all to fill up our gas tanks, pack hand luggage, and wait by the phone.” He offered me no coffee, as he usually did. “We might convoy south to Saudi, so be back in the underground parking garage no later than ten.”  His hands trembled

I convinced Tom to pack and we got back up to Abu Halifa by ten a. m.  Traffic was crazier than ever; cars almost rear-ended us when I stopped at a traffic light.  Then they just rushed through the intersection, all directions at once.

“Those uniforms, gosh!  That’s just not smart,” said Tom as we drove toward our co-workers grouped in the underground garage. The uniforms the McDonnell Douglas project leader insisted we wear—blue shirts and khaki pants, so that the Kuwait Air Force personnel would recognize us —had irked Tom from the beginning, and I generally succeeded in convincing him that it was a small price to comply and, in fact, simplified getting dressed on workday mornings.  But here, I agreed with him.

A convoy was clearly getting organized.  “What is Ted thinking? This might just be a warning shot,” Tom went on.   We stayed in the car watching. “And the Kuwaitis would be quite upset if these guys did get into Saudi and then couldn’t return for work on Saturday.”

I was weighing options about the immediate future by considering the past: my vacation started in two days and I had a ticket to Rome from Kuwait City, not from Saudi Arabia.  I had three thousand dollars in my money belt that I’d planned that day to convert to traveler’s checks, money to spend getting reacquainted with Diana.  Should I follow Ted, or Tom?  Ted and our colleagues, former military people, were personable, generous; however, their expertise was military technology and the etiquette of American military and corporate culture. Although sincere, they were naive about the cultures of the region.  To be more accurate, their attitudes seemed ethnocentric, even colonial rather than curious.  Tom, on the other hand, as a former Peace Corps volunteer like me, was open to the culture of the Middle East on their own terms.  And in the market, he could tell a Kurd from a Turk from an Afghan by their languages.

“So what are you going to do?” Tom intruded. “You can ride with Ted and leave me the car.”

He had been in western Asia for about twenty years, teaching English while pursuing his real love, buying oriental carpets, supplementing his income and learning market and street etiquette as well as what seemed to me rich vocabularies of Hindi, Farsi, Pashto, and Arabic in the process.  Starting in western India with the Peace Corps, he’d moved on to Iran and stayed on there during the first months of the Ayatollah’s rule, hidden by the same anti-American students who would end their tea sessions with him by saying, “Excuse us, Tom. We need to go out for a while and chant ‘Death to America.’ We’ll be back later. Can we bring you anything?” Tom left there only when these “militants,” his friends, thought he’d be safer out of Iran.

This was how I wanted things now, accepted by both sides, like Tom, safe with the “enemy” and yet ultimately free from harm.

Ted drove out of the garage first. Stopping beside us, he rolled down his window. “You guys follow me,” he said. The other cars drove past and onto the sandy shoulder of’ the road.

“Uh, Ted, Tom and I have decided not to go with you,” I said. “We’re going to wait and see.”

He blinked. “You’re gonna what!?”  He paused.  “You’re fucking crazy to stay here. You never know what those damn Iraqis can do to you. I really think you should come with us.”

“Ted. We’re staying. If things get bad, we will leave later,” I insisted.

“I can’t force you to come with us, but it’s insane to stay here. Come on! We can’t afford any more time talking either.” He hesitated.  “If you guys are going to stay, at least take my keys so you can watch CNN and use the fax.”  By now someone in another car had started blowing the horn.

And they drove off, ten identical cars, packed with all our uniformed colleagues and their families. Ted’s hound stared out the back window of the station wagon as he drove off, headed for the border fifty miles to the south along a major highway through mostly empty desert, no cover and no water.  Saudi Arabia offered no visas at the border and required that expatriate residents carry internal passports at all times to get through checkpoints within the country.  I was not at all confident the group would be allowed into Saudi Arabia, the walled society it is.

Yet, as I watched them disappear, I immediately wondered if I was making the wrong decision. Neither Tom nor I spoke as we drove back to Manqaf.

I spent much of the afternoon watching the sky for more planes, but none flew over our part of Kuwait. Several plumes of smoke rose north, west, and south and spread along the horizon. I had no idea what was burning.  At other times, unfamiliar thuds punctuated my disbelief, but no new smoke appeared. I worried about Ted and the others. But this noise and burning were not enough to convince me that a permanent change had happened here.  Yet, when darkness fell, I didn’t turn on my lights. I noticed Tom did. I moved my bedding to an interior hallway: it was a futile gesture but a few walls of cement block seemed a more substantial barrier than the sliding-glass door between my bed and an Iraqi missile screaming toward me from low over the Gulf.  It came down to a choice of being lacerated by flying glass and dying quickly from blood loss, or crushed by concrete and maybe lingering near death for a few days before succumbing to thirst or internal trauma.  But that didn’t occur to me then.  I just wanted to do something to ensure that I would feel safe, without examining closely whether this new “safety” made any sense.

August 3, 1990

Friday morning, I returned to listen to the BBC in Tom’s apartment.  As the announcer spoke of a resolution proposed at the United Nations demanding an immediate Iraqi withdrawal, an unusual noise distracted us from outside.

“What’s that?” Tom said, as the rumbling grew louder. We hurried out to the balcony. At first I saw nothing, and the noise was so loud and seemed to come from all directions. I didn’t know where to look. Then I saw a column of tanks and trucks moving from Ahmadiport about a mile to the south. Three tanks and seventeen trucks passed in front of the Alia Towers and stopped just north of us, maybe three hundred feet away. I assumed they were Kuwaitis counterattacking, since they were coming from the south.  I wanted to cheer, clearly identifying with the Kuwaitis.

But Tom read the markings on the vehicles. “They’re Iraqi. I’m positive.  Let’s get off the balcony.”  Each truck carried scores of armed soldiers.  Some drove over the curb and onto the beach. Others stopped farther up the road at a high-walled mansion Tom had always said belonged to an Al-Sabah, a member of the royal family of Kuwait. The soldiers jumped off the overloaded trucks and walked to the water’s edge. They approached the bathers on the beach and gestured for them to leave.  Unlike me, the Russian bathers had not altered their behavior at all after the missile attack.  Now though they left.  In no time, soldiers began digging holes, filling sandbags, building walls with the bags, and setting up mortars and tents.  Once an hour or so, two or three tanks rumbled past; I couldn’t tell if they were the same ones each time.  Soldiers set up checkpoints on the avenue. Others dug deeper into the sand, installing guns and building sandbag bunkers. Still others walked along the avenue stringing wires off a spool.  Communications links—or trip wires, I wondered.

I sprawled on my sofa, then lay on the floor, then crawled over to the floor-to-ceiling windows to peer beneath the curtains.  Then I went back to the sofa and started the cycle again. I reread old letters from Diana.  Several times I climbed up onto the roof, keeping low, trying to see.  The night before, I hadn’t slept much, not wanting to die in my sleep unaware.  But the threat then was invisible, over the horizon.  Now soldiers might be looking up at our building and wondering if anyone was inside, wondering if a sniper was sighting down at them.

Everything in my sparse apartment was white or natural wood, and outside, the dominant color was ethereal blue of the sky and Gulf.  If I looked at only these, I imagined all else was unreal.  Only what I wrote in my journal was real, or so I wished.

“Diana, tomorrow I go on vacation, the first in eight months. Time I will spend with you. I feel we’ve lost touch; letters are shorter and telephone calls strained. But I’m confident that meeting in Rome will rejuvenate us.”

August 4, 1990

Saturday morning the soldiers were still there.  If I wasn’t in custody, then I was at the very least confined. This was the morning I’d planned to fly to Rome.  I alternated between long hours of knowing the flight wouldn’t depart and brief seconds of denial when wishes gave fantasy the upper hand.  Tom had given me his second radio;  the BBC reported that airports and seaports had shut down.

I lay in front of the window, peering under the curtain. No traffic moved on the avenue.  It was quiet except for the sand gusts scraped against the windowpanes. A rattling can blowing down the street startled me. A sandstorm looks, sounds, and feels like a blizzard. I was sandbound, not snowbound, trapped.  I could blame my inertia on this storm.  I looked at my watch: 9:15, the hour of my departure for Rome.  After rejecting a sense that these invaders would keep me from traveling, that morning I never even imagined packing or leaving although the car Tom and I shared was in the parking lot below.

I alternated between fear and fury.  I cursed at myself for staying behind when Ted left, but I couldn’t stop imagining the different ways they might have died:  attack from the air, bullets or grenades fired from men along the road, thirst and sunstroke in the desert after their cars were confiscated.  I was at least in familiar surroundings with functioning air conditioning, water for drinking, cooking, washing and flushing the toilet.  Then I returned to cursing myself, feeling worse than embarrassed to be caught.  I did pushups.  I sprawled on the couch.  I went back to the curtains and saw the soldiers still below.  Then I went to the bathroom and cursed myself anew while looking in the mirror, as if seeing the fury in my face could help intensify the feelings.  I didn’t realize then how numb I’d already become.  I picked up the journal to write something more to Diana but I didn’t have anything new to write.

Back on the sofa, where the cycle repeated itself, starting with more pushups, I thought about the news:  a contingent of British military trainers who lived not far south had been arrested by Iraqi troops and bussed to Baghdad, and President Bush had issued an economic embargo against Iraq, which Iraq condemned.  Only a few people with four-wheel-drives and Bedouin guides were escaping out through the desert.  As the days passed, the United States led a drive for other nations to enact an economic embargo against Iraq, making me feel increasingly besieged by the Iraqi troops around the building.  And I quickly lost track of the days, as nothing really happened.  I alternated between cursing myself, exercising, and peering under the curtains.  It amounted to waiting for something to impinge—another missile, some other attack, arrest maybe.

<<Note:  Daily or weekly installments will vary in length.  This NYTimes article captures some of the feeling I recall having at the time.   The image above is part of a page of the diary I kept throughout my detention.>>

August 5, 1990

I got a knock on the door Sunday afternoon.  It startled me. When I looked through the peephole, I saw Nidal and Tarik, some Palestinian friends.  I invited them in, and an air of unreality permeated the room as I set out sugar for out hot tea and apologized for not having cookies.  They laughed.  I asked what they had seen in the street.

“There’s looting. Two Indians were shot looting and their bodies left in the street as a warning,” Nidal said.  I had met him at a magazine shop he ran a few blocks south of my apartment. He spoke English, the non-Arabic language of retail in some enclaves in Kuwait.  “Some soldiers said they would make sure no one looted my shop.” Although born here, Nidal had only limited civil rights under Kuwaiti law because he was Palestinian. Since he was a retail clerk, for example, he was prohibited from getting a driver’s license. Retail clerks from Egypt, Palestine, Bangladesh, and other third world countries staffed shops all over Kuwait, and these clerks were denied access to privileges like driving.  And visas and pay in turn were based on nationality, or even place of birth.  I knew an American engineer, a United States citizen but born in the Philippines, whose initial pay offering was much lower than that of his US-born counterparts because of his birthplace.   As an American, I had more rights than Nidal.  For him, being treated with a little respect in Kuwait was bound to be impressive.

“What kind of people are these Iraqis? What do they ask about?” I asked.

“They are very polite,” he said, smiling.

Tarik didn’t say much. He wasn’t wearing the New York Yankees hat he usually had on, visor to the back. He was clearly afraid although I wasn’t sure an Iraqi conscript would recognize a Yankees hat.

Nidal put down his tea and spoke again. “Tarik’s uncle has just driven in from Jordan yesterday. He saw many dead bodies along the highway near the western border at Salmi.”  Tarik just shook his head, barely.

I wondered if this was the fate of Ted and the others. The conversation stopped for a while.  After a few minutes of quiet staring, Nidal stood up. “We’ll be back to check on you in a few days, maybe Thursday. Do you need us to bring you anything?”

“My cupboards are almost empty,“ I said, handing him a twenty-dinar note.  “Do you think you can bring me some food, just anything?”  I assumed Americans had quickly become persona non grata since President Bush had immediately condemned the invasion and ordered an economic embargo against Iraq.

<<Click here for the text of a speech given by the first President Bush on Aug. 5, 1990.  Here‘s a review of ABC News for that week.>>

August 6–9, 1990

<<Note:  When time runs together, I will post material for chunks of several days.>>

Monday morning Stuart knocked.  He was an Englishman from the first floor.  Tom and I had chosen not to get phones to avoid a huge installation fee.  I sometimes used Stuart’s phone, and several times over the months his maid had knocked to say someone had called me. Stuart had said he didn’t mind sharing the phone;  it became a link between us in a place where such connections were hard to establish.  We used to talk sometimes while sitting by the small pool at the base of Alia Towers.

“Will, you just got a call from someone named Jerry.  He says you don’t know him, but he lives in Abu Halifa one floor below your boss.”

I hurried down with Stuart.  I thought he might have news about Ted.  Evelyn, his wife, and two kids sitting nearby making a puzzle reminded me of the joy I once felt doing these things with my kids.

I picked up the phone and identified myself.

“I’m your U. S. embassy warden,” someone named Jerry said.  “As such, I’ve been asked by the embassy to keep in touch with you and others.  I’ve a direct link with the embassy through a Palestinian free to move about. I have good news I can’t say over the phone because the Iraqis may be listening in.  If you and anybody else you’re in touch with are interested, pack your stuff and be here at noon.  I’m in unit 1930.”

Stuart said he wasn’t interested, so I walked over to see Tom, who agreed that we should talk to Jerry. This time Tom drove. I was afraid to.  He took the inland expressway, since the coastal avenue had become an Iraqi staging area.  Once as smooth as a new stretch of American interstate, the surface was now gouged by tank tracks. “Turnarounds” had been bulldozed through the concrete median walls every mile or so. Drivers ignored traffic lights.  Wrecked cars littered intersections, abandoned where they impacted, left in the debris of broken glass and spilled fluids.

We knocked on Jerry’s door. He was tall and about sixty. His wife Lucy stood behind him.  “Come in and have a seat,” he said.  He seemed not to blink.  “Let me come straight to the point.  A convoy of up to two hundred cars is leaving soon for the Saudi border at the Salmi border post at noon. Do you want to join us?”

“Do you have any news from Ted?”

“Sorry,” he said.  “None.”

On a map, Salmi (scroll out on the map; see Khiran on the same map near the Gulf.)  was the final Kuwaiti point to the west, but I’d never driven there. Ted and the others had headed out on the southern road past Khiran.  Salmi was where Tarik’s uncle reportedly saw corpses.  I chose not to mention this, not wanting to believe it was accurate.

“Why Salmi? Isn’t Khiran closer?” I asked.  I knew that road from driving there to catch a dive boat in months past.

“People have been turned back on that road. Salmi is the only road open,” he said. He seemed very well informed.

I looked at Tom. “What do you think?”

“It can’t hurt to try,” he said, after looking out the window awhile.

Jerry smiled when we said we were in. “I want a car to spearhead the convoy. Would you be willing to do that?”

“Spearhead? What do you mean?”

“You know. Lead the way. Drive the first car. Don’t you speak Arabic quite well?” He looked at Tom.  I assumed he must know this through Ted.  “You might be able to talk us through any checkpoints.”

“I know some,” Tom said.

“Strange word, spearhead,” I mused, driving the lead car less than an hour later. The past few days I’d been too afraid to turn on my apartment lights, and now when Jerry asked me to drive the first car of a convoy seeking to escape, I readily agreed although I hadn’t even driven to Abu Halifa. Tom had. I’d been afraid to.  Now I chose to drive so that Tom could concentrate on speaking with anyone who stopped us, as if moving in a large group made us safe. Actually, the more I thought about it, the less courageous it seemed to spearhead. Behind me I saw dozens of cars, and I supposed a soldier might attack cars on the highway once he saw a pattern, several cars, many cars, a convoy of cars, people with a plan, he might attack the plan. The first cars might pass unscathed. It started to occur to me that the spearhead was the coward’s place . . . until I thought about land mines.

“Look at that plane,” said Tom as we passed the Kuwait Airport. I was startled to see a large transport plane take off.  In spite of the BBC report about the closed airport and a trapped British Airways 747, a Russian-built jet was gaining altitude.  An Iraqi cargo plane, I supposed.

Mostly we didn’t talk, just looked. Russian-made tanks were parked here and there along the highway too: soldiers in greasy overalls underneath. I wondered if they were changing the oil, doing repairs, or just keeping busy while holding a position. Whichever, they let us pass.

Traffic got heavier as we approached the intersection of the Ring Road #7—one of the beltways that sped traffic around city center—and the road to Salmi, still miles away. Obviously a major skirmish had taken place near the turn-off. Not much was left of the large General Motors dealership: the showroom was partially burnt. A hole in the roof suggested something had blown up inside, automobiles for several miles lay flattened where tanks had driven over them; burnt-out tanks stood nearby, one tank turned upside down beside its turret. Two corpses in dishdasha sprawled in the median, like bundles of dirty white rags with red stains.

“Did you see that!” gasped Tom a minute or so after we passed.

“Yeah,” I whispered. I quickly developed tunnel vision.  I didn’t want to see the bodies, the wreckage, or the live ordnance on the highway.

A mile or so further we saw lots of cars and trucks standing just off the road in the hard sand.  People waited beside them. I kept going. Just over the crest of a hill I saw why the others stopped: three armored cars parked facing me, one in the middle of the highway and two in the median. All their heavy guns triangulated on me, on our car.  The spearhead was outgunned.

I halted in the middle of the highway where the speed limit was eighty mph.  Tom was sitting beside me rolling down the window.   I had screeched to a stop just after cresting a desert ridge, as an Iraqi soldier stepped in front of our car and large machine guns atop three armored cars parked across the highway swiveled toward us.  Tom  greeted the soldier who approached his side of the car.

Salaam aleykum.” He sounded like he was on downers.  The soldier sounded tense and asked where we were going.  When Tom said “Salmi,”  the soldier said, “La.  Memnoyah,” which meant that we were not going to get to that border town.  Tom thanked the soldier.

“Turn around,” Tom said, still sounding impassive, as if the slightest uptick in energy might trigger the guns.

I slowly spun the steering wheel all the way to the left and drove into the sandy median strip, made for the opposite side of the highway, the direction we’d come from Manqaf.  In my rearview mirror, I watched a long line of cars loop across the median strip watched by unseen men whose fingers I pictured on the triggers of those guns that could unleash quick, deadly ripping and splattering.

The looping around back to Manqaf was unmistakable evidence of failure. The Iraqi military perimeter enclosed us.  The only road open, according to Jerry, was now shut, and thoughts of exit stifled.

When we got back to Manqaf, I went up to my apartment and threw myself onto the couch.  “Fuck fuck fucking stupid fuck,” I said, furious and powerless.  I don’t often curse, but it’s all that came.  Again and again I got off the couch and lay flat on my back to relax, then got back on the couch.  Finally I rolled over and took the notebook out of my shirt pocket. I looked at my watch to see what day it was. Since the first missile strike, I hadn’t put dates on any entries. This had seemed like all one long unit of time, for the first time considering the possibility of never seeing her again.

I went back then and figured out where entries on new days started and marked the dates.  This was a shift.  My notebook carried information decipherable as my last will and testament, complete with Diana’s address on the cover.

Dolphins leaped out of the Gulf the next morning.  I wondered if they, like me, felt the absence of ship movements or even the stillness on shore.  No matter the phrasing tanker owners used, captains complied, and the void was palpable, the docks deserted.  Phrasing from the White House involved lines drawn in the sand and, on the other side, Saddam declared Kathima—not “Kuwait” according to the Iraqis—reunited as the long-lost province of Greater Mesopotamia.

I had no clear sense of what to do. Safety was an enormous issue; as an unarmed and untrained American civilian in an occupied zone where jets and missiles threatened from above and tanks and hundreds of armed soldiers patrolled just outside my building, the odds were not on my side.

Basic survival was no longer a given.  The supply of water through the pipes of the building and electricity to run the air conditioning could not be taken for granted.  Food was critical, too, given that Kuwait was a desert.  I had by then begun to eat two meals a day with Stuart, Evelyn and their household, and contributed most of my tinned goods to them.  They had a freezer filled with fish from the Gulf.  And Evelyn and Ardette, her maid, seemed confident they could prepare anything from the waters across the street, as long as they could get there safely and back.

If Kuwait were my permanent home, if I spoke Arabic fluently and knew the terrain, I would have felt safer going out, finding food, and gathering information.

Instead, those days I stayed inside alternating between self-loathing and denial.  Sometimes before I looked out, I told myself the soldiers would be gone.  Lying on the carpet, peering under the curtains and out the floor-to-ceiling windows, I saw they were still digging deeper into the beach and building up the sandbags around the anti-aircraft guns atop the Al-Sabah mansion on the beach. Periodically, tanks cruised up and down the avenue, with stunning speed and terrible rumble.  Other traffic ranged from armored cars to orange and white taxicabs with Iraqi plates. I wondered if the cabs were troop carriers or support vehicles bringing letters and food packages from family. Soldiers drove a jeep into our parking lot and hitched onto a camping trailer belonging to the Palestinians on the third floor. They kicked open the trailer door, rummaged through the stuff inside, threw what they didn’t want on the ground. Then they drove away, leaving papers, dishes, sleeping bags to blow away or collect sand.

Another time I looked down to see five soldiers come into the walled area that surrounded our building and point guns at Hassan and Sultan, our Bangladeshi gardeners, who handed over a pot of food.

An Iraqi patrol visited Tom in his top floor apartment that night at two a.m.  He told the story over coffee the next day:  six privates and an officer asked if they could look around his apartment. They did.  The officer asked if Tom had weapons.  The officer also yelled at the soldiers, who looked maybe too longingly at his television.  Then they all left.  All the conversation was in Arabic; the officer never asked Tom’s nationality.

It may have been the same squad I had watched from my window the day before: three Iraqi soldiers led two men dressed in dishdasha across the vacant lot next to our apartment building. The men’s hands were bound behind their backs. The group crossed the avenue and entered the Al-Sabah mansion on the waterfront. My apartment was high enough to see over the walls into the compound. The men were led inside the mansion. An hour later I saw them pushed and thrown into the back of a small white pickup truck. Their hands were still bound.  I wondered about radio reports of Iraqi torture centers, where “Kuwaiti insurgents” would be subjected to electric shock or water torture until they confessed.  Then they’d be shot.

I woke up to the sound of shooting: my head was immediately clear, but my knees shook, uncontrollably. It was before dawn, before fajr, the first call to prayer; wind rattled a window.  I thought it was gunfire.  The anti-aircraft gun atop the beach mansion had opened fire the evening before: I had watched the tracers arching inland though I couldn’t tell what the target was. A sniper, a rat, an aircraft, or just the full moon?  Seeing no corpses in the morning near the building, I was frustrated not to be able to learn from local media about the shooting.  No local media existed, no networks for uniting around shared information.

An unfamiliar smell wafted in from outdoors.  First I thought it was the smell of fear, my own changed chemistry.   Then I realized it was from fires and daily columns of smoke on the horizon, maybe explosions or firebombed buildings or vehicles.  When I saw a column of smoke coming from the base of our building, it turned out to be trash, once picked up almost daily to be buried or piled up in the desert, now burning, incinerated in the large trash bin, maybe ignited to kill flies and rats.

As I lay flat on the floor looking out at the Gulf or down at the soldiers, I told myself they were vulnerable, not me.  Sometimes I wished I were a sniper, but only if I could use a magic weapon and the deaths of soldiers below could be secret, things I’d imagined as a kid, one who could be invisible, shoot soldiers and get to safety that way.

<<News chronology:

August 6:  US SECDEF (Cheney) travels to Saudi Arabia to discuss request for assistance and deployment of U.S. forces in country; then to Egypt and gets permission to send U.S. warships through Suez Canal.

August 7:  Operation Desert Shield is ordered;  the 82nd Airborne and several fighter squadrons are dispatched.

August 8:  Iraq annexes Kuwait and renames it the long-lost province of Kathima.  UN Security Council Resolution 661 imposes trade embargo;  Cuba and Yemen abstain.

August 9:  Iraq closes its borders.

August 10, 1990

Since wishing would not bring us food, Tom and I decided to risk going out to raid Ted’s freezer in Abu Halifa. The roads were deserted of all but car wrecks, some of which had not been there when Tom and I made our “spearhead” drive.  The gate in the Abu Halifa wall was closed, and a gatekeeper asked what we wanted.

“We’re here to visit Jerry, in apartment 1930,” I said, feigning familiarity.  It appeared the residents of the building had formed their own security patrols to keep out looters. I recognized the gatekeeper as an American I’d seen at a party Ted held a month earlier: Tom and I had status as his fellow US expatriates then.  Now he eyes us with suspicion.

We did visit Jerry for a while. He told of new attempts by small groups to drive to the border, mostly people with four-wheel-drive vehicles going across the desert.  There were also reports, Jerry said, of carloads of corpses there, people who attempted to drive out of Kuwait but either had unsuitable vehicles for traversing desert, lost their way, or broke down . . . . and died in the heat.  Again, I wondered about Ted and the others.

When Tom and I left him—we hadn’t said why we’d really come—we went to Ted’s apartment one floor up. I expected it would soon be taken over as an Iraqi observation post.  The fax line was dead, and when I dialed Diana’s number, I heard only static.  I assumed this was the consequence of the destroyed telecommunications tower.  I noticed two dozen bottles of Ted’s wine fermenting in the bathtub and thought about all the good bottles he and I had enjoyed months before. Each bottle had a cap attached to surgical tubing that  ended under water in a basin; fermentation was evident as bubbles in the water.  We took only the squid from the freezer, leaving the greens and boxes of processed foods.  As we carried this bag of frozen food out toward the gate, we were challenged by the building’s security patrols.

“What do you have there, guys?”

“Just some food from a friend,” I answered.

“Can’t let you keep that,” was the response.  “It’s our food now.  Nothing leaves here.”

I wonder now if the patrol would even have taken this food if Jerry had accompanied us.  These apartment complexes, enclosed as they are in Kuwait, were taking on a new life, transformed into walled cities by the fearful residents trapped inside. Even though this patrol was made up of fellow-Americans, their greater identity now was as residents of Abu Halifah; and Tom and I, residents of a walled city in Manqaf, were outsiders, therefore a threat; we had morphed into intruders, rivals for a limited food supply.  If this patrol detained as well, Tom and I could face the fate of Jean Valjean.

I had no way of telling how many people lived in these towers, but our buildings seemed about half full.  The Arab residents had disappeared, leaving Europeans, Tom and me, and some Pakistani families.

<<News chronology:

August 10:  USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort are activated and prepare to deploy.  Carrier groups Independence, Eisenhower, and Saratoga as well as battleship Wisconsin begin to converge on the Gulf.

August 10:  (from History Commons)  Perhaps 2,000 Americans are hiding from Iraqi soldiers throughout the capital city, and at least 115 are already in Iraqi custody, essentially being held as hostages. Iraqi forces bring a number of Americans, mostly oilfield workers, to Baghdad, where they are put up at local hotels. The Iraqis do not allow the “freed” Americans to leave the hotels or meet with US Embassy officials. It is clear that though the Iraqis call them “guests,” they are hostages. Deputy Chief of Mission Joseph Wilson, the ranking US diplomat in Baghdad, learns to his dismay that his superiors in the US are similarly reluctant to consider the Americans as hostages, arguing that if US officials begin calling them hostages, then the Iraqis will treat them as such. Perhaps Iraq is holding the Americans only until their control of Kuwait is complete, and will release them.

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