<<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.
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.