Kuwait Diary

Stephen Sackur

Precious little traffic heads out of Kuwait City on Route 80 – the Basra road. Civilian access to the north, to the demilitarised zone between Kuwait and Iraq is strictly controlled by soldiers manning a checkpoint on the crest of the Mutla Ridge. Several times a week busloads of Palestinians and stateless Arabs are allowed to pass through, but theirs is a one-way journey ending in permanent expulsion. Western visitors who attempt to follow in their wake are politely discouraged. ‘It is dangerous,’ explain the Kuwaiti soldiers.

The few saloon cars and station wagons which do climb the long, straight hill up to the Mutla police post make a U-turn at the top and a slow descent on the other side of the six-lane highway. A year after this stretch of road was blocked by a nose-to-tail jam of devastated vehicles it has become an object of mild curiosity, a sight to be seen on Kuwait’s ‘liberation trail’.

The Kuwaiti Government, whether by design or neglect, has allowed an atmosphere of violence to linger in the roadside sand leading up to the ridge. Metal carcasses lie abandoned to right and left, mostly trucks and cars, with just a handful of burned-out tanks. Messages daubed in white paint leave no doubt as to the nationality of the perpetrators of this act of war on the retreating Iraqi convoy. ‘I love Chicago,’ proclaims a four-ton truck skewed in the sand at a crazy angle. Another hand has written ‘HIGHWAY CHILD’ on the door of a gutted saloon. At the bottom of the hill a British soldier clearly went to some trouble to devise an epitaph to the hundreds of Iraqis who perished in the inferno. ‘Fuck the Poll Tax’ were his chosen words. Piles of detritus have been ploughed like so much dirty, unmelting snow to the side of the road. Clothes, boots, mattresses and books, all now covered in a crust of sand, lie waiting for erosion to relieve them of shape and form.

In the assembly hall of what used to be a suburban school in southern Kuwait City a group of volunteers known as the Association for the Defence of War Victims has established an exhibition to illustrate Iraqi torture techniques. I walk around it with a young guide called Adel, who assures me that it has already been visited by many thousands of Kuwaitis. At one end of the room is a display of photographs of mutilated bodies. One image, even now difficult to forget, shows a sexless corpse hunched in a foetal position. ‘Thrown into a bath full of acid,’ says Adel. On a nearby table there’s a collection of workshop tools and unfamiliar instruments. Adel picks them up one by one and shows me how they were used to torture Kuwaiti prisoners. I begin to feel uncomfortable. I’m reminded of grotesque advertisements for guided tours of the London Dungeons. Now I’m faced with three tailors’ dummies which have been artfully adapted to resemble the photographs seen earlier. There is a woman with a breast cut off, a man with a gaping wound where his marble eye should have been. I ask my guide whether he thinks this is an effective way of commemorating the suffering of Kuwait. ‘Of course,’ he says: ‘we have to ensure that we never forget what the Iraqis did to our people. Sometimes visitors come here and they cry, some others are sick. What we show here is horrible, but it’s the truth.’ As we leave the hall I ask Adel about his own experiences during the occupation. He was in America, he tells me. He returned to Kuwait the day after liberation. Less than a third of the Kuwaiti population remained in the country throughout the Iraqi occupation. Many thousands were already living in their summer homes in London, Southern France and the United States. Many more, including almost all of the ruling Al-Sabah clan, made a speedy exit from the Emirate as the Iraqi troops headed south. Whatever the rhetorical attachment to the notion of ‘national suffering’, post-liberation Kuwaiti society possesses little of the cohesion and strength derived from shared experience.

‘Those who left very soon after the invasion have become defensive,’ acknowledges Dr Mansour Sarkhou, director of the Qadisiyah clinic.

When these people came back they had a very negative attitude to those who had stayed behind. You can see a feeling of guilt in some of their actions since liberation. It’s a problem that threatens to undermine everything. Those of us who stayed are accused of all sorts of things ... some people even try to hint that we might have been collaborators.

Dr Sarkhou is a dapper man. With his smart suit and manicured moustache he looks every bit the self-assured consultant, the established performer on the international conference circuit. But as he talks his emollient manner slips, his frustration at the insensitivity of Kuwait’s rulers grows. ‘It’s taken them a year to set up an official psychiatric rehabilitation centre, and then they appoint two Danish specialists to the counselling unit, neither of whom speaks a word of Arabic.’

Residents of Qadisiyah, traumatised by their experiences under occupation, have been attending informal individual and group therapy sessions at Dr Sarkhou’s clinic for much of the last year. After some persuasion he allows me to sit in on an afternoon counselling session. Three women, one of them clutching a sleeping baby, and a youngish man in a grey dishdasha are sitting in a spartan anteroom at the back of the clinic. First to speak is Sabiha, still cradling her child. She describes how her husband was taken away from their home by Iraqi soldiers on the day after the invasion. A week later she learned that he was dead. ‘At that time I was two months pregnant,’ she tells us, without looking at her baby. As she continues in a low, insistent voice both other women begin to cry – one rushes out to find paper handkerchiefs. Dr Sarkhou asks Sabiha how she feels about life in liberated Kuwait, and her answer prompts murmured agreement from the woman sitting closest to her. ‘I don’t believe that those who were outside Kuwait during the occupation can really appreciate what happened to us,’ she says. ‘I have tried to describe it to them, but they can never understand how my children look at me when I tell them that their father won’t be coming home ... After liberation His Highness the Emir visited me to console me in my loss – and this was a great comfort – but now I find junior government bureaucrats are pestering me to provide them with documents, to send them a death certificate before I can receive any financial assistance ... they really don’t seem to understand my difficulties.’

The others in the room seem to identify with this feeling of alienation. According to Dr Sarkhou, all of them are suffering from a severe form of post-traumatic stress. One of the women describes how she is haunted by the death of her brother, who was shot in the head on the doorstep of the family home, in full view of herself and her mother. The young man says little; when he speaks his words are slurred, his eyes fixed on a point above the doctor’s head. He tells the group that he is being treated with powerful anti-depressant drugs. It helps to listen, he says, but it’s difficult to talk.

The insecurity and suspicion which pervade post-war Kuwait find their most eloquent expression in the empty streets and abandoned apartments of the Hawalli neighbourhood, south-east of the city centre. Before the Iraqi invasion the bulk of Kuwait’s resident population of 400,000 Palestinians lived in the network of apartment blocks and alleyways around Beirut Street. Now barely 40,000 remain, most of them unemployed and resigned to eventual deportation. Rows of shops and stalls remain shuttered, abandoned. Scrawled graffiti attest to the depth of Kuwaiti hatred for this departed community. And Palestinians are not the only Arabs accused of betrayal. Jordanians, Yemenis, Sudanese and the Bedoun – the stateless Arabs – have also been expelled from the Emirate in an act of collective vengeance for pro-Iraqi sympathies, real or imagined, expressed during the war. ‘We can never forgive them for their treachery,’ a woman banker tells me at a social function, before describing what happened in her office when the Iraqis arrived.

One of my assistants was a Palestinian – he had worked with us for 12 years. After the invasion we learned that this man had been appointed head of personnel. Imagine – a clerk suddenly acting as though he owned the bank. He didn’t understand anything of course. He ruined the payroll system, destroyed years of work.

Was it the man’s acceptance of the job that was so objectionable, or the fact that he did it so badly?

In a comfortable house on the edge of Hawalli I hear the other side of the collaboration story. My host, Faisal, is 60 years old, a Palestinian born in Gaza, but resident in Kuwait for 38 years. He’s a civil engineer, a senior manager in a Kuwaiti construction company. For three decades he’s been intimately involved with Kuwait’s physical expansion, turning oil revenues into buildings, bridges and roads. ‘Truly, this is my country,’ he says with a smile, ‘I helped to plan it and build it.’ Charges of collaboration levelled against his community have left him bitter.

My children were born here, and so were many others. This was our home, maybe even our second homeland, why should we welcome those who want to destroy it? There are many things that were never reported ... after the invasion Saddam wanted the Palestinians in Kuwait City to go on a march to support the invasion. We refused. In the end the Iraqis had to bring people in on buses from Basra.

This man is one of the very few Palestinians who might be granted residence and a work permit in post-liberation Kuwait. The owner of his company will sponsor an application for the necessary documentation.

But I cannot stay here,’ Faisal tells me. ‘I have my 80-year-old mother in my house. I have my wife, and my children. None of them will be given visas to stay here with me. There is no future for my family here.

He reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket and pulls out what looks like a passport. It is a laissez-passer issued by the Government of Egypt, a travel document which carries with it no right of residence, ‘I am a Gazar,’ he says handing me the document, ‘there is only one country in the world that will accept this.’ He pauses, I know the answer. ‘Iraq’. It is quite possible that within weeks, maybe months, Faisal, or his son, or his mother, will be placed in a deportation centre prior to expulsion. Efforts to find a third country willing to offer temporary refuge will fail. One day a bus full of deportees will be waved through the checkpoint at the top of the Mutla Ridge on the Basra Road. In it an old woman, or a middle-aged man, or a young man – perhaps all three – will stare at the wreckage of the Gulf War, wondering at the chain of events that is taking them to Iraq.

In truth, few Kuwaitis care to analyse the extent and nature of Palestinian ‘collaboration’ – they regard the consistent support lent to President Saddam Hussein by Yasser Arafat as proof enough of collective perfidy. Those brave enough to acknowledge that some Palestinians actively helped the Kuwaiti Resistance, but that the majority were nothing more than bystanders at the scene of a crime, have failed to make themselves heard above the chorus of voices advocating retribution and a new brand of narrow nationalism.

‘Kuwait for the Kuwaitis’ is a message which can now be seen on banners, bumper-stickers and public buildings across the Emirate. The Government has decreed that post-liberation Kuwait will pursue a different demographic course, ensuring a permanent Kuwaiti majority. Before the Iraqi invasion the Emirate possessed a total population of over two million, of which only 800,000 were Kuwaiti nationals. Now the population is down to less than 1.2 million and future growth will be carefully monitored to ensure that the proportion of foreigners never rises beyond 40 per cent of the whole. Thus Kuwaitis are faced with the prospect of fewer servants (households with more than two will be heavily taxed), poorer services and a recession in property prices. The Emir and the Crown Prince of Kuwait talk of ‘new opportunities’ for their loyal subjects, a chance to forge a national spirit based on self-reliance and ‘economic responsibility’. What it amounts to is a demand for hard work – a novel prospect for some of the population.

Such royal exhortations would be better received if the Emir appeared to be ready to share political power as well as the post-war economic burden, but in domestic politics as in so much else, the air has been polluted by fear and mistrust. During their temporary exile in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait’s rulers promised to install a democratic system of government upon their restoration. (Undoubtedly heavy pressure applied from Washington helped to extract such promises. If only for rhetorical purposes, the Allies needed to fly the flag of democracy alongside the shield of sovereignty during Operation Desert Storm). Twelve months later, the pledges remain unfulfilled. Elections for a restored National Assembly are planned for next October, but under the current franchise arrangements only 9 per cent of the Kuwaiti population will be eligible to vote. Women, all those less than 21 years old, and thousands of so-called ‘second-class Kuwaitis’ who have insufficient documentary evidence of their Kuwaiti ancestry, will still be barred from the political process. In political terms, the Kuwaiti Government appears to have learnt little from the invasion experience. The ruling family would like to return to the pre-war status quo as if nothing had happened. A concession here, and a concession there: but still a sheikhdom.

‘Everybody stood by the family during the war and still they don’t trust us,’ says a young woman journalist, still at work though heavily pregnant. I am surprised by her bitterness. The Kuwaiti Government has just announced an end to press censorship. ‘That doesn’t mean we’re free to write what we want,’ she tells me. ‘It means that instead of censoring all of our copy before it’s published they simply threaten to close us down if they don’t like what they read in the paper.’

I tell the young woman a story that was told to me by a Kuwaiti friend the previous evening. A few days ago a film crew put tanks back onto the streets of Kuwait City for a re-enactment of Operation Desert Storm. A handful of men came home from work to find American Abrams tanks thundering past their homes. Without pausing for thought they rounded up their families, grabbed a few valuables and headed with all possible speed for the Saudi border. Only after hours of reassurance from Kuwaiti guards at the frontier were they convinced that Saddam Hussein had not re-invaded their country.

When I finish the story the woman laughs and says: ‘You know, really, it’s not so funny. If I thought the Iraqis were coming I’ll be on the road just as fast. This place isn’t worth dying for.’