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The Rape and Rescue of Kuwaiti City

Torture victims and tense victors.

One sunny afternoon in the week of liberation, I went to the theater. The hall at Kuwait University’s school of music and drama is a place of conspicuous civilization, a big cantilevered room with modestly elegant blue cloth seats trimmed in gold, rich wood-paneled walls, and a deep, broad stage set above a large orchestra pit. I expected to be alone there but instead found a British television crew videotaping the statement of 29-year-old Abdullah Jasman, Kuwaiti citizen, University of Pittsburgh graduate, and victim of a torture session in this unlikely place. He was standing in the balcony, talking and crying. Here and there, the tile floor was spotted with drops of dried blood, little trails that went no place in particular.

“On the stage,” Jasman said, pointing to a large section of steel set scaffolding, “you can see the metal frame. They put you on that, naked, with both legs spread and they spread you open all the way. … They raped one of my friends here. They raped him. They were laughing. They said, ‘This is what your Emir did to you. …’ There were a bunch of us brought here. You sat in these chairs, waiting to be tortured, blindfolded, and couldn’t see anything. You’d hear the voices, loud, and the screaming and begging.”

He pulled up his pant legs and showed the camera his calves, mottled with deep black burn wounds. “They put the wires on your legs and put your feet in the water, so your whole body is electricity,” he said. “They would put you with the electricity in the water for twenty seconds, thirty seconds, and you would go unconscious and they would throw water on you and revive you, and then do it again.” He began crying, in short, harsh, shuddering sobs, and he could not stop for many long, videotaped seconds.

After it was over, the British reporter thanked him. “It must have been terrible for you to go through this,” he said. “But it is important. Your story is really something else.” Actually, the terrible thing is, it really wasn’t. It was as common as sand in Kuwait. It was, in one variation or another, simply the story of living in Iraq’s 19th Province for seven months under the rule of Saddam Hussein.

One of the new, post-liberation pieces of graffiti here is a two-foot-high, three-foot-long message in red spray paint on a concrete wall, along the formerly lovely Gulf Street, amid the debris of the Iraqi army’s elaborate and worthless beachfront defenses. It reads: “Diarty Iraqis.” Apart from the slight misspelling, it is a commendable statement: accurate, succinct, and restrained. What the Iraqi forces did to this place was profoundly dirty; was filthy, vile, obscene; was one long, vast crime.

The city the Iraqis left behind appeared to have been worked over by a huge army of drunken teenage vandals. They stole everything they could, from air conditioners to cigarettes, in a citywide smash and grab. The huge and superb medical library at the city’s teaching hospital, Mubarak Al-Katib, was stolen in its entirety. So was the library at Kuwait University, along with the school’s big mainframe computers and everything else worth a cent. Standing near the library, where a few thousand bedraggled books (Henry the Fifth, The Italian Renaissance and its Historical Background, etc.), along with hundreds of thousands of index cards, remained scattered on the floor, Omar Samman, an 18-year-old student, described the looting: “They came in with lorries and took everything — the computers, the books, the carpets, the chairs, the keyboards, the carrels, the microphones, the podiums. It took them nearly a whole month, with men in lorries every day, before they got it all.”

What the Iraqis could not steal, they destroyed, in an astonishingly savage and thorough rampage. They torched every major hotel, the banks, car dealerships, almost every store in the downtown shopping district, a score of major office buildings, the fishing marina and all its boats, the National Museum, and a great deal more. They ruined the beachfront with lines of concertina wire, bunkers, pillboxes, and mines, and turned Gulf Street’s luxury apartment buildings into high-rise bunkers, cinderblocking the windows into gun ports. They shot up and burned down the Emir’s office and residential palaces, as well as the parliament building, smashing the windows and doors and breaking the furniture for kicks.

Kuwaitis were stunned by the Iraqi soldiers’ habit of turning every place they went into a sty. At Kuwait University every office, it seemed, was ankle- to calf-deep in debris; the contents of desks and files dumped on floors, paintings ripped from walls, chairs and tables overturned. In one room was a great pile of gold- and azure-trimmed academic robes, sodden and stinking of urine. At the Al-Ahadat police station, which the Iraqis converted into one of many makeshift prisons, as many as 200 men were locked in one 30-by-30-foot room, with no beds or blankets. The prisoners slept on a filthy tile floor and used scraps of styrofoam for pillows. As elsewhere, the Iraqis’ own living quarters in the prison contained layer on layer of grime; half-eaten, rotting plates of food flung into corners, trash and garbage covering the floors, graffiti (“Hosni Mubarak is a Son of a Bitch”) covering the walls, the stench of feces and urine heavy in the air.

It is the human factor that hurt most, though. The Iraqi forces treated the people here as they did the property. They trashed them. “They killed the people and threw their bodies in the dirt,” said District Attorney Nassar Seleh. “They killed the people like they were chickens.”

When I first got here, a day and a half after most of the Iraqi troops had fled in the middle of the night, and a day after Kuwaiti troops had entered, I met on the road into town a polite, middle-aged newspaper writer named Abdullah Al-Khateeb. He led me to a grubby little piece of ground, a few blocks from his home, and across the street from a building where the Iraqi state security agents had one of their headquarters. We walked about twenty yards in from the sidewalk. Behind us, the street was filled, as it would be for days, with uproarious celebration; gunshots, horns, shouts, and whistles, and dark-robed women ululating — high-pitched series of rapid tongue and glottal stops that is an Arab noise of public emotion. We stopped by a bloody red and white kefiyeh, the Arab man’s commonwear headdress. Next to it were two sets of scuff marks in the dirt, and two big patches of rusty, dried blood.

“Here,” said Khateeb, pointing, “is where the two boys kneeled. And here, to the side, is where the Iraqis stood. They shot the boys here, one with a pistol in the forehead, and one with a pistol in the back of the head. The boys died here.”

Abdul Rahman Al-Awadi, Kuwait’s minister of state for cabinet affairs, claims that 33,000 people disappeared since August 2. The Iraqis are reliably estimated to have taken as many as 20,000 prisoners to Iraq to serve as slave laborers, and another 3,000 to 5,000 as hostages and shields in the days just before the allied ground offensive. By the minister’s reckoning, that would put the number of murdered between 8,000 and 10,000. This figure is improbable, but not wildly so. The precise number was still being worked out at the end of the first week of liberation, but it was clear by the evidence that it would amount to at least a couple of thousand. The dead were everywhere.

In a cemetery in the southern suburban district of Rigga, mass graves, each reportedly containing seven or eight men or boys, stretched for long rows. Cemetery workers said the slots contained about 1,000 bodies. There are ten major hospitals in Kuwait City, and all report having handled atrocity victims. At Mubarak Hospital, one of the city’s largest, the chief of surgery, Dr. Abdullah Behbehani, said that from late August through October his emergency room received groups of five to ten corpses almost every day. At the Al-Amira Hospital, Dr. Sabah Al-Hadeedi said he can document, with photographs and fingerprints, thirty-eight executions.

Subhi Younis, an ambulance driver and the chief morgue attendant at Sabah Hospital, said he had handled at least 400 and perhaps as many as 700 executed bodies over the seven-month occupation. One day, he said, forty-five bodies came in; another day, seventy. On days like that, the twenty-two refrigerated steel drawers in the morgue would fill quickly, and bodies would be laid out in a bloody, twisted carpet on the tile floor and the courtyard outside. When I visited, the morgue was still home to seven or eight unclaimed victims.

The corpse in drawer 12 had been burned to death with some flammable liquid. The body was curled like a fetus, and what remained of the head was still barely recognizable as a skull, but a skull that seemed to have been slathered in a brown viscous material and then baked in a kiln. It was received by the hospital on October 9, and its identity was unknown.

The corpse in drawer 16 was that of a handsome man with a full, proud black beard. His white shirt was stiff with clotted blood, as were his hair, beard, ears, lips, and nostrils. He had been shot twice, execution-style, in the head and chest. He was brought in on February 19, and he was also labeled unknown. Two men looking for a lost relative peered down at him. “That’s not who I want,” said one of the men. “But I know him. I can’t remember the name, but I know the face. He lived in the neighborhood.” He sighed and shrugged. “What can you do?”

The corpse in drawer 3 had its yellowed hands tied behind its back with a strip of white rag. The body had been beaten from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head, which had been stoved in by a club, the apparent cause of death. The legs were covered with deep purple and black bruises, some six inches or more long, and the chest was scored with a cross-hatch of purple welts.

The corpse in drawer 17 had been so badly burned it did not look like a body at all. It looked like something you might find on the beach on an early morning walk, in the smoldering remains of a driftwood fire. It came in on November 3; unknown.

Corpses 18 and 19 were two brothers. Amir Abbas and Hanza Abbas, brought in on January 20. Excited by the thought of the land war, the young Abbas men reportedly had led a small, bloody insurrection against an Iraqi police station in their suburban neighborhood. Their bodies came in with those of five of their neighbors, who were rounded up and killed for good measure, hospital officials said. Those men had been shot in the head, and Amir’s eye sockets were bloody holes. “We believe the eyeballs were plucked out with fingers while he was alive,” said Saba Hospital surgeon Ali Nassar Al-Serafi, with a sorry little shake of his head.

Drs. Behbehani and Hadeedi charted, in the precise way of professional accountants of casualties, the patterns of death. The first pattern is chronological, with the execution of civilians beginning several weeks after the August 2 invasion, in response to resistance efforts, and drastically increasing from mid-September on, after Saddam Hussein’s brother-in-law, Ali Hassan Majid, arrived as the new governor. Majid reportedly brought in squads of trained killers from the Iraqi state security agency, the Mukhabarat. “The executions began in earnest after they sent in the special execution squads from Baghdad,” said Dr. Behbehani. “We started seeing a lot of young men between the ages of 17 and 32. They arrived, not as patients to care for, but as bodies to bury.”

The second pattern is one of style, identical in almost every case. After arrest, a victim would be imprisoned and interrogated for several days or weeks. Upon release, sometimes secured with bribes solicited from the family, the prisoner would be returned home and shot in the head, neck, or heart, in front of family members. Alternatively, his body, with ankles and hands bound, would be deposited near his home. The families were generally barred from retrieving the bodies from the street or doorstep until the next day, so that many might see them, and fear.

The third pattern was one of even worse brutality. “There started in late September something more severe. We started getting mutilated and tortured bodies. Not simply shot, but eyeballs taken out, heads smashed, bones broken,” said Dr. Behbehani. “You would see heads that were completely unvaulted, with no brains in the skull, or multiple fractures in each arm, or severe burns in the face and body, or fingernails removed.”

“The signs of torture I saw from the thirty-eight executions this hospital handled were electrical burns, where wires had been put on the chest wall and near the genitals, and cigarette burns anywhere on the body, massive bruising, and non-lethal bullets in the shoulders, kneecaps, hip, and legs,” he said. At about the same time, the doctors also began seeing more cases involving women, often raped and mutilated before death. “In November a woman I know personally was brought in,” Dr. Behbehani recalled.’ ‘The top of her head was gone and bullets were in her chest.” Sitting at his desk, a neat, polished man reflected in a neat, polished surface, the doctor wept. “She was — my God — she was completely mutilated. There was no brain inside her skull. Why should they take her brain? Why do such a thing?”

Rape and torture not resulting in death were also common. Almost everyone I talked to in four days had a story of some friend or relative being so abused. One day a man handed me his business card, which said he was Bassam Eid Abhool, assistant electrical engineer at Kuwait International Airport. His fingernails were perhaps one-eighth of an inch long; tiny, soft, fragile little strips of ragged cuticle. “Ah, you see my fingers,” said Abhool. “Iraqis, of course.” His story was typical: picked up at random walking in his neighborhood; taken to a police station; hung upside down naked; beaten, tortured, interrogated; released with a warning. Much of the questioning was political. “They would say, ‘You know what your Emir do for your people? Marry 200 women and take all your money — is this not true?’ I would say, ‘I don’t know.’ They would say, ‘The Iraqi people have come to give freedom to people of Kuwait; is this not true?’ I would say, ‘I don’t know.’ “

On Abhool’s second day in prison, his interrogators got down to serious work. “Two guys take my hands and they close my eyes, and they take the pliers and they take out, one by one, my fingernails. Then they put my fingers in water with salt,” Abhool recalled in a soft, dispassionate voice. On the third day, his captors crushed his fingertips with the pliers, but on the fourth day they let him go. “Later, I see them in supermarket, and they say, ‘How are your fingers, are they good?’ I say, ‘No, they are not good.’ They say, ‘Come back to the police station, we will make them good.’ They laugh and laugh.”

There was real resistance here, and it was never completely overcome. Dr. Hadeedi and his colleagues entered wounded resistance fighters into the hospital as car accident victims to fool Iraqi watchers and hid an entire fifty-bed ward and operating theater in three basement storerooms. Five-person resistance cells worked in a loose food and money distribution network that provided those in need with staples and cash every week. Some people fought with arms up to the end, despite an Iraqi policy of collective reprisals that meant half a dozen Kuwaiti deaths for every Iraqi death. A favored tactic was to invite a lonely Iraqi soldier home to dinner and at evening’s end stab him and bury him.

But for most people here the seven months were mostly a time for hiding. The post-liberation boasts of opposition were often about how the rich hired cranes to put their Ferraris on their rooftops, how every neighborhood was stripped of street signs and house numbers, how valuables were secreted in backyards and young men in cubbyholes.

The liberation was, above all, a release from the grinding daily horror of hiding. I went to the street where the Iraqi governor, Ali Hassan Majid, had lived in a commandeered mansion. The women who lived across the street hadn’t been outside in months, because of fear of the Iraqi guards who leered at them. Two women, one older, the other just 18, showed photographs of themselves from before the invasion, portrait shots in full hairdo and makeup. “Look at us now,” said the older one. “We are ugly now. Look at our clothes. We could not wash.” “Look at my hair,” said the younger one, holding out a tousled rope of henna-rich auburn. “It is terrible, is it not?”

The release from captivity took the form of that most pleasant of releases, a party. The bash began unexpectedly, early in the morning of February 26. “We woke up and saw the Kuwaiti flag flying from the police station,” said Nassar Seleh. “You cannot imagine our feelings when we realized the Iraqi troops had gone from the city. In the night we had heard the tanks moving in the street, and we had dared hope they were going. But to wake up and find all of them gone — the city is ours again!”

Suddenly everyone was a rebel. The streets were filled with young men firing rifles and pistols, making the celebration almost as dangerouse as the battle for liberation itself. Early reports cited six such deaths in the first two days; I know of three, whose fresh graves I visited in Sulaibikhat Cemetery. “Abdullah Jassim, Who Died For Kuwait,” read the stone on the mound of a man hit on top of the head by a falling round.

Suddenly everyone could be brave. People tore the Iraqi license plates from their cars; two days before, that had been a jailing offense. They displayed photographs of the Emir, wrote anti-Saddam graffiti (“Saddam, Pushed By Bush”), waved Kuwaiti flags, shouted “Kill Saddam!”; those had all formerly been hanging offenses. One car sported twenty-three photos of Kuwait’s leader, his smiling face plastered on the trunk, hood, and windows, all of it festooned with bright gold and silver Christmas tree garlands. Pick-up trucks dragged effigies of Saddam by the neck through the streets, and a group of laughing teenage boys led a skinny white donkey labeled “Saddam” down the boulevard.

At Al-Amiri Hospital a long line of cars queued up to take souvenir shells from an Iraqi anti-aircraft gun, and families posed for pictures next to it. In a heavy rain storm four young women sat in a row on the trunk of an Impala, having made a seat by knocking out the rear window. They waved to the crowd like princesses, and yelled over and over, “I am Kuwaiti! I am Kuwaiti!”

For Americans the party offered the novel sensation of being adored in a foreign land. An American couldn’t pay for anything that week in Kuwait, couldn’t walk ten feet without being stopped to accept thanks, couldn’t talk to anyone without getting an invitation to dinner or lunch. “Welcome, soldiers, you are welcome” three little girls in party frocks serenaded the U.S. Marines at the newly reopened American Embassy. “George Bush, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very good,” an old man offered. Two women jumped from a car to proffer a daisy and a tray of cookies. “Thank you! Thank you! And thank Mr. Bush,” said one. “Welcome to your country,” said the other.

At one raucous do, centered on three Kuwaiti armored personnel carriers whose crews stood unusually erect in the manner of young men posing for posterity, four teenage girls wearing sweaters covered with photos of Bush, John Major, and Margaret Thatcher (each framed with little red and gold and silver spangles) worked the crowd of American soldiers and reporters with their autograph books. I wrote, self-consciously, “To Maha, on a wonderful day, 3-1-91,” under an inscription from a “Captain Henry Douglas: ‘To a lovely Kuwaiti girl.’ “

There were few Iraqis left in Kuwait City against whom retribution could be exacted. But on the outskirts of town I did see one scene of vengeance — pretty much the last thing I saw there. Five days after liberation I drove up the road toward southern Iraq, the route Saddam’s soldiers had taken in flight. Every fifty or 100 yards there was a fresh kill from the slaughter the allied forces visited on the fleeing Iraqis. From each charred and trashed vehicle the belongings of the dead Iraqi driver and the dead Iraqi soldier-passengers were spread in a dirty plume on the asphalt.

Most of the bodies had been carted away, but a fair number remained. At every spot where there was still an Iraqi corpse, a crowd had gathered. Every few minutes a new group would approach, and someone would pull the blanket down to see the enemy’s face. The corpses were already decomposing, their faces yellow and black and green, their features melting together under a buzzing of flies. One by one the Kuwaitis moved cautiously forward and paid their last respects. One middle-aged man bent down, over half of a machine-gunned body wedged upside down in the driver’s seat of a stolen Toyota. He spat, carefully, on the face. His friend got it all on videotape. They pulled the blanket back up and got in their car, heading up the road to spit on the next of the waiting dead.

Michael Kelly is a former editor of The New Republic and the author of Things Worth Fighting For: Collected Writings.

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