Kuwait: Rape of a Nation
IRAQ LOOTED THE COUNTRY AS A MATTER OF POLICY
The stories of rape, torture and murder coming out of Kuwait read like an anthology of Iraqi insanity. But there was a logic at work: Iraq’s occupation forces intended to erase the conquered nation’s identity, and they meant to do it fast. Blotting out the word “Kuwait” on road signs was one tactic; ripping off the fingernails of people displaying the emir’s picture was another. At one point the Iraqis brought a new mother before captured Kuwaiti resistance fighters and stripped her naked. “Here is the milk of Kuwait,” they taunted. “Drink it.” Eventually the Iraqis dumped the woman back home, alive. It was enough to humiliate the essence of the Kuwaiti spirit.
A bullet through the mouth or the back of the head was in some cases the kindest Iraqi punishment. The bodies regularly unloaded at Kuwait City’s four major medical centers included victims with ax wounds, holes drilled through their kneecaps or intestines inflated with air. At Mubarak Hospital, the country’s largest, doctors received victims burned by acid, with ears cut off and eyes gouged out. Torturers beat one woman, shot her three times in the chest and neatly sawed off her skull, exposing her brain. A gynecologist at the hospital, accused of poisoning Iraqi soldiers, had his fingernails torn out and his body burned with cigarettes before death. “They are psychopaths,” Kalid Shalawi, acting chief of the hospital’s medical section, told The Washington Post. Allied legal teams began the difficult job of compiling the full record from families who had tried to stay out of sight. “It was hell, it was horrible,” said Seham al-Mutwaa, nursing director at Mubarak. “We were like rats in a trap, hiding while they stole and killed and raped.”
The Iraqi terror was selective to some extent. The elite Republican Guard who spearheaded the invasion behaved with professional soldiers’ discipline. Torture centers sprang up under the control of 7,000 agents of Iraq’s Mukhabarat (“information gatherers”), who saved their most severe methods for resistance suspects. The worst brutality came early in the occupation. The Iraqis killed so many young men, Kuwaiti Maj. Abdulrahman Hadhood told the Post, that bodies were taken to a skating rink for short-term preservation. As the Iraqis sensed the war turning against them, they seemed to become more cautious. “They wouldn’t come into the houses anymore,” said Mrs. Suad al-Musallam in Kuwait City. “We could already see defeat in their eyes.” Then in the final week the Iraqis abducted Kuwaiti hostages–5,000 by most preliminary estimates–possibly to use as bargaining chips in negotiations with the allies.
Random violence was not the absolute rule. Kuwaiti doctors, for example, denied rumors that in the first weeks of occupation the Iraqis took premature babies out of incubators and left them to die. Nonetheless, poorly trained Iraqi conscripts and volunteers of the People’s Army militia often behaved without restraint. Their treatment of women was particularly outrageous under Islamic law. Even in Beirut, guerrilla street fighters rarely targeted women. But in Kuwait, Iraqi soldiers raped at will. Their victims included Filipino housemaids as well as Kuwaiti women. Samia al-Husallam, a medical student, said she was dumping her garbage when she discovered the nude body of a young Kuwaiti woman stuffed in a basket–apparently the victim of a gang rape.
The occupiers looted Kuwait as a matter of policy, reasoning that the wealth of the 19th province was needed elsewhere in greater Iraq. At least one Kuwaiti hotel served as a depot for troops foraging through homes. The Iraqis “would sleep during the day and work at night [gathering television sets and appliances],” said a Filipino who worked at the Sheraton. “They were nice to us, and said if they didn’t steal these things they would be shot.” Army trucks carted away printing presses, street lamps, college libraries and museum artifacts. “It brings us back 400 or 500 years,” said Suleiman al-Shaheen, a Kuwaiti foreign-affairs official. “Back to when tribes pillaged each other because one had more than the other.”
Iraqi soldiers also took the opportunity for some personal bargain-hunting. “They took everything,” said a Kuwaiti housewife: “televisions, radios, food, even dog food.” The hunt for anti-Saddam activists was one opportunity for profit. When 23-year-old Kuwaiti student Faisal Abdulhadi was thrown in jail, he said, his family paid two videocassette recorders, two televisions and 3,000 Iraqi dinars for his release. A member of the Kuwaiti ruling family, Sheikh Badr Abdullah Mohammed al-Sabah, 30, said he promised gold and jewelry to the Iraqis after they took him to Baghdad for interrogation; he escaped from the bus that was taking him back to Kuwait to deliver the treasure.
Saddam left the Kuwaitis plenty to remember him by. The occupiers set 600 of the country’s 950 oil wells ablaze, a smoky inferno that created dusk at noon in Kuwait, dimmed the sun from Dhahran to central Iran and threatened what a gulf oilman called “a minor-league version of a nuclear winter.” Much of Kuwait lacked electricity, plentiful water and telephone service. The capital escaped the ravages of house-to-house fighting, but the Iraqis destroyed hotels, government buildings and the parliament. Large sections of the ruling al-Sabah family’s Dasman Palace had been demolished, its marble floors soiled with human excrement. On the palace grounds, mounds of smoldering documents testified to Iraq’s determination to destroy all evidence of official Kuwait.
It was in character for mercantile Kuwaitis and their American liberators to see opportunity in the ashes. A senior U.S. military official pointed out that while damage to the oil industry was severe, the airport was functional, backup electrical generators were available and roads and the water system were basically in good shape. “The bottom line is that damage is not as extensive as had been thought,” he said. The U.S. 352nd Civil Affairs Command–a reserve of lawyers, engineers and administrators–began putting together a first-phase rebuilding plan in December. It provided for 15,000 tons a month of rice and other food; seaborne tankers of water; U.S. military health care–and even a public-relations campaign touting a “new,” “selfreliant” Kuwait grounded in “Arab/Islam values.” The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had a $46 million contract to organize the first phase of what may be a $100 billion national reconstruction program.
Going high tech:
Kuwait’s labor force will undergo reconstruction, too. Of the 2.1 million people in the country before the invasion, only 600,000 were native Kuwaitis; most others were outside contract workers turning the wheels that created the country’s wealth. More than 400,000 of these were Palestinians, some of whom apparently collaborated with the Iraqis and may now become targets of Kuwaiti reprisals. In the future, Kuwaiti planners have decided, the country must rely less on immigrant workers and more on labor-efficient computers and robotics. The U.S. blueprint foresaw the new Kuwait starting off with a population of 800,000, and the Kuwaitis were determined to go high tech. “This is a godsent opportunity to upgrade and modernize our whole system,” said Abdul Latif al-Hamad, the former finance minister. “This is our chance.”
First the country had to recover from the trauma of the Iraqi invasion. About half of all Kuwaitis fled abroad to escape the occupiers, and government leaders (also in exile) urged them to stay out for at least three months, until computerized records confirming their nationality can be restored. The plan then is to readmit citizens at a rate of no more than 10,000 a week. The emir declared three months of martial law. But he also promised elections to reconstitute the National Assembly, which he had dissolved in 1986 after it criticized his policies.
Most Kuwaitis agreed that the emir should stay in power. But there were splits between those who supported and those who opposed the 1986 Parliament; between those who wanted more democracy and those who favored tradition, and not least of all between those who fled the Iraqi occupation and those who survived it. “The Kuwaitis today, especially the ones who stayed, are different from the Kuwaitis of Aug. 2,” said shipyard director Mousa Marafi, who escaped to London. “The ones who stayed, they are the ones who should have the right to say something of the future of Kuwait.”
The Kuwaitis who stayed were also potential legal witnesses to Iraq’s atrocities. Saudi Arabia already has funneled some Iraqis arrested as spies into its harsh judicial system as war criminals, said a Western diplomat in Riyadh, “I really doubt they’ll see the next hajj,” he added. But given the continued freedom of Saddam and his generals, U.S. officials saw little purpose in war-crimes trials to punish the colonels and lieutenants in custody. Washington did intend to demand Iraqi war reparations, however. In one U.S. scheme, a United Nations committee could collect revenues from Iraqi oil sales, give Iraq a modest profit and distribute the rest to various claimants–Kuwait above all. Saddam can never repay Kuwait for its agony and its losses. But Kuwaitis would like to make him try.