Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Remembering the occupation

By Karim El-Gowhary

While the US-made four-wheel jeep was cruising at 100 kilometres an hour along one of the six lane highways of the city of Kuwait, the car thermometer indicated that the temperature was well above 50 degrees Celsius. With pride, the driver announces that it would be possible to fry an egg on the car's hood. The streets are deserted. Most Kuwaitis escaped for their summer vacation. There are official figures, but locals here estimate that, every day, 10,000 Kuwaitis leave the country heading for cooler climes.

This must have also been the scene 10 years ago, when Iraqi troops attacked a more or less deserted country. Within only three hours they had reached the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Kuwait City. They stayed seven months before the US-led international alliance terminated the visit by the uninvited guests.

Ten years later not much physical evidence is left of that time. Buildings, city-highways and huge shopping centres give no clue about what happened there during Iraqi occupation. In less than two years, mainly US firms had made any damage vanish.

The only exception are two ruins at the outskirts of the city of Al-Qurain, which was left as the "museum for martyrs and resistance." A dozen youths, armed with light weapons and a machine gun, had dug themselves in at that location for a few days before the end of the Gulf War in March 1991, battling with the Iraqi forces. Outside the museum sits an old Russian-made Iraqi tank.

Inside the building the visitor will find a dedication by commander of the US-led Allied Forces, General Norman Schwarzkopf: "I wish that we had come four days earlier. Perhaps this tragedy would not have happened."

While what remained of the physical damage of the seven-month occupation is a museum in today's Kuwait, the psychological effect can be felt everywhere. Even today, the occupation period is one of the topics in daily conversations. It is also regularly raised in the evening diwaniya, a kind of salon for men only where the prominent Kuwaiti families invite people to talk on a wide variety of issues.

Seated around a large square room, each of the men can tell a story of looting, rape and killing. And it never takes long, that the talk turns to the point of the 605 Kuwaitis that are still missing since the occupation. Nobody knows for sure if they are still alive or in Iraqi prisons as prisoners of war.

Their number may seem small, but so is the Kuwaiti population of only 700,000. Thus, everyone at the diwaniya I attended knows of a case of a missing person, either in his own family or in that of friends. It is said that, in proportion to their population, there are more Kuwaitis missing in action than Americans who were lost in World War II, Korea and Vietnam altogether.

Abdel-Hamid Attar is the spokesman for the National Committee for Prisoners of War. He himself had lost a son. On 13 September 1990, the radio technician, Jamal Attar, was arrested by the Iraqis. Abdel-Hamid had driven to the police station, where he saw his son's car. But the Iraqi officer inside denied any knowledge of Jamal. "Father I am here," Abdel-Hamid remembers his son screaming behind a closed door. He never saw his son again. "I believe he is dead," he says. "Anyone who knows the Iraqi regime would come easily to the conclusion that they killed him," he adds.

Currently, Abdel-Hamid is embroiled in a court case against his daughter concerning Jamal. His daughter wants a death certificate to be issued for her brother "to get a part of the inheritance," as Abdel-Hamid puts it. In the first session, the court ruled against the daughter and supported Abdel-Hamid, who refuses to declare his son dead without receiving his body back.

But the Iraqi occupation has left other scars. "The whole country continues to live in uncertainty," explains sociologist Mohamed Al-Rumaini. To describe the deep-seated shock of the Kuwaitis he uses a picture: "Imagine you walk down the street with your good Iraqi friend chatting. Suddenly he pulls out a knife and pushes it into your ribs, while Palestinian and Jordanian bystanders watch and smile."

Businesswoman Rola Dushti elaborates on the feelings of uncertainty. "Since the invasion, people have less self-confidence and do not trust others easily, even in personal relationships," she says.

Such feelings find their expression in the behaviour of people. While drug abuse before the invasion was not a widespread phenomenon, there are now an estimated 20,000 drug abusers in Kuwait. The crime rate is on the rise too.

"During the occupation Kuwaitis became accustomed to violence against people and property, and since the occupation ended, there is no lack of weapons in private hands," explains Rumaini. Local pages of Kuwaiti newspapers are today filled with stories about criminal acts, many of which were unknown in the country prior to the occupation.

Economic behaviour also changed. "People look more for security abroad," says Dushti. Houses in France or Switzerland are in high demand. According to Dushti, the Kuwaiti business community engages only in short-term deals, and the profits immediately go abroad. How much private Kuwaiti money lies in foreign banks can only be guessed. "Somewhere between 20 and 60 billion dollars" estimates Faisal Mutawa, head of the Kuwaiti Chamber of Industry and Commerce. One thing is for sure: the trend to invest money outside is on the rise since the occupation.

Those insecurities will remain as long as Saddam Hussein stays in power, primarily because few Kuwaitis believes that the Iraqi leader has given up the idea of Kuwait as the 19th province of Iraq.

"It is a pity that geography is fixed and we cannot take our country and put is somewhere else," is an argument often made by Kuwaitis in order to emphasise that in the long run some kind of arrangement has to be made with their powerful neighbour.

The official line in this regard is that "sooner or later a new way of dealing with Iraq needs to found. But as long as Saddam Hussein is in charge, this is impossible."

Such an analysis begs the question of what can be done given that Saddam Hussein seems to have a firm grip on power in Baghdad. "We have to live with the fact that 'he' is there," says Ahmed Bishara, head of the National Democratic Movement, a liberal political group in Kuwait.

Bishara pronounces the word "he" in an ominous tone. But how exactly Kuwait should deal with "him" is a question that Bishara is not able to answer. His vision for the future does not sound good, even in the event that Saddam Hussein's tenure is cut short. "Twenty years of Saddam Hussein and 10 years of UN-sanctions created a new generation of Iraqis. Even if Saddam Hussein is gone tomorrow, we still will have to deal with 20 million sick, impoverished and badly-educated people, all of them eager for revenge."

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