CHICAGO -- Six times the Iraqi soldiers came to the gate outside Joseph Lammerding's villa hide-out in Kuwait City.
"Our hearts pounded" each time, said Mr. Lammerding, who shared the hide-out with five other Westerners. Each time, the men crouched by the windows, peering like mice from corners.
Sometimes the Iraqi soldiers would hesitate in front of the house and then go on. Several times, a soldier would scratch a black "X" on the wall by the gate.
That meant, the fugitives figured, that their hiding place was thought to be an abandoned building and safe for looting. So, during the night, a volunteer from the villa hide-out would steal into the yard and rub the "X" off the wall.
This is the story told Monday by Mr. Lammerding, 34, who was one of hundreds of Westerners driven underground into a meager and fearful existence as Iraqi forces took control of Kuwait.
Mr. Lammerding's purgatory lasted 17 weeks, but he told of his ordeal with a mischievous chuckle -- nearly a cackle -- as if he were a wizened tale-spinner and there were some hidden moral in his story.
His thinning hair and beard gray and wild, his shoulders slightly stooped under a rumpled, borrowed safari jacket, Mr. Lammerding stepped off a jet in Chicago and into the arms of three of his four sisters, who would usher him home to Sacramento.
"You're gray!" cried Mary Lammerding as her brother emerged from customs.
He pulled open his jacket to show his thin frame. "Lost a little weight, too."
Yes, he was glad to be back, Mr. Lammerding told reporters. Yes, he feels healthy. Yes, he is relaxed.
But Mr. Lammerding's casual performance in the face of the cameras and microphones belied an anguish in his gut. The more he spoke, even though his voice remained soft and flat, the more that fact became apparent.
Looting, in fact, was the least of evils he saw and heard of as he evaded Iraqi troops.
Kuwaiti friends showed him photographs of maimed bodies. They told him of rape and pillaging. They wanted him, if he should ever make it out of Kuwait, to tell the American people what was happening, he said.
Twice he saw outside his villa window the deadly game of urban war played out on the street below.
Sitting on a jet from Chicago to Sacramento, sipping water, the sweat glistening on his brow, he reconstructed in soft voice one of those incidents: "I saw two Iraqi soldiers caught in an ambush." Members of the Kuwaiti resistance movement had set them up. "I heard the gunfire. I saw them go down. They did not move."
On Saturday, the day before his liberation and probably the most eerie weekend of his life, he felt safe enough to go into the streets for the first time since the invasion. He saw that the city he loves -- the city where he lived the last seven years -- was "shot up and burned. It was dead."
Mr. Lammerding, a man pricked by wanderlust, had spent four years in the Navy and more than two years in Sicily as a calibration engineer for an Illinois-based firm before moving to Kuwait. There he worked under contract with the Kuwaiti government as a technical adviser on their military hardware.
He liked the friendliness of the Kuwaitis, the hefty paycheck for working abroad and in dangerous areas, and the mix of cultures.
"Ironically," he said, "I felt safe in Kuwait. They keep the riff-raff out" -- until the morning of Aug. 2.
Mr. Lammerding was awakened by the rumble of jets flying over his apartment in Kuwait City. He made a phone call and discovered that the city had been taken by Iraqi forces. U.S. Embassy officials advised him and other Americans trapped in Kuwait to sit still.
"We were in shock," he said. "Things happened fast. It was
Some headed for the desert and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Lammerding gave that brief thought, but it was 120 degrees in the desert. He dismissed an escape attempt as too risky. Besides, the radio said that U.S. troops were heading to the Persian Gulf.
"I expected the rockets' red glare," he said. He wanted an American assault. It didn't come.
What did come, however, were Iraqi soldiers, going door to door looking for Westerners. Radio broadcasts said that any Kuwaiti caught harboring an American would be executed.
"My landlord [a Kuwaiti] asked me if I'd heard the broadcast," Mr. Lammerding said. "He had tears in his eyes. I knew I had to go."
Mr. Lammerding nervously traveled through Kuwait City to a villa where other Westerners were hiding out.
The following months were tense. Normally a thin man of 165 pounds, he lost about 25 pounds -- not from lack of food, but from fear.
In the first weeks, he could not sleep much. He and the others in the 8,000-square-foot villa would monitor radio and television broadcasts, including the Voice of America three times a day, some Radio Moscow programs broadcast in English and Cable News Network broadcasts beamed up from Bahrain. Each morning they called the U.S. Embassy to share information.
They ate noodles, soups, pancakes and bacon. They drank champagne. Some American women had stocked the villa with food in the days immediately after the invasion. And Kuwaitis would drop parcels of food off in the dark.
Door-to-door searches by Iraqi soldiers were constant. "We'd be eating dinner, and all of a sudden the bell [at the gate] would go off. We'd stare at each other. Sometimes we heard them trying the doors."
But for some unexplained reason, the Iraqis never seemed to know Americans were inside.
Then, late last week, they heard that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had announced he was letting all Westerners go.
Then, Saturday, the U.S. Embassy called. Get ready to go, an official said. Iraqi soldiers had been told to leave Westerners alone.
Emboldened, Mr. Lammerding went onto the streets.
He went past the apartment he had fled months earlier. He had left his clothes, stereo, television, paintings and books inside. Black soot marks climbed the walls from each window -- his apartment had been torched. "I just went right past. I was extremely distraught."
When the fighting is done, Mr. Lammerding said, he thinks he would be willing to go back to help rebuild the country.