Life under Iraqi occupation: a tale of horror, perseverance WAR IN THE GULF


KUWAIT CITY -- One is a college student who became **TC resistance fighter. The other is a surgeon.

As their nation awakens from the past seven months, both want the world to know what happened during Kuwait's long, dark night of Iraqi occupation.

From the resistance fighter, Najeeb Bastaki, come tales of perseverance, cunning and, occasionally, rear-guard actions of force against a gathering horror.

From the surgeon, Dr. Abdul Behbehani, come documented results of what happened when the horror began to prevail.

Combined, their recollections offered an inside view of how the people of Kuwait lived and died as their once-pampered nation became a bleeding pauper.

The Aug. 2 invasion began the metamorphosis. The Iraqi army crushed its weak, disorganized opposition quickly. Dr. Behbehani treated the wounded of both sides, while Mr. Bastaki joined in the vocal demonstrations protesting the early days of the occupation.

He also joined his friend in breaking into the Royal Palace, already looted by Iraqi troops for its more obvious riches, to steal away with its stores of weapons.

Although soldiers also looted grocery stores and some homes, life proceeded with a strange normalcy then. But wanton destruction of downtown buildings gave notice of what was soon to follow for humans.

Soldiers set fires to hotels, businesses and national landmarks. At the Kuwaiti Museum, fires gutted three of the five buildings, and soldiers fired anti-tank grenades through the golden dome of the planetarium. All of the 30 or so boats at the commercial fishing marina were sunk or set ablaze, burning to the waterline.

Toward the end of the first week, the violence took an ominous turn.

"They began opening fire on the demonstrators," said Dr. Behbehani, chief of surgery at Mubarek General Hospital, one of the city's largest.

"I had to amputate the leg of a 35-year-old female because of this, and I saw a dead child, and saw other people who were killed because of this."

Mr. Bastaki, meanwhile, was working behind the scenes in the budding efforts of a resistance movement.

In many ways, Kuwait is an unlikely spawning ground for freedom fighters. Other Middle East nations consider its population hopelessly spoiled by the material wealth earned by its oil deposits. Kuwaitis haven't detracted from this image when they've made complaints such as, "The Iraqis stole my Mercedes."

Characteristically, much of Kuwait's resistance movement operated on the principle of supply and demand, rather than on the tenets of guerrilla warfare.

Although one fighter boasted of killing more than 20 Iraqi soldiers in a series of stealthy attacks and a Kuwaiti nurse says she killed 22 soldiers with lethal injections, Mr. Bastaki's tactics were more common.

"The word 'resistance' doesn't mean that I should carry a gun and go and kill," he said. "It meant that we should go and get food and distribute it to people. And also money. The money was important. I myself gave away 3,000 Kuwaiti dinars. Our way is not to say where the money came from; we just slip it under the door."

This role was to become more important as the months rolled by and food supplies dwindled.

Accompanying this determination to beat the system imposed by the Iraqis, Kuwaitis also protested silently with simple stubbornness. "They refused to go to work, they refused to open their shops, they refused to change their identification cards, they refused to do anything," said Dr. Behbehani. "They just sat in their homes or participated in the resistance."

This only infuriated the Iraqis more. One response was to begin penalizing residents who clung to their Kuwaiti nationality. Those who ignored orders to acquire Iraqi license plates for their cars were refused gasoline.

In these cases, their Kuwaiti wealth served them well. Families with three, four and more cars were able for a while to supply all their gasoline needs with a single Iraqi-tagged vehicle.

Defiance also began to show itself in an outbreak of graffiti, but that was answered by a wave of execution-style shootings.

"We started saying our opinions on the walls," Dr. Behbehani said. "Children, of course, were participating in this, and women also. They started shooting people doing this. . . . The only punishment they knew was to kill, and there was no trial."

The Kuwaiti resistance stepped up its own violence, although Mr. Bastaki said he didn't participate.

"I didn't kill," he said. "We would try to capture them and get information from them, where are my friends, things like that. Usually they would say nothing."

The stirrings of armed resistance only increased the violence of the Iraqis, and Dr. Behbehani saw the evidence wheeled into his hospital's emergency room.

"They didn't differentiate between guerrilla groups and civilian groups," he said. "We started seeing males ages 17 to 32. We started receiving them not as patients to treat, but as bodies to bury. About every day for two or three months we were receiv

ing them, sometimes 10 at a time. At first it was simple killing, a bullet in the head, a bullet in the chest."

Resistance members responded by removing street signs and house numbers wherever they could.

"We would try to confuse them," said Mr. Bastaki's brother, Nasser. "Because when they took the main headquarters for the army, they found a list of everyone's names and addresses, and they could go straight to your home to look for you. After the first two months, they were looking for every young person."

So, the body count climbed.

Meanwhile, the economic survival tactics practiced by Najeeb Bastaki were becoming increasingly important. Food was running short in all quarters of the city.

"The main thing was the rice, the sugar and the cooking oil, and also flour," he said. "There are 10 houses per block, so we would take 10 stacks of rice and maybe 50 kilograms of sugar to a main person on each block, which he would distribute to his neighbors. We would do this by working secretly with the food cooperative society. Some of their people were executed."

Kuwaitis also attempted to beat the Iraqis by playing along with the Iraqi system. Some residents who acquired Iraqi license plates and identification cards used them to drive into Iraq to purchase food, which they then distributed among friends in Kuwait City, said Joseph Ali, 34.

But such movement could be difficult. Even in getting from one side of the city to another, Kuwaitis faced an obstacle course of checkpoints. Dr. Behbehani's daily trip home from his office, a three-mile drive, took him through five checkpoints.

So, Mr. Ali said, "people were selling things to buy food. I sold all of my furniture."

Amid this atmosphere, the country's Palestinian population of 500,000 got a bad name. "They were raising the prices five to 10 times," said Ali Kouhari, 24. "They would make money from us on the money exchange market. Thief. Thief."

Contributing to these bad feelings was Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's growing appeal among Palestinians. He professed the bTC establishment of a Palestinian homeland as one of his war aims, and many of Kuwait's Palestinians responded with an open show of support.

As a result, some Palestinians have been accused of collaborating with the occupation forces.

"They were the worst people standing against us," said Nasser Bastaki.

The Palestinians are expected to pay for this resentment with reprisals now. The former resistance movement already has "arrested" two Palestinians and are searching for 19 others whose names are on a list.

When the Iraqi occupation entered its third month, Dr. Behbehani said he noticed from his patients that the violence against young Kuwaiti men was turning sadistic.

"We started getting mutilated and tortured bodies," he said. "Eyeballs were torn out, heads smashed, bones broken. It was very painful for us. We couldn't imagine how anyone would be able to do this to another human being."

In some cases, he said, the tops of heads had been cut off, either neatly with a power saw or roughly with an ax.

Last week at an Islamic morgue, workers showed reporters several bodies that had been in storage for months awaiting burial. Several had holes in their chests and arms like those made by an electrical power drill. Others had eyes gouged out. Some had broken, horribly bent limbs.

Dr. Behbehani said, "When the mutilations began, they started dumping bodies in the street and calling us to come pick them up."

The word around town is that Mr. Hussein's cousin, who has been held responsible for chemical attacks on Iraq's Kurdish population, was in charge of this terror campaign, although U.S. authorities haven't verified the allegations.

Whatever the case, Najeeb Bastaki reponded by avoiding his home altogether. He stayed at friends' homes, moving every week or so, and he did his work only in the latest hours of the night.

As the Jan. 15 United Nations deadline approached for the Iraqis either to withdraw or face military action, Iraqi soldiers began building their defenses around the city.

In anticipation of an amphibious landing, the soldiers commandeered businesses and homes overlooking the Persian Gulf and converted the structures into fortresses. Windows were bricked up, except for small gun slits.

Meanwhile, the evidence of violence had taken another turn for the worst, Dr. Behbehani said.

"In November, we began seeing women among the mutilated," he said. "I knew one of them personally, she was Asrar al-Kabandy. The top of her head was gone, and she had bullets in the chest. My God, she was completely mutilated. There was no brain inside her skull."

Dr. Behbehani began crying while telling the story, then said, "I'm sorry. I get emotional every time I discuss this. I was seeing my people being killed every day. Life was becoming impossible in Kuwait. You could only breathe and eat, that is all. You could do nothing else."

The flurry of peace negotiations just before the allied ground attack began prompted an Iraqi crackdown, and the roundup of young males intensified.

Nasser Bastaki was worried that one of the peace proposals from the Soviet Union would be accepted: "On the day of Mr. Gorbachev's plan, I couldn't sleep the whole day, I was so worried."

The ground attack came instead.

Within three days, the Kuwaiti flag was again flying in the city.

Despite the jubilation that reigned in the street at the end of last week, many problems remained.

"We don't have a drop of water at the hospital," Dr. Behbehani said. "We finished our last reserves from the tank last night, and we cannot scrub before surgery now. We just put on our gloves and operate. . . . We also have no more spare parts. Things are starting to fall apart, so even the generator we expect to be damaged soon."

Left to deal with such problems is a virtually non-existent government. Resistance fighters now control checkpoints to guard against looting. They also man the few open gas stations, where they fire machine guns into the air to herd eager crowds into line.

But with all this, some good has resulted from the experience.

"I feel like we were one family," said Nasser Bastaki. "No more hard feelings or anything like that. We all have the same hearts and the same blood."

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