Victory's value as cloudy as Kuwait's sooty skies


KUWAIT CITY -- It was a glorious war. The generals are already drafting their memoirs, and the soldiers are going back to the States for a deserved heroes' welcome.

But here, the face of victory is one of blemishes and shadows.

The Kuwait the world rescued is at once heartening and dismaying. The value of the victory is often as unclear as the original reasons for the war.

If oil was the goal, it is burning away in great sooty clouds that will blacken the environment for years.

If the war was for freedom and democracy, there is precious little here, and only for a privileged class.

If world order was the goal, it has been achieved in Kuwait at the cost of dangerous turmoil in Iraq. If the purpose was to stop a madman, the United States and its allies succeeded, only to see him turn murderously on his own people.

Perhaps it is simpler: The war was the right thing to do. It was right to free Salem Mohammed. The 41-year-old Kuwaiti military mechanic was seized in the first day of the Iraqi invasion, as he desperately worked in an air force hangar to get his country's fighters off the ground.

For seven months he was imprisoned in Iraq, living on black, stone-hard bread and pitiful rations of rice. Already slim, he lost 35 pounds. Listening to the British Broadcasting Corp. on a smuggled-in radio, the prisoners cheered when they heard President Bush announce the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait or face war. "Every day of waiting was a year for us," he said.

Last week, Mr. Mohammed was flown back to Kuwait as part of the exchange of prisoners.

"As I saw our country from the air, I was so upset my friends had to carry me off the airplane," he said. "We know Saddam [Hussein] and his soldiers. They just wanted to destroy Kuwait. He is just like Dracula; he likes the smell of blood."

But Khalid, who remained in Kuwait in the war, still is searching for freedom. He wonders what the war did for him. The 23-year-old psychology student is a "bedoon," literally a "without."

He is without rights, without citizenship, even though he was born here. His mother was Kuwaiti, but his father was one of the trackless people who roamed the desert with no regard to modern nationality.

In class-conscious Kuwait, that leaves Khalid with no country of his own. He can get an education but cannot hold a job, cannot get a passport and is even refused a driver's license. In the food lines set up after the Iraqi withdrawal, bedoons had their own line and were served only after Kuwaitis.

"When I get my diploma, I will be forced to sit in my house like a woman," he said. "Without citizenship, no one will employ me. Especially now, after the war."

In the final days of occupation, the Iraqi army began a systematic destruction of Kuwait. Each army unit reportedly had a quota of civilians to be seized as hostages.

Kuwaitis are convinced that in a few more weeks the work would have been taken to a dreadful end -- their country in ruins and the people annihilated -- if the allies had not moved so quickly.

"I would have been raped. My brother would have been killed," said a 19-year-old Kuwaiti woman, a student at the university, with certain confidence. "The war saved us from that."

Wall after wall in devastated Kuwait City now has spray-painted graffiti in sincere, if often misspelled, script: "Bosh did it! Thanks USA!"

Ghanim al-Najar also ponders the lessons of the war and believes that it "was unnecessary. It should have been avoided." He was a popular newspaper columnist before the government XTC shut down the free press in 1986. Seized by the Iraqis, he returned from an Iraqi prison to try to mold a different Kuwait.

"There was positive and negative to come from the war," he said. The war exposed Kuwait to itself, revealing strengths and weaknesses.

"People fled. Some were cowards, some had real difficulties, some simply miscalculated," he said. "But others stayed to join the resistance.

"Now we have a struggle we can cherish and talk about. We have martyrs. We have heroes. We can believe in ourselves, and from that we can construct a realistic society."

There is much construction to do. Kuwait is a battered and empty shell. The electricity blinked on last week, and water service returned, but the people still are missing.

Only an estimated one in three houses is occupied. Most people fled in the first weeks of the occupation when escape still was possible.

Non-Kuwaitis who were the backbone of the work force may not be allowed to return. The government wants to form a new nation with half the former population and a majority of Kuwaitis that is less dependent on "foreign" workers.

Most observers are skeptical. The necessary physical work alone is immense. This was a modern society visited by chaos.

Cars still litter Kuwait City, abandoned and stripped. Iraqi bulwarks on the seacoast must be dismantled brick-by-brick. Many public buildings were shelled as the Iraqis left.

Just defanging the weapons of war is a daunting job. Allied demolition experts who are clearing mines may leave in June, and there still will be broad tracts of Kuwait sown with deadly explosives.

"It would be technically very difficult to de-mine all Kuwait," said Daniel Tarantola, chief of a team from the World Health Organization. "There are two to five accidents a day. That's a constantly increasing number of people who are handicapped and need care."

Kuwaitis also will labor under a cloud of oil fire smoke for as long as two years.

Health experts say they simply do not know the implications. "We're in an environmental situation no one has ever faced before. The only comparable situation is Chernobyl," said Michael Gwynne, head of a United Nations environmental program.

As difficult as the physical labor will be the task of rebuilding the society.

This is a society of classes, and its privileged offer no apology for discrimination that approaches apartheid. Now there are deep schisms among the Kuwaitis. The al-Sabah family, which has ruled Kuwait for more than 200 years, faces growing clamor for change.

Those who endured the occupation want more freedom: a parliament and democracy. Signs of progress are mixed. The government recently shut down February 26, a newspaper formed after liberation that treaded ever-so-lightly on critical news.

But Abdul Aziz al-Sultan, a calm man who heads what would be an opposition party if it were legal, is unbridled in his criticisms. He sits barefooted in a diwaniya, a traditional meeting room, and openly proclaims that the government is incompetent and ought to resign.

Another such critic was shot and paralyzed, and Mr. al-Sultan acknowledges there is danger. He is counting on international attention to protect him. "Just don't leave," he asks of the foreign press.

The government has slowly -- too slowly, many say -- reduced the abuses of Palestinians and other minorities, though as many as 600 may still be in prison. Some of the worst acts were done by young men of the al-Sabah family. They paraded about the city in uniforms and even armored cars with an entourage of others who arbitrarily seized Palestinians.

The crown prince, Sheik Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, "was irate" at their activities, said a knowledgeable diplomatic source. He summoned the young men and "ordered them off the streets. He said he would arrest them himself and hang them from lampposts for the people to see."

But that has not eased the fears of those who are vulnerable. In a darkened living room in Hawalli, a Palestinian neighborhood ravaged more by neglect than by war, 21-year-old Emad shows the brown and puckered scars that form a pattern on his shoulders and back. They were administered, he said, by a Kuwaiti-uniformed soldier with electric wires and a searing hot knife.

"We cannot live in this country, and yet we cannot leave," said a friend, Wahib, 30. It is evidence of their fear that neither would give his full name. The Palestinians will be targets of Kuwaitis resentful of the pro-Iraqi stand of some, he said. They will be forced from their jobs but unable to leave Kuwait without a country of their own.

"We are caught like fish," said Wahib.

Kuwaitis, too, have slow-healing scars. The most innocent conversation can trip over recollections of grim abuse. Many men were interrogated, beaten and jailed during the occupation.

Others have not returned. Last week, Iraq released the last of 5,000 military and civilian prisoners it said it held. But a families' organization here believes that as many as 2,000 others remain in Iraq.

"We don't know if he's alive or dead, if they beat him or not," said Reem al-Mousa, who said her 22-year-old brother was taken into custody Aug. 6 when Iraqis found a poster of the emir in his car.

"We have only hope," she said. "For us, the war is not over until the last civilian comes home."

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