KUWAIT CITY - The threat of war, war as a debate topic at the United Nations, war as seen on television and heard on radio and read in the newspapers, is relatively benign, an abstraction, compared to even a glimpse of what real war can mean to real people in real places.
Kuwait, torn to pieces 12 years ago by the Iraqi military, was reminded of that yesterday when the rhythm of its day, usually set to the periodic calls to prayer, was instead dictated by shrieking air-raid sirens warning that missiles from Iraq had been launched this way.
War did not mean death in Kuwait yesterday. Just lots of fear. Just a reminder, as if this country should need one, of war's possible effects.
The United States might be the world's only superpower, here to rid the world of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, whose regime ordered the invasion of this country, the deaths and rapes and torturing that came along with it, but Kuwaitis found themselves ducking from him again, huddled together in basements and shelters and shaking with the sirens.
With those sounds - hours after bombs began dropping on Iraq - Kuwait, at least psychologically, was at war again.
"We try to act like normal, but of course this is not normal," said Ahmed M. al-Kanderi, 30, who was not shy about admitting his fear and sought refuge from a missile attack in a store basement. "War is not normal."
Earlier yesterday, as the sun was still rising over Kuwait and news began circulating over airwaves that the U.S.-led attack on Hussein had begun, great relief was the dominant emotion, augmented by a bit of satisfaction and a touch of cockiness, a remark here and there that Kuwait was strong and Iraq weak, that this country had rebuilt itself and now it was its destructors' turn to be destroyed.
By the time a high-noon sun shone through a haze of desert dust, the first air-raid warnings were sounding. Quiet talk of revenge and unspoken belief in safety ended with shouts: "Inside! Take cover! Take cover!"
Then the sirens fell silent. Relief. But more sirens again. The pattern continued through most of the day, into the evening.
As night fell, no one seemed certain how many rockets had been fired by Iraqi troops or what kind had landed, though officials said about a dozen were launched and that at least one was intercepted by a Patriot missile.
It hardly mattered here that U.S. troops in the desert seemed more likely to be the target than Kuwaitis in the streets, not with the sirens screaming danger in both places.
So, while troops were stepping into chemical suits and pulling on gas masks at their posts, Kuwaitis piled into basements and shelters and mostly went quiet. They were warned of the attacks not only by sirens planted on buildings, including mosques, but by radio and television reports that missiles had been launched in this direction.
During what appeared to be the second missile attack of the day, about 35 people, customers and workers, ran down the stairs of the Mansourieh Co-op Society, a general store near the center of the city, leaving half-filled shopping carts in the aisles.
"After the first raid, I came here to get milk for my children," said Anwar Salem, 45, as he stood in the store's basement with stacks of flour, juice and cereal surrounding him, walls of bottled water towering above him. "When the sirens go off, you must go from being comfortable to being secure. This is war, which we know."
He said the basement, strong-walled and dug deep into the ground, could keep him safe. But around him, sitting on boxes of food, a mother wrapped arms around a crying little girl. A woman dressed in black from head to toe bowed her head and appeared to pray. Elsewhere in the room, a few employees laughed, out of nervousness it seemed.
On the streets above, scarcely a Jaguar or BMW or any of the other luxury cars that usually clog the streets was to be seen. Police parked their cars at scattered intersections, with lights flashing, but their sirens were silent.
Army units set up roadblocks all around the country, checking identification papers, questioning drivers about where they were heading, asking them if they were crazy driving around while missiles were in the air.
Officials decided to close schools and universities through next week at least, but the government announced that banks will remain open. On a strip of road leading into the center of the city, the 50 or so garages usually busy with auto mechanics were mostly closed, their gaudy neon used to attract drivers darkened.
Among the few places that people ventured were hardware stores. These were the people who knew war was coming, had recognized it in the abstraction anyway, even if they were slow to recognize the real thing, and were now stocking up on plastic and duct tape to seal their windows against chemical weapons.
"I guess I didn't believe it would happen," said Ebrahim Mohamad, a 21-year-old who sells BMWs and was buying tape when the day's third siren sounded. "I mean, I knew it would happen, but not like this."
As he left the store the all-clear was given. As at the end of all warnings, radios played a patriotic song, this one called "My Land is the Land of Light." It was recorded in Egypt during the Iraqi occupation. It was sung by children about the same age as Mohamad would have been back then.