It was like confronting some gorilla-size bouncer who decides who can enter a swank nightclub.
But for this Kuwaiti, the bouncer was an armed Iraqi soldier, deciding who could get out .
Three times in 10 days, 28-year-old Waheed, who doesn’t want his last name made public, drove to the Kuwait-Saudi Arabia border, hoping that he would be allowed to leave his homeland for San Diego, rejoining his wife of seven years and their 2 1/2-year-old daughter.
But there were no clear rules on how to get out of Kuwait. There was little that made sense those days. It was the capricious decision of an Iraqi military officer, guarding the border like it was his, that decided the fate of Kuwaitis trying to flee their ravaged country, where countrymen had been tortured or killed and where homes had been stripped and torched, the pillars of smoke wafting across the city’s skyscape as an ever-present reminder of a nation occupied.
Depending on “how you looked,” Waheed said, some Kuwaitis were allowed to leave. Others would be sent back to Kuwait City. And pity the ones who, worst of all, would be ordered to Baghdad for an uncertain future of manual labor. Perhaps they looked like Kuwaiti soldiers or resistance fighters, Waheed figured.
“They’d say to one person, Go. And to another person, Back.”
Depending on how you looked. What kind of a gamble was this?
Waheed didn’t know just how to look.
He tried first on Nov. 15, approaching the border and confronting the Iraqi army lieutenant. In front of him, several had been cleared to leave the country, after first turning over their passports, their birth certificates, citizenship identification papers, their driver’s licenses, their vehicle’s license plates, their car registrations and whatever money they had.
Others were turned back, with no explanation. And one car was allowed to proceed--only to have its tires then shot out by laughing Iraqis.
Waheed took a deep breath as he was measured by the lieutenant of the occupying army. “He told me to go back. You don’t know why. You don’t ask. If you argue, they send you to Baghdad.”
Two days later, Waheed tried again.
“It was the same lieutenant. He seemed to recognize me immediately, even though he had been looking at so many people. He wouldn’t even look at my papers. He just said, ‘Back.’ ”
On Nov. 25, Waheed tried a third time. Things seemed better until the Iraqis asked for his driver’s license. “I didn’t want to give it up. I wanted to have proof of who I was when I got into Saudi Arabia. So I told them I didn’t have a driver’s license.
“They sent me back.”
Waheed gave up the notion of returning to San Diego. He returned to Kuwait City--where he had lived for nearly three months without his wife and child--and resigned himself to continuing his work with the resistance.
“I had heard from the American Embassy that my wife and child were fine. And so I decided to stay, to help my country. I have to help my people.”
His wife and daughter--who needed surgery to fix a hole in her heart as well as repair a defective valve--had been allowed to leave Kuwait in early September, when Jesse Jackson visited Iraq and arranged for the release of pregnant and ailing women and children.
His wife flew to San Diego, where her parents live and where he had met her in 1982, while he was attending an aviation school here to become an airline operations manager.
The couple had returned to Kuwait in 1986, living in an apartment not far from his parents’ home. Life was good; he worked for Kuwait Airways, and their daughter was born.
But, with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, life turned topsy-turvy. They stayed at their apartment, seldom venturing outside, until his wife’s and daughter’s passage to the United States was arranged.
Then, Waheed worked with the resistance.
His job, he said, was to help get food to the 19 Americans and other foreigners hiding out in Kuwait that he personally knew of, after first shepherding the ones who lived near Kuwait City’s beachfront to other, safer parts of the city where they would be harder to find. He also helped forge new documents--turning American and British citizens into, say, Australian or New Zealand or Swiss citizens, in case that might eventually help their cause.
“Many foreigners--American and British--were kept in the homes of large Kuwaiti families, and, when the Iraqi solders would come, they would be hidden in basements. When the Iraqis passed, they would go back upstairs, and live with the family,” he said.
During August, September and October, he said, Kuwaitis between the ages of 15 and 45 were ordered to stay in their homes all the time; the younger and older ones had to stay inside after 8 p.m.
During those next three months, he said, he saw Kuwaitis killed and tortured, and their homes burned.
“If a house was empty for three days in a row, the soldiers would go into it and take everything out,” he said. Many homes were empty because, with the insufferable August heat, a majority of the Kuwaitis were out of the country, anyway, on vacation.
“The soldiers would load everything onto trailers. Furniture, appliances, everything. They would even bring in cranes to remove air conditioners. Then, they would set the house on fire. Hundreds of houses would be burning any given time.”
He heard through the grapevine that thousands of Kuwaitis had been killed, and it’s a figure he doesn’t challenge. He saw five bodies on his street alone, including that of a 16-year-old boy.
“He worked at a bakery, and one day Iraqi solders went to him, demanding food. He refused. He said he didn’t have to give them anything, because he only had enough flour for his neighborhood.
“They left, and came back later with others and put the boy in a Jeep. That night, they came back with him and left him in front of his home. His neck was cut, from ear to ear, and he bled to death. Two armed military personnel stood about 200 yards away, and yelled, ‘Don’t touch him. He is an example for the whole neighborhood, not to try anything with us.’ And all he did was work at a bakery.”
That’s the way the Iraqis operated, he said: picking up men--and boys--they didn’t like for some reason. Maybe it was the way they looked. And they’d be secreted away, sometimes for a month or longer.
“Then, about 6:30 in the morning, a bus with soldiers would drive down the street, and they’d take the person out, and knock on the front door of his home, and, when the family opened the door, they’d cut his neck or shoot him in the head, for the family to see, and leave him.”
Sometimes the Iraqis just played with the Kuwaiti people, a deadly play for their own enjoyment, Waheed said.
“I had a friend who was picked up. I’m not sure why. They handcuffed him up to an oxygen tank that was used for hydraulics on a school playground, then they went to the roof of the school and began shooting towards him, just for fun. If they hit the tank, it would have exploded.”
Another friend, he said, was tortured by soldiers who put their lit cigarettes to his skin, or who shocked them with electrified wires.
Some of the treatment was less physical, but more insidious.
“They’d just slap you around, or spit in your face, or call your wife a whore, and you had to say, ‘Thank you, sir.’ Because, if you resisted, they’d take you away. They wanted you always to feel insecure.”
And there was always the unsettling sound of gunfire.
“Before Aug. 2, if you heard gunfire, you knew it was someone hunting in the desert. Now, when you’d hear it, you wonder if a friend was just killed.”
The mood inside Kuwait improved markedly, he said, after the United Nations Security Council issued its Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from the country.
“You wouldn’t believe the relief and the excitement that caused,” he said. “People are afraid to leave their homes, but after the United Nations resolution, they got the faith and the hope into them more than ever, because they now know that the whole world is committed to us.
“Before that, we didn’t know what was going to happen to us. We felt the world was only concerned about protecting Saudi Arabia and the other (Persian Gulf) countries. We didn’t really think anybody cared about Kuwait.
“This whole matter isn’t over oil. This guy, Saddam Hussein, is a threat to the entire Middle East, and the people themselves. This guy will go on and on until he controls everything, and the Middle East will be a disaster. He has to be stopped.”
But Waheed decided he had to leave Kuwait himself when he got word through a friend that his wife was now ill in San Diego, and that doctors were getting ready to operate on his daughter.
“It’s important to them, now, that I am with them,” he said.
So Waheed tried one more time to leave his country.
“If I didn’t make it this time, I was going to try to sneak across the desert. My mother and father and brothers were telling me it was time to leave, because my wife and daughter needed me more than they did.”
The two men decided to drive to the border in the middle of the night, to assure them an early place in line in case the Iraqi soldiers arbitrarily cut off passage at the 50th, or 75th, or 100th vehicle.
At 2 in the morning on Dec. 1, he said goodby to his parents and drove the hour in a Chevrolet Cabriolet to the border. They were 25th in the line, which would grow to 300 vehicles by sunrise.
At 6:30, the day’s routine started. “I waited for the lieutenant to look at me and send me back again,” Waheed said. “But this time, it was fine. They searched the car and checked for our documents, and let us go to the next checkpoint.”
Fifteen minutes later, they got to their last roadblock before freedom: a highway rest stop with a restaurant and an emergency medical aid station.
“We got out of our cars and emptied our pockets. They took everything. They searched the car for money and for pictures and video tapes, because they didn’t want anything leaving the country that could be used against them. They took the license plate, the registration, everything. But we hid some money, that was rolled up and stuck beneath the underside of the car.”
And they were freed.
After driving down the six-lane asphalt highway for another 20 minutes, they arrived at the Saudi checkpoint--where friendly soldiers greeted them.
A six-hour car drive later, the two men arrived at the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Still ahead was the 26-hour journey to San Diego--by way of Frankfurt, London, Seattle and Los Angeles--and to the arms of his wife, “who looked terrific.”
But first, in Riyadh, Waheed had to get a passport.
“The American Embassy there invited me to emigrate. They arranged for the plane ticket, and they offered me a green card. But I went to the Kuwait Embassy and got a Kuwaiti passport, because I want to tell the whole world that I am still Kuwaiti,” Waheed said.
“Now I am home, in San Diego. But this is not my real home. I’m going back to Kuwait. I consider myself now on vacation. I’m going home very soon, God willing.”