Documentary : On to Kuwait, Past the Saudis and the Censors : Enterprising journalists combined skill and savvy, begging and bluster, to make sure they wouldn't miss the story of the emirate's liberation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was Kuwait city or bust. After seven months of Iraqi occupation, the Kuwaiti capital had been liberated--and nearly 1,000 restless journalists already bored with war and intrigued by peace prepared to slingshot themselves into Kuwait any way they could.

It wasn't going to be easy. Military officials in Saudi Arabia had a formidable checkpoint set up at the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, and reporters huddled in a hotel coffee shop in Dhahran and compared notes on how best to storm, wheedle, beg, bluster or fake their way past the guards.

There was a certain urgency to these conversations, conducted over tea until all hours of the morning. A CBS News crew had already made it straight to the Kuwaiti capital, and Cable News Network wasn't far behind.

Unfortunately, editors in places like Los Angeles, New York and Washington tended to tune into CBS and CNN, and then to telephone Saudi Arabia, wondering why we were still in Dhahran when the story was in Kuwait.

So. We would go to Kuwait.

The chemical-weapons-suit approach was tried and true. It involved donning your massive camouflage-colored protection suit and gas mask and waving an ID card at the Saudi guard as you drove through a checkpoint, screaming something inaudibly through your mask. Often, the guard allowed you to pass as he rushed to find his own gas mask.

But the Saudis were getting savvy and had issued new restrictions threatening deportation to anyone caught wearing his or her chemical suit except during a gas attack. Deportation was a reasonable risk at this point, but the guards probably were done buying that old gambit anyway.

Other options included jumping into a four-wheel-drive vehicle and storming across the desert miles away from the border checkpoint. This would most certainly work. But some wimps in the coffee shop kept fretting about things like mines and getting lost in the desert or getting caught in the middle of a tank battle or some silly thing like that.

So I simply opted to join 11 other reporters from major American news organizations and demand a military escort into Kuwait. We went up to the ranking army officer, Col. Bill Diehl, and submitted our demand. He countered with an offer to take six journalists. We said no, it had to be 12. He said no, it was going to be six. He had a gun, and a badge. We regrouped.

An hour or so later, while I was madly assembling sleeping bag, batteries, food, notebooks, tapes and gas mask for the impending trip, a soft-spoken reporter with a cooing Southern accent and an Old-World style of courtliness slipped by my hotel room and informed me that some of the journalists had gotten together, and I was on a list of six that was going on the convoy to Kuwait the next morning.

"How did the list get down to six?" I asked.

"A small, nasty cabal decided these were the six who would go, and the other ones were the six who wouldn't be able to do anything about it," he said politely.

And so it was that the select half-dozen rose at 6 the next morning for our convoy to Kuwait. Outside was madness. Sure enough, jeeps for the six of us were lined neatly in a row, being packed. But behind them were arrayed a veritable parade of other vehicles, packed with enough food for the entire population of Kuwait city, spare cans of gasoline and virtually every reporter in the Persian Gulf. There was the exotic Brazilian woman who worked for Monte Carlo TV. There was Dan Rather. There was Tom Brokaw. There was ABC reporter Sam Donaldson in an entire bus , complete with entourage.

Col. Diehl was beside himself, but what was he going to do? Somebody had said there was a convoy going to Kuwait, and by God, it was going to be a convoy; 54 vehicles stretched out of the parking lot, around the corner and down the block.

What the hell, Diehl said, and we set off on the northbound highway.

I could say that the trouble started at the military refueling station at Abu Hadriya, halfway to the border, when 54 vehicles tried to pull into the desert and get gas, all at once. But that wasn't nearly as troublesome as when the entire convoy pulled up to the border, hours later, only to find that the Saudis weren't about to let 54 mad journalists loose into a war zone.

Diehl patiently explained that Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander, had approved the trip, or at least OKd it for some of the journalists. The Saudi commander looked at him blankly. Phone calls were made. We fumed. Journalists got out of their vehicles and walked up and down the line, debating strategies.

Finally, at least in our vehicle, we settled on one. We bolted. We broke out of the convoy, hit the gas, shifted into fourth gear and screamed through the border station and into Kuwait. Free at last.

We really weren't prepared for what we found. Kuwait might be free, but it had been to war. Much of the highway lay in jagged chunks, blown up by the Iraqis to block allied tanks from speeding up the highway. A makeshift road had been cut through the sand, but mines were clearly visible alongside it in places.

Charred Iraqi tanks were splayed occasionally along the roadside. A white pickup truck was plunged head first into a gaping hole in the highway. And in the distance, orange flames from sabotaged oil wells shot into the sky. Artillery blasts from a tank battle still raging near Kuwait International Airport boomed in the distance.

I fretted about how closely the highway passed by the airport. Elizabeth Neuffer of the Boston Globe wondered whether we shouldn't have brought along a military escort, with a gun. Caryle Murphy of the Washington Post fumed that the British Broadcasting Corp. had already reached Kuwait city and was broadcasting news of the Kuwaiti army's triumphant march into the capital. Bill Dowell of Time magazine shifted into fifth.

We entered Kuwait city at midafternoon when the capital was still rocking with celebration. Kuwaiti tanks were parading along the main highway while cars displaying posters of the Kuwaiti emir were darting in and out between them, the men inside waving their headdresses jubilantly. Women in black robes lined the sides of the highway and trilled joyously. A gang of teen-agers passed by and screamed, "We love America! We love Boosh !"

I had felt this stunned before, at the beginning of the crisis in August, when my editors awakened me at 4:30 a.m. and told me that Reuters had reported that Iraqi tanks were rolling across the Kuwait border. I had felt that way again on the night of Jan. 16, when I sat in my darkened Dhahran hotel room and watched, tears streaming down my face, as the first bomb explosions and tracer rounds lit up the night sky over Baghdad--minutes before the lights went out and the air raid sirens went off to alert us to the first possible Scud missile launch toward Dhahran.

Now, there was a lump in my throat again, as if it were me who was coming home. Of course, after six months away from home in Cairo--living, thinking, feeling and breathing a story about the occupation of Kuwait--in some ways I was coming home with all the Kuwaitis. The ordeal was over.

Or so it seemed. Of course, it wasn't. It was only beginning. The next week (or longer) would be spent in the middle of a war-ravaged city with no lights, no running water and no electricity.

We toured in the jeep until nightfall, stopping to interview passers-by and witnessing the incredible devastation that had been visited upon one of the wealthiest capitals of the Middle East.

The emir's palace was in ruins; so was the crown prince's and most of the government ministries and many of the houses and hotels. The roads were etched with tank tracks. Rubbish piled up in the neighborhoods, and its stench wafted above the celebrating crowd. A dead horse lay beside the road. Abandoned cars littered the streets, their wheels, stereos, batteries and other spare parts stripped by the Iraqis before they left. An entire showroom on the west side of town contained row upon row of gleaming new cars, their wheels gone, their hoods open.

But incredibly, the city was already coming back to life. At the International Hotel downtown, the director of housekeeping and the assistant food and beverage manager sat in the parking garage booth, announcing that the hotel was open after all and passing out keys to journalists who began arriving in a flood.

The Iraqis had been there last week, complained Ali Hosni, the food service assistant manager, and had burned the eighth floor, looted most of the televisions and kicked down doors so that most of them didn't lock. "Our hotel was completely perfect until that," he said sadly. "I have worked here for five years, and I really love this hotel. But now, we are very happy to try and open again. At least we can keep a place for the Kuwaitis to come."

I remember writing my story by flashlight and dictating it to Los Angeles on a bitterly cold, windy rooftop over a satellite telephone, screaming to make myself heard over a roaring gas generator. "Send food!" I shouted into the phone. "And a flashlight. I forgot my flashlight. And more batteries! And candles, we gotta have candles!"

That night, I remember looking out over the eerily dark city and remembering the horrors that had been visited on it for seven months. Tortures, rapes, murders--committed by an army that had fled the city and gone on to be slaughtered itself on the road home to Baghdad. I wondered if bad things hung onto a place, if the evil that was almost palpable in the air was real or simply a creation of the dark and my own unease. Somewhere in the distance, a long ring of oil fires burned.

The next morning, the Kuwait Information Office was already in gear, offering field trips. Journalists could sign up to visit the torture chamber and see the electric sanders where the Iraqis peeled off people's skin and the electric wires they attached to their hands and private parts. Or you could go to the morgue at Mubarak Hospital and see the mutilated Kuwaiti bodies, including the girl who had had the top of her skull neatly sawed off. There were rumors that hundreds of Iraqi bodies were to be found on the road to Baghdad just northwest of Kuwait city.

Neuffer of the Boston Globe and I set off uncertainly to interview some members of the Kuwaiti resistance. We weren't sure we weren't missing something else important, but in a city with no phones, no television and no news wires, how was one to be sure?

"Mort," I said, stopping Associated Press reporter Mort Rosenblum outside the hotel. "What's the daily (story) today?"

"The bodies," he said matter of factly, chewing on a pipe. "Definitely the bodies."

The city was chaos on top of chaos. Teen-age resistance leaders manned the checkpoints, dangerously waving AK-47s and grinning at passers-by. Celebratory caravans of cars careened down the corniche. Six renegade Saudi tanks that had become separated from their convoy plunged into midday traffic and across a dividing berm, the drivers peeping uncertainly out of their turrets, trying to figure out where everybody else went.

"They lost their way, the army," my Kuwaiti driver explained. A group of Qatari trucks honked their way up the boulevard and further tied up traffic. "Worse than the Iraqis," he grimaced.

Kuwaitis all over town were out changing the street signs and building signs. Abdullah Salem Secondary School had been renamed, during the occupation, Saddam Hussein School. Now it was back to Abdullah Salem. Mubarak Hospital had been named Al Feda'a, or "martyrdom," hospital. Not anymore.

Day after day, we prowled the city and recorded its horrors, returning to candle-lit rooms at night to describe the devastation and phone it back to the United States. I searched for my colleagues on deadline by feeling my way along the darkened hotel hallways and reading the numbers on the doors like Braille.

A newsmagazine photographer rushed into the lobby the next morning, his face flushed under four days' growth of beard.

"I've been with the Special Forces. Almost to Baghdad," he said triumphantly. This was a man who barely a week earlier had announced to the assembled multitude at the Dhahran coffee shop that the war had to be stopped. "War," he had told us, "is the ultimate obscenity."

Now he was describing scenes of Iraqi foxholes that were barely thigh high, of troop bunkers made out of irregular concrete blocks. There were bodies everywhere, he said with an astonished grin, bodies in the bunkers, out of the bunkers, on the roads, in the desert, he figured 250,000 Iraqi dead.

"It was the U.S. Army's finest hour," he said in wonder.

I picked up my laptop computer and went over to where a single light bulb illuminated a table top and began, to the sound of sporadic gunshots in the distance, typing my story about peace coming to Kuwait.

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