After War Comes the Violence : Kuwait: Palestinians live in a climate of terror, marked by reported beatings, rapes and disappearances.
The young Palestinian limped out of the hospital last week so badly beaten that he had to lean on his father’s arm to make it across the parking lot to the car.
He talked softly, and when he lifted his hands in a gesture of helplessness, the scabs of cigarette burns were still fresh on his palms. He pulled up his T-shirt to show a mass of bruises he said were inflicted during beatings at two police stations.
“They wanted to ask about my friend, who works with me,” he said. “But I tell them he’s not here, he leave Kuwait.”
Across town, another Palestinian told of a 21-year-old Kuwait University student who had complained to police that a Kuwaiti man was harassing him. Then he disappeared.
Mohammed Shawkat Yusef’s body was found in a vacant lot May 23. His eyes were gouged, said the friend, and his mouth had been shut with a screwdriver.
“I think he’s still in the morgue,” he said.
Yusef’s body was, in fact, still unclaimed in the morgue Friday, bearing eye and cheek wounds consistent with his friend’s account.
The two cases differ from hundreds of similar reports of beatings, rapes and disappearances only in the fact that they have been substantiated. Together, the incidents have created a climate of terror among Palestinians in postwar Kuwait.
Many remain holed up in their houses, afraid to pass neighborhood checkpoints, desperate to leave the emirate. Three months after liberation, garbage is still strewn across the sidewalks and vacant lots of Hawalli, the largest Palestinian enclave. On the streets, there are more rumors than people.
“The government’s inaction threatens to encourage this abuse and has left the Palestinian community terrified,” Kenneth Roth, director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Sunday.
“While in the days following liberation, free-lance killings were common, we’ve been able to document a series of cases of torture and murder in police and military facilities under the direction of at least mid-level commanders. That’s the problem today.”
Palestinians are not the only victims, although they are the most obvious scapegoats for Kuwaitis who suspect them of having collaborated en masse during the brutal seven-month Iraqi occupation. Egyptians, Lebanese, Sudanese, Yemenis, Bangladeshis and especially Iraqis and those of Iraqi origin have also reportedly been targeted.
The majority of the reported cases of abuse remain unconfirmed, however. Victims and witnesses tend to leave the country if they can. Yusef’s roommate, for example, took a plane to Syria on Thursday after police told him that the Kuwaiti suspect whom he had identified was about to be released, according to the friend.
Some of those who stay refuse to speak to journalists and human rights officials for fear of retaliation. Other stories turn out to be fourth-hand. Evidence seems to vanish into each sooty dust storm that blows through the city.
Yet the problem is severe enough to prompt Kuwait’s crown prince in a televised speech a week ago to denounce a wave of abductions and tortures, some committed by men wearing police or military uniforms.
In a blunt speech unprecedented in language and content, Sheik Saad al Abdullah al Sabah warned that violators, including security forces and even members of the royal family, would be held accountable.
“These elements must be arrested, questioned and brought to trial,” said Saad, who is also prime minister. “We must not lose the international support we have on account of irresponsible acts by individuals.”
Western diplomatic sources hailed the speech by the crown prince as the first tangible step toward improvement.
"(It) was, in my experience in the Middle East, unbelievably straight and to the point and without all of the flowery stuff that you normally see where you have to divine what he meant,” said one. “It was really a remarkable speech. And I think it was warranted.”
Some Kuwaiti citizens agree.
“If these things weren’t serious, the crown prince wouldn’t come out with that speech,” said Majid Shatti, who returned to Kuwait from Irvine, Calif., last month, and complains of arbitrary and undisciplined behavior of the machine-gun wielding young officers at checkpoints.
“It’s better to live with one person who collaborated with the Iraqis than accuse nine others who didn’t do anything,” he said. “But it’s all emotion.”
Whether Saad’s edict will be enforced remains an open question. At the Bayan police station, where the young man said he was blindfolded, beaten and burned, two officers insisted that suspected vigilantes are being treated as criminals. They showed visitors a cell where two police officers were awaiting trial for abusing Iraqi residents.
And in a possible sign of a police shake-up, today’s editions of a Kuwaiti newspaper reported that an unspecified number of senior police officers had offered to resign. The Sawt al Kuwait (Voice of Kuwait) newspaper, which has close ties to the security forces, quoted the interior minister as saying the resignations were tendered “in the framework of police concern to do its duty in protecting the security of the country and its citizens.”
Palestinians, however, remain skeptical. Yusef’s friend, who said he, too, was picked up and beaten by armed Kuwaiti vigilantes about a month after Kuwait was liberated, said tensions in Hawalli have not eased in the days since the Saad’s speech.
Government officials have said that nearly all of the abuses were committed immediately after liberation when Kuwaiti victims of Iraqi atrocities took revenge on known informers and collaborators.
But three months later, disturbing reports persist.
At Farwaniya Hospital, in a lower-middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, two officers with machine guns keep 24-hour guard over a unit called Ward 18. Visitors are barred, and hospital workers say security forces bring badly battered people there for treatment. Some wounds, they say, were obviously inflicted by torture.
At the Palace of Justice, a number of defendants on trial for collaboration have complained of jailhouse beatings. Two approached the bench to show the judges their scars.
At Riqqa Cemetery, the city’s largest, 54 unidentified people who died of reasons other than natural causes have been buried since March 6, Roth said. Some of the dates of death coincide with those of 11 Palestinians whose relatives say they were arrested or abducted, then killed. One unidentified body buried Thursday arrived from Sabah al Salem police station, where numerous detainees have alleged that they were tortured, Roth said.
And since the crown prince’s speech, at least six more Palestinians have reportedly been arrested.
“They haven’t been released yet so we don’t know what’s happening to them,” Roth said.
Meanwhile, Kuwait remains inhospitable for ordinary Palestinians.
In a coffee shop last week, an old man who has lived in Kuwait for decades struck up a conversation. Asked his nationality, he replied, “I am one of the damned.”
Palestinians complain that they are forced to give bribes to pass through checkpoints, are harassed on the street and shunned.
“A customer comes in and says, ‘Are you a Palestinian? I won’t have a haircut,’ ” said a barber. “I tell them I’m a Syrian or a Lebanese. . . . You are forced to disown your nationality.”
Like every other Palestinian interviewed for this story, he refused to give his name for publication, saying he feared reprisals.
As the Kuwaiti government begins to function again, there are ominous bureaucratic rumblings.
The minister of education said recently that children who attended school under the Iraqi regime--many of them Palestinians--would not be permitted to enter Kuwaiti public schools in September.
Last week, the Kuwaiti daily newspaper Al Fajeh al Jadid reported in a front-page story that 91% of the seats at Kuwait University would be reserved for Kuwaiti students, up from about 80% before the invasion. The other 9% will be reserved for students from other Gulf countries and the children of professors--meaning no Palestinians need apply. It was unclear whether either policy will be enforced, but both have increased the pressure on Palestinians to leave.
In a baffling set of contradictory policies, Kuwaiti officials have said they want to reduce the number of non-Kuwaitis, including Palestinians, who accounted for about 400,000 of the preinvasion population of roughly 2.2 million. Yet Palestinians who wish to leave the country say it is difficult and even dangerous to do so.
Those who wish to leave must file an application with the government, and their names are circulated with a view to identifying suspected collaborators and troublemakers. The process can take weeks and invite anonymous denunciations, the Western diplomatic source said.
“If you go put your name on a piece of paper you’ve just surfaced yourself, you’ve just raised your profile,” he said.
Unemployment increases the anxiety. Some of the Palestinians who formed the backbone of many government agencies have been called back to work. Many have not, however, and after eight months without a paycheck, they are growing desperate.
“The Kuwaiti authorities say, ‘We open the door, let them leave,’ ” said a young Palestinian banker, who sits at home while other non-Kuwaiti colleagues have returned to work. “But they don’t have the price of the ticket. And they cannot get their money from the bank. And everyone is waiting for his pension. . . .
“People who have done nothing are disappearing. When someone disappears, you don’t know who to go to to ask for them. . . . It’s impossible to convince them that not all Palestinians are criminals.”