Kuwait Works to Preserve History of Its Resistance to Iraq

Times Staff Writer

It's an ugly sight in the center of this tidy middle-class neighborhood: a three-story home with gaping holes blasted in its walls, ceilings and roof by an Iraqi tank. The sign outside says simply: Al Qurain Martyrs Museum.

Just yards from a mosque, the yellow brick house was the scene of one of the last instances of brutality inflicted on Kuwaitis by the Iraqi army during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It was also the site of one of the bravest examples of Kuwaiti resistance against overwhelming firepower.

Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, Kuwait's emir, is expected to preside soon over the opening of the museum, dedicated to the 12 resistance fighters who were cornered and killed at the home near the end of the war, as well as to hundreds of others slain by the Iraqis. Even as a U.S. military force prepares for another possible war, Kuwaitis are accelerating efforts to preserve the history of the 1990 Iraqi occupation and the liberation of their nation by a U.S.-led coalition the following year.

And while the Kuwaiti version of the past does not stint on praise for the U.S. and other nations that came to this country's aid, it emphasizes events that are often overlooked in Western accounts, including the bravery of civilian militia groups in fighting the Iraqis and the defiance of women who staged street protests.

An American academic says the Kuwaitis are engaging in the "standard post-conflict history-making" common in countries that have been conquered and occupied. The process includes celebrating heroes and forgetting such unsavory things as looting and collaboration by some civilians and the poor performance by some units of the nation's military.

"The Kuwaitis are writing -- or rewriting -- history to reflect the fighters among them, the ones who held true to Kuwaiti identity even in the midst of the invasion," said Joyce Neu, executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at UC San Diego.

"Those are the people who carry and defend the pride of the people and culture."

Although nearly all of the war-damaged homes and businesses have been replaced, the emir has decreed that several sites will remain untouched as history lessons for the younger generation and foreign visitors.

"It is important that people know of the bravery of Kuwaitis and how much they were able to withstand," said Shatta Altaher, one of the workers at the Al Qurain museum project.

This week, the country will hold its annual National Day, followed by Liberation Day. Those who died fighting the Iraqis will be honored along with others who refused to submit.

"It's good for the new generation to know these things," said Yaser Mohsen, a guide at the newly opened House of National Works Memorial Museum, dedicated to the occupation and war. "The schools do not do enough to tell the story of the bravery. And it is important for visitors to learn too."

Among other exhibits, the memorial museum has a listing of those declared by the government to be "martyrs" of the Iraq conflict; pictures of the street protests in which Kuwaiti women demanded "Free Kuwait: Stop the Atrocities Now"; and three-dimensional mock-ups of key battlegrounds in the first days of the occupation in August 1990.

The memorial museum has several rooms dedicated to war crimes allegedly committed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces in Kuwait, Iran and the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. The museum's doormat shows a drawing of a man sitting on a chamber pot; on the pot is Hussein's face.

The government also has opted not to demolish or repair the emir's Bayan Palace, which was damaged when it was captured by the Iraqi army on the first day of the invasion and again when militia members tried unsuccessfully to rescue Kuwaitis held there.

On the masonry fence that surrounds the spacious hilltop property are graffiti sprayed by Kuwaiti youth while the palace was under Iraqi control, including obscenities and swastikas.

Miles away, in front of the Asian Olympic Committee building facing Arabian Gulf Street, is the late-model Lincoln in which the emir's brother, Sheik Fahad al Ahmed al Sabah, was riding when he was killed by Iraqi tank fire during resistance in the early days of the Iraqi invasion.

The car, now raised on a granite pedestal, has been painted gold, including the tires and windows. A large sculpture of a clenched fist protrudes from the car's roof. A plaque, in English and Arabic, says that for the sheik, "dying for Kuwait was the ultimate honor he sought all his life." A sports complex bearing his name is under construction.

Immediately after the liberation in 1991, the Kuwaiti government created a department dedicated to issues involving those slain or taken captive. Although Iraq denies it, Kuwait insists that the Hussein regime is holding hundreds of prisoners.

By decree, the department is charged with "keeping martyrs' names fresh in the minds of the Kuwaiti, Gulf and Arab societies, as well as the whole world."

For Muslims, the word "martyr" holds special meaning. A martyr goes directly to paradise, while others must wait for Judgment Day to learn their fate.

Families of those designated as martyrs are given homes, automobiles, furnishings, compensation and free trips to the Saudi city of Mecca for the hajj, or pilgrimage, that all Muslims are expected to make at least once in their lives. Streets, roads and public buildings are named for individuals who were slain.

Rugaya Radhi Almayass, whose 23-year-old brother, Saad, was killed by the Iraqis because of his militia activities, believes it is important that such bravery be remembered.

It is not right that the world remembers only the coalition fighters who liberated Kuwait, she said. Her brother was held prisoner for 25 days and then shot to death in the street in front of the family home.

"The martyrs deserve to be remembered," Almayass said. "Without them and their sacrifices, maybe we wouldn't have gotten our country back. If they had not resisted and fought back, the world maybe would not have noticed our plight."

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