Kuwait is free now, but it can hardly be described as a country at peace. Only in the aftermath of the allies' lightning-quick and relatively bloodless victory over Iraq is the full extent of the human suffering becoming clear. And with it are rising cries of anger from those who for seven months saw their prosperous little country turned into Saddam Hussein's dungeon and charnel house.
Hanan's husband, Mohammed Yacoub Al-Kalaph, 25, was one of Kuwait's many casualties. After the Aug. 2 invasion, Mohammed, a member of the country's National Guard, and his two half brothers and a brother-in-law began smuggling weapons for the Kuwaiti underground. To avoid upsetting his pregnant wife, he told her little about his work. "Mohammed would come home in the night with cuts and bruises on his hands and arms, but he wouldn't tell me what he did to get them," says Hanan. He didn't fool her or, apparently, the Iraqis. Within weeks he was picked up by the authorities; one night in late September, his lifeless body appeared in the garden, one of the Iraqis' favored methods of intimidation.
Mohammed wasn't the only member of the family to suffer at Iraqi hands. Bearded and gaunt, his jeans hanging loose on his shrunken body. Mohammed's half brother Majeb Jaber Al-Rashedi, 21, recounts the 10 days he spent in Iraqi custody. As she hears the story told for the first time, Majeb's mother, Myassa Musa, begins to sob quietly. "They stripped me naked and hung me from a ceiling fan. Then they broke a glass bottle and ground it in my scrotum," Majeb says, betraying no emotion or expression. "They also ordered me to wash, and the water was electrified. They put a gun to my head and told me they'd kill me if I didn't tell the truth. Then they pulled the trigger, but there were no bullets." Majeb's younger brother, Hamed, 13, was held for eight days in a squalid, urine-soaked cell. One day, without explanation, the brothers were released.
Like many Kuwaitis, Hanan vows that she will never forgive the Iraqis for their atrocities. Certainly she will never be able to understand how one human being could do such things to another. "It is a horror we will always carry in our hearts," she says. Now nine months pregnant with her second child, Hanan takes strength from the heroism of her husband. "I will tell my children their father died for his country," she says quietly. "You can do no more than that."
"Stay clear of the flies," a Kuwaiti lawyer warns. "Where they are, that's where you don't want to be." This is practical advice. For roughly seven miles, the six-lane highway north of Kuwait City is packed with the charred and blasted remains of the retreating Iraqi Army: rotting corpses and some 1,500 vehicles—tanks, jeeps, stolen cars, buses and even fire trucks—nearly all laden with booty from the pillage of Kuwait. A handful of American troops pick through the blackened debris, searching for souvenirs or admiring the lethal handiwork. The sight of anything intact prompts a bit of irony from Sgt. Walter McRac, 37. "I'm amazed about stuff we missed," he says sardonically, "I thought we killed everything in here."
The slaughter started the night of Feb. 25 as Iraqi troops fled in panic. The Tiger Brigade of the U.S. Army's 2nd Armored Division out of Fort Hood, Texas, swung into action. Positioning themselves for battle with Iraq's Republican Guard, farther up the highway, the American tanks chased the retreating Iraqis while flanking them on the left and right. With nowhere to run, the convoy was pounded from above by Harrier jets and A-10 and A-6E bombers called in by Marine reconnaissance units. The bombardment trapped hundreds of Iraqi vehicles between walls of fire and ignited secondary explosions of gasoline and the fleeing soldiers" ammunition. "It looked like somebody dropped a bomb in the middle of the L.A. freeway at rush hour," said Chief Warrant Officer Charles Russell, 36, a battalion medical specialist.
Forty-eight hours later, the attack ended. Near the Kuwaiti town of Abdali, gutted vehicles lie bumper-to-bumper. The heavily cratered roadway is strewn with all manner of weapons and ammunition: unexploded hand grenades, mortars, rocket launchers, piles of AK-47 rifles. Amid the ordnance lie pathetic reminders of the looting that had apparently been a primary concern of the Iraqi occupiers. A baby's pink sweater lies in one ashy pile, a delicate green-and-gold china cup, miraculously undamaged, in another. Nearby are star-shaped turquoise plastic sunglasses with the word FUN engraved above each lens, fake flowers matted with dried blood, a Ken doll wearing a tuxedo, packages of prawn-flavored noodles, Q-tips and toilet tissue. Next to one twisted car, its occupants reduced to blackened bone and teeth, is a box of Trident gum and a pair of men's dress shoes.
Mind-boggling in its magnitude, the carnage suggests the worst of fates and the best of military technology. A young American soldier wanders in a kind of daze through this hellish parking lot. "I was here the day after the attack," he says. "I'm still having dreams about it."
Tricked out in a Day-Glo green headband, with a bandolier of bullets across his chest and toting a hand-held grenade launcher, Osama, 25, does a fair imitation of Rambo. For the past four hours, he and his 10 friends, all of them civilians, have been careering through the streets of the capital looking to round up remaining Iraqi troops or their Palestinian sympathizers. At one house they find two suspects: one, a pudgy Palestinian boy, is blindfolded and marched away; another boy, no more than 15, is handcuffed from behind. His feet not quite in his tennis shoes, he stumbles through a mud puddle as he is forced into the back seat of a silver Nissan and driven to a police station. Two more youths are picked up in a darkened apartment, their sisters, wives and mothers screaming and clutching at them as they are pulled away. "We promise you they will all have a fair trial," one of the band says.
Perhaps. But in these days after the liberation, Kuwaitis often seem more interested in revenge than in justice, in paying back cruelty with cruelty. And reminders of the havoc that was wreaked upon them is everywhere; it is impossible to travel in Kuwait City without finding horrifying evidence of Iraqi atrocities. In the parking lot of the Mubarak Al Kabir hospital on the outskirts of the capital, the corpses of 11 Kuwaiti civilians, all said to have been prisoners of the Iraqis, lie rotting in the sun in the back of a battered red GMC pickup truck. A young boy tends the grotesque cargo. "You want to see them?" he asks, lifting a bloodied white sheet to expose one man's gory buttocks and another's broken, contorted face. At Sabah hospital, the odor of death, sickly sweet and nauseating, fills the morgue. A man in dovegray robes waits patiently to claim the remains of his mutilated brother, said to be the victim of Iraqi torturers: the body is black, the corpse's eyes have been plucked out, another Iraqi specialty.
Stirred by such horrors, vigilante bands like Osama's are flourishing. In his group arc identical twins Sameer and Fareed, 32, who profess deep hatred for the Iraqis but admit to pangs of conscience about what they have felt obliged to do for their homeland. During the occupation, Sameer, a policeman, joined the underground and found himself, at night, behaving with a calculated brutality he had never imagined. "I became a criminal," he says. "The Iraqis were invaders, which made it necessary to hunt and kill." Another member of the group, a soft-spoken doctor named Saad Al-Saadoun, 24, struggles with his remorse. "I never thought I would carry a gun, shoot a man or kill him," he says, describing how he fired on Iraqi troops from the rooftops during the first few days of the occupation last August. "I really feel sorry for that." These days Dr. Saad cruises the city with Sameer and Fareed, carrying his yellow travel case, filled with necessary medical gear, and a snub-nosed revolver "for my protection only."
The roving band returns to a police station near the coast in the capital. A throng of Kuwaitis presses against the bars, glaring at a dozen terrified Iraqi soldiers huddled inside. Some Iraqis apparently had suspected since last August that their side was doomed. "From the start we knew we would be caught or die," one Iraqi soldier says. Now they can only pray the two do not amount to the same thing.
In Hanan Abdullah's garden courtyard, in a suburb of Kuwait City, there are no signs of violence—just sunlight, silence and the comforting aroma of fresh-baked bread. But in Hanan's mind, the terror she experienced here will always remain vivid. Cradling her 3-year-old daughter, Hanouf, she walks to the spot in the garden where her husband's body had been dumped by Iraqis last September-blindfolded, bloodied and riddled with bullets. "I tell my daughter her father went to heaven, to a more peaceful place," says Hanan, 19. "But she asks me still, 'When is he coming back?' "