Home for Christmas

updated 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Throughout the homecoming flight from Dallas to Odessa, Texas, Donnita and John Henry Cole were locked arm in arm—sharing caresses, smiles and whispered intimacies—as if they could not bear to let each other go. They had spent four months agonizing while John Henry, a 51-year-old oil drilling inspector, was held hostage in Kuwait and Iraq. Now, as he and Donnita, 48, neared the end of the long journey from Baghdad, neither could believe they were really coming home. Then the plane touched down, and as the couple waited for the other passengers to disembark, John Henry saw daughter-in-law Jennifer, 21, come aboard with 6-month-old John Kiefer, the grandson he had never seen. Moved beyond words, he silently cradled the boy in his arms and smiled. It was not until he reached the airport lobby, wading into a crowd of cheering friends and relatives, that his voice broke and his eyes grew teary. "This." he said, clinging to Donnita, "is the reason I'm home today."

Such joyous reunions were played out across the country last week as hundreds of Americans made their flight to freedom following Saddam Hussein's decision on Dec. 6 to release all foreign hostages in Iraq and Kuwait. Like John Henry, some gave harrowing accounts of being shunted from one strategic site to another as human shields against U.S. attack. And as Americans began returning from occupied Kuwait, they brought stories of a fugitive existence. All had passed the months in fear of never seeing home again, and even in the warm embrace of their families, many remained in a state of shock. "The realization that I'm free and home and that it's all over," says Cole, "hasn't completely hit me yet."

The Coles' nightmare began in early August. Five months before, John Henry had moved to Kuwait City for Odessa-based OGE Drilling, and Donnita was planning to join him in mid-August. For the couple, who married in 1965, it was the oil-business-as-usual: During the past 18 years, John Henry's assignments have taken them to such places as Nigeria, Ireland and Iran. Donnita was watching TV when news came of the Iraqi invasion Aug. 2. "I started trying to call Johnny," recalls Donnita. "I never could get through. But I don't get hysterical. I get mad as hell."

Indeed, anger helped sustain her through the uncertainty of the following weeks. Demanding news about John Henry, Donnita called everyone she could think of—the State Department, the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C., the OGE headquarters, even friends in the oil business in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Eventually she hooked up with Coming Home, the Champaign, Ill.-based group that set up a toll-free phone line enabling the hostages' families to swap information and offer support. "It was torture for us," she says. "We didn't know what to do. I kept my sanity by getting busy on the phone." On Sept. 17, when she finally received two letters John Henry had written weeks earlier, Donnita had physical proof he was at least alive and well in Baghdad.

John Henry, in fact, had managed to evade capture for a month by hiding out in his apartment with friends: "We made four or five trips into the desert looking for a way around the troops, but kept running into them." he said. "At first it wasn't so bad, but I had an increasing sense of being hunted." The running was over on Aug. 31, when Iraqi soldiers flourishing AK-47s knocked on the front door and trucked him and his companions to Baghdad.

For a while Cole was moved from one location to another; eventually he was settled with other hostages in a petroleum refining installation, where they were constantly shuttled to various makeshift apartments. Aside from strict confinement enforced by six military guards, they were treated well. They were allowed to exercise, run and play bridge to pass the time. The food was decent—mutton, chicken, rice and vegetables—and, on John Henry's 51st birthday, Nov. 8, included a cake with candles. "I didn't have any trouble sleeping—or dreaming," recalls Cole. "I always felt like I'd get out."

Donnita wasn't so sure. Determined to do what she could to bring her husband home, Donnita and 18 other hostage relatives decided—whatever the risks—to accept Saddam's invitation to visit Baghdad for a Christmas reunion with their loved ones. "I completely believed John Henry would return home with me," she says. "That's all I would let myself consider."

But there were plenty of moments during the trip when it was hard to keep up her faith. Arriving in Baghdad on Dec. 5, Donnita and her Coming Home friends knew nothing for certain—where they would stay, how they would rejoin their relatives, what Iraqi authorities would do with them afterward. Whisked away to the Monsour al-Melia Hotel, the group was confined to drab, phoneless rooms on the seventh floor, with guards standing in the hallways and secret police watching their every move. Next day there was still no official word on the hostages, only rumors that some had been delivered to the hotel in the dead of night to be rejoined with their wives; others, it was said, were to be brought in during the day.

That was when John Henry appeared: Shortly after noon on Dec. 6, guards delivered him to the hotel front desk. Donnita, who was upstairs in her room, got word and found her husband at a 10th floor security checkpoint, walking up behind him and saying, "Hiya, babe." John Henry grinned, "it's about time you came and got me." They clung to one another. "Honey." said Donnita, pulling back his ragged hair with her fingers, "you look good with that weight gone, but don't you worry, I'll fatten you up." They retreated to her room.

The next day came the stunning news that all foreign hostages would be set free. Three days later the Coles were on an evacuation flight bound for Washington. As flight attendants began serving meals, Donnita suddenly saw the effects of captivity: John Henry and the other ex-hostages were eating only part of their meals and saving the rest, something they had learned to do while under Saddam's guns. "I couldn't handle it," says Donnita. "It gave me my first real insight into what my husband had been through. When I explained it to the hostesses, they started crying, and suddenly we were all standing there in the galley, crying and hugging."

Since his return, John Henry has struggled to adjust. He's also coping with a lingering bitterness toward U.S. government officials for "ignoring the hostages." Meantime, however, he's savoring simple pleasures like coming and going as he pleases and spending time with his new grandson. "There are some friends I'm looking forward to seeing, and I might get back to playing some golf—then I've got to get busy finding myself a job," says John Henry, who was laid off by OGE in late August after the firm's assets were frozen. Before that happens, Donnita has other plans. "Some friends have given us a vacation to Florida. And we're looking forward to Christmas," she says, threading her arm through her husband's. "But the important thing is for John Henry to rest—and enjoy being back home."

—Paula Chin, Kent Demaret in Baghdad and Carlton Stowers in Odessa

A man and his dog find a home in the ceiling

Hiding out in his three-bedroom apartment in Kuwait City after the August invasion, Thomas Kreuzman had planned carefully in case Iraqi troops ever tried to round him up. In the ceiling over a hallway was a cramped air-conditioning vent where the 38-year-old maintenance technician from Holiday, Fla., hid bedding and a jug of water. He anxiously hoped that he'd never have to take refuge there. But on the night of Oct. 6, Iraqi soldiers suddenly appeared at his building. Grabbing his pet Yorkshire terrier, Chu-Chu, Kreuzman scrambled up a ladder into the three-foot-high crawl space only a moment before the Iraqis burst in and began rummaging through his things. As he peered through a grate into the room, Kreuzman softly prayed that Chu-Chu wouldn't give them away. "Even though she would bark whenever anybody so much as touched the front door of the building, she sat there and didn't say a word," says Kreuzman. "I think she knew what to do."

For the next three days, Kreuzman didn't dare venture out of his hiding place except once, when he slipped down and stole back his computer and videocassette player, which the Iraqis had stashed with other booty in a nearby apartment. The rest of the time he spent huddling with Chu-Chu, whom he had bought two years before from some Arab children for $15. "She was a ratty thing with dirty, matted hair." he recalls, "but she was cute." Eventually hunger forced them to go foraging. The only food left in Kreuzman's apartment was some dried spaghetti, beans and packets of Lipton soup. Mixing the ingredients with water, he concocted a reasonably palatable dish, though at first Chu-Chu turned up her nose.

Soon enough, the intrepid pair settled into a routine that was to last 23 days. Despite the danger from Iraqi troops, who periodically returned to the building to search for more loot, Kreuzman and Chu-Chu would emerge from the crawl space once a day or so to go to the bathroom. At one point Kreuzman found a cordless phone, which he used to call the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City as well as other Western friends in hiding. Kreuzman tried not to think about his family back in Florida. "I pushed them out of my mind because I knew that would cause me more mental hardship," he says.

Yet even his eventual flight to freedom brought new anguish. Determined to take Chu-Chu with him, Kreuzman personally loaded her onto the plane in Kuwait City. After a transfer in Baghdad, he arrived in Frankfurt—only to be told that her box had been found smashed and that Chu-Chu had vanished. Kreuzman suspects that the case may have been dropped and broken in Baghdad during the layover. He has offered a $1,000 reward for Chu-Chu's return. "She made the time go so fast," he says. "I wanted the perfect ending for her, where she could run in the grass for the first time."

A gardener raises spirits as well as produce

El Miloudi Hamid not only emerged from Kuwait with his life and freedom, but also a new nickname: "Mr. Green Jeans." Hamid, 46, an exporter of air-conditioning parts from Chattanooga, Tenn., was on a three-day business trip to Kuwait when Saddam invaded. In the initial weeks, he and fellow U.S. citizens took refuge inside the American Embassy in Kuwait City. But by October, with Iraqi troops surrounding the compound, both food and morale inside were running low. So the Moroccan-born Hamid rounded up some seeds from the diplomatic stores and planted a victory garden in the Ambassador's backyard.

The results—and effect—were astounding. Hamid and his 26 compatriots discovered that even partial self-subsistence, in the form of the tiny sprouts of spinach, rhubarb and kohlrabi that grew in a matter of weeks, gave them a sense of control. "Everything I touched turned green," says the proud Hamid, the father of four children, who last week was reunited in Maryland with his wife, Robin, 29. "As the garden started to grow, hope started to rebuild."

Not only did the Americans raise some of their own food, they dug their own well to provide water. Last week, from the safety of home, Hamid could look back on his ordeal with—if not fondness—at least a sense of perspective. "I learned to be patient, I learned to have faith in God," he says. "I learned to have a lot of faith in my fellow human beings, and I learned that freedom has to be preserved at any price."

—Bill Hewitt, Meg Grant in Holiday, Fla., and Margie Bonnett Sellinger in Washington, D.C.

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