WAR BRINGS FORTH BEST TRAITS
by Amer Al-Hilal
Reprinted from Arab Times (22nd March 2006)
It’s been three years to this day since I heard sirens piercing the airwaves at noon, on March 20, 2003.
I had moved two days earlier to a new domicile, the only reason I had bothered to change my location was due to the fact that the new one had a basement room which I could seal in case of a chemical or biological attack by Iraq.
In Kuwait we lived through over three weeks of the Iraqi fallout: sirens blazing several times a day, missiles being intercepted by Patriot missile batteries, some striking the city, fear of a chemical attack; indeed all of us were in ‘low frequency’ or controlled panic mode.
You can prepare yourself psychologically but when the siren’s sound becomes audible, on the streets and the radio, it becomes an altogether different beast to tame.
When the sirens pierced our surroundings the first day of the war, I sat down in silence, I had dry mouth, I attempted to collect my thoughts and “get it together,” I wasn’t worried about myself, but was concerned about my children and thoughts of what a chemical attack could do to Kuwait were devastating. During the Gulf War thousands of us Kuwaiti students and professionals had volunteered to serve with the U.S. Army, and we received training at bases such as Fort Dix, NJ (even receiving chemical training) but when you’re in Kuwait with a family and children, it’s an entirely different scenario.
We rushed to the basement – already stocked with supplies: radios, flashlights, food and water – and locked the door, sealing it with plastic wrappings and tape.
We sealed ourselves in the room. I had never done such a thing in my life.
The radio was on, the Kuwaiti announcer coolly reporting the situation. He was the voice we clung to, he was the voice that would tell us ‘everything’s okay,’ the voice that would allow us to break the seals on the door and leave the basement room, as opposed to being stuck in there for days like hamsters, because of any chemical threat.
The first dozen or so siren warnings we all did the same “shtick”; scurrying to the basement room and locking ourselves in. I’d sit wondering how the British dealt with years of the “blitz” in London, being bombarded with sirens piercing, using shelters, and utilizing food rations, eventually many of them having to send their children to the countryside for their own safety.
After a few days of sirens intermittently going off, we got accustomed to them and began ignoring that little “panic room” we had set up in the basement. We actually celebrated my son’s birthday in the living room once while they screeched in the background.
Nevertheless, the air Conditioner was still off and all the windows in the house were still sealed, the war still raged, and the rumors still flew, but it was work as usual and life went on. We would follow the news closely no matter where we were, any ministry, house, place of business had MSNBC or Fox News in the background. Let’s not forget Al-Jazeera featuring the Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Al-Sahaf lambasting the U.S., describing the grave casualties they were suffering. He was Iraq’s Inspector Clouseau, the buffoon of the hour; mocked nightly on Jay Leno and David Letterman (Al-Sahaf is now comfortably retired in Dubai).
Al-Sahaf In Action
10 days after the initial war had broken out, the outlook was bleak. We became uneasy, preparing for the worst. We actually had expected a Gulf War videogame scenario where Iraqi soldiers would surrender to television camera crews and the like, but now there was resistance in places like Basra and there were reports from the US media that U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld had wanted a leaner and meaner strike force as opposed to a larger and formidable one (i.e. The Powell Doctrine: Overwhelming Force). The war didn’t seem like it was progressing at the expected rate; I remember a hefty number of expatriates were beginning to leave Kuwait and we were worried that the American invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussein would take a minimum of six months.
We had grown accustomed to the American Patriot missile batteries intercepting all the missiles before they reached downtown Kuwait. But then it happened. It was around 1am and I was watching Fox News – which had a decent live feed of Kuwait – and I felt a distant thundering blast, the house shook slightly. The live feed featured a shot of Kuwait city, quiet, orange lights glowing in the distance behind skyscrapers and buildings, and then we saw it: a rising mass of smoke appearing in the background.
No sirens had blared. This missile had gotten through.
Immediately I worried that it might be a chemical attack but began skimming through the channels, Fox, MSNBC and CNN.
The Missile Explosion In Kuwait
It was bizarre watching Fox News report on something happening in my vicinity while I was there. This wasn’t some desolate remote country thousands of miles away, this was here and now.
Gradually they all began featuring the live feed from Kuwait featuring the explosion. Within an hour we found out that Souk Sharq – one of Kuwait’s premier malls by the beachfront – had been hit; young Kuwaitis in defiance left their homes and drove to the location. Camera crews were taping everything; dozens of Kuwaitis, maybe hundreds, showed up, taunting Saddam and Iraq, yelling out in Arabic “bring it on!”
Within a few days, the war effort picked up pace and the Americans had reached Baghdad. The regime had been decimated.
When I reminisce of those apprehensive weeks we went through three years ago, they humble me; they also spark memories of the invasion of Kuwait when fearless Kuwaitis – accustomed to a comfortable life – joined the resistance, distributed food, helped people in need and worked blue collar jobs to help themselves and others. Many paid with their lives. Others were taken as hostage to Iraq. The resistance characteristic of the Kuwaiti invasion has never truly been highlighted in the global media or popular culture but it was invaluable to the efforts to free Kuwait and maintain the status quo, political or otherwise.
The spirit of camaraderie, strength, faith and sacrifice was prevalent among both Kuwaitis and expatriates; people went out of their way to make sure others were fine, well-stocked and out of harm’s way.
In times of crisis, our best traits are brought forth.
It would be astonishing if one could maintain that spirit even during peace; a noble ideal one should aspire to.