Kuwaiti Band of Brothers – Fort Dix, NJ, February 1991.
A Soldier’s Diary: A Kuwaiti volunteer looks back at ‘Liberation’
By Amer Al-Hilal
Reprinted from ‘Arab Times’ (25th February 2009)
The invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi in 1990 sparked a multitude of momentous events whose social, economic and political cataclysms reverberated around the world. The tragic invasion culminated in Operation ‘Desert Storm’ and the liberation of my country seven months later.
When the invasion occurred, I was struggling to balance an educational life at The American University, Washington DC, with an equally active political one targeting a “Free Kuwait.” Months flew by, and my countrymen continued to suffer under Iraq’s dark shroud of tyranny and aggression. In February 1991, I could bear it no longer and decided to volunteer, along with thousands of other Kuwaiti students, in the United States Armed Forces.
The following are excerpts from a diary I kept during my military service:
FORT DIX, NEW JERSEY:
February 16-22, 1991
“C’mon! Move it!” shouts the drill sergeant as we sprint away from the Greyhound buses with our bags, some of us stumbling over each other’s luggage. It is a truly marvelous beginning to a tour of duty…
All of the recruits are then taken to a compound to listen to the obligatory “You’re in the army now” speech delivered by a hulking six-foot-four Captain, which included comments such as “Don’t call me Sir! I work for a living” and “We are going to bust your butts.” Well, I’ve seen it all before…the army movie cliches, anyway. But somehow living it is different.
It is a chilly, foggy evening as I watch the civilian side of me slowly disintegrate into the night.
On the first day of training, we are woken up at 3:30 a.m., which is when I usually go to bed. We all feel like crap but we made a commitment and now we have to stick to it. We are then supplied with military equipment and a beloved M-16 rifle.
“She’s your wife, your girlfriend, your mother. Take care of her, and she will save your ass!” swears a drill sergeant. Sigmund Freud would have had a field day at with that one.
We are then divided into different groups: Civil Affairs, Military Police, Legal Affairs, Medical and Military Intelligence/Interrogation. I am placed in the latter. We also have our heads shaved. I suppose now I really resemble an interrogator, although some of my colleagues think I’m auditioning for an upcoming role alien role in a “Star Trek” film.
The 18-hour days are long and arduous, tensions are sometimes high and we’re having a tough time trying to stay awake. At most, we get three hours of sleep per night and that isn’t nearly enough. The American drill sergeants keep telling us we’re a hopeless bunch of misfits.
“You are going to die in some foxhole!” cries a drill sergeant to a careless friend of mine who is having difficulty dismantling his rifle. Those psychologically intimidating tactics will not work with me, I think to myself.
We attend seven hours of interrogation lectures a day, as well as eight hours of practical training. It is damn tough work, and to make matters worse, it’s beginning to snow in New Jersey. College life was a prima donnas’ existence compared to this strict, tiring regiment.
We manage to complete rifle target practice and grenade throwing sessions during the next couple of days. Whenever we miss the target, which, frankly, isn’t often, all we have to do is visualize Saddam Hussein, and then we usually score bulls-eyes. I’m proud of my platoon; they’re excellent shots.
Over the next couple of days, the drill instructors put us through the wringer. We learn radio operations, coded messages, map reading, night-time rifle firing, M-16 dismantling and cleaning, machine-gun and grenade launch firing, and, ominously, chemical warfare training. For the latter, we are placed in a dark, smoky concrete room where we are required to pull off our masks and inhale the tear-gas-like solution. The point of the operation is for us to get a rough idea of what a chemical attack would be like.
“Rough idea” is an understatement… When the test is over, we run out of the building, sweating, salivating, and out of breath. We are required to run around a field, flapping our arms in order to pump blood and oxygen into our systems. While it is horrendous experience, the sight of us scurrying out of the building and flapping our arms like Cro-Magnon men attempting to fly is bloody ridiculous. Some soldiers even manage to bump into lamp posts. Think of “Monty Python” meeting “the Dirt Dozen” and you get the picture.
The last couple of days are hard. We are certainly more fit than before, but the element of anger is much more prevalent among us. I for one, am more emotional, less patient, and more confident, however, I am beginning to fantasize about different methods of torturing and killing Iraqi soldiers – I have always regarded myself as a “pacifist” and a non-violent person, but my initial patriotic reasons for volunteering are turning into a lust for blood. There are unconfirmed reports from Kuwait that Iraqi soldiers are taking people from streets and randomly executing them. Other reports detail the capture of thousands of Kuwaitis, including women and teenagers and their transportation to camps and prisons in Iraq. I just want to finish this training and get out of here. I’m tired of waiting for the inevitable.
FORT DIX GRADUATION
February 23, 1991
It’s over. We have completed three months of Basic Training in twelve days. I get my interrogation and Desert Fox Combat Training certificates at graduation today. We are now officially sergeants in the U.S. Armed Forces.
At the ceremony, Vice-President Dan Quayle offers some positive news, stating that “Kuwait is being freed as we talk.” Also, the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the U.S., Sheik Saud Nassir Al-Sabah, also hints that we will soon be home. The Ambassador’s presence is invaluable; the man has worked assiduously throughout the invasion, he has transcended the role of the diplomat and is now an icon of our fight for liberty – the US based students regard him as an emblematic father.
Naturally, we are all overjoyed at the news of the ground war, but whether Kuwait is free or not, we are ready to fight. In any case, there is lot to be done, even if it is liberated.
We are then moved to a local airport. Kuwaiti officials and diplomats such as the Cultural Attaché Mr. Musaed Al-Haroun affectionately say their goodbyes on the tarmac before we are shipped in a 747 jumbo jet to Saudi Arabia. I am so exhausted I sleep non-stop from New Jersey to Riyadh. It would be the last touch of comfort for a while.
DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA:
February 24, 1991
The 600-plus Kuwaiti volunteers arrive at in Dhahran airport, and we are divided up and assigned to our respective missions. Some are on their way to a frenzied tank battle at Kuwait Airport, others to Riyadh or Jeddah, and some to the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. They won’t disclose my destination, but I know it will be an important one. As I get closer to Kuwait, I miss it more than ever.
The people in Saudi Arabia, the clear desert air and the architecture remind me of home, and that makes it all the more painful. I have to admit though; the Saudis seem to use more neon in their city’s billboards and signs than any other country in the world. Well, maybe with the exception of Las Vegas and that’s where the comparison ends.
HAFR AL-BATIN, SAUDI ARABIA:
February 25, 1991
We arrive at this location, noting the Patriot missile systems along the way, and set up our tents. We still don’t know what our mission is about. Tomorrow, we’re on our way to another undisclosed location. I hope its Kuwait
E.P.W. CAMP, NASRIYA, IRAQ:
February 26-March 3 1991
We join the U.S. 7th Corps military intelligence units here. I should have known we would end up in Iraq. Our jobs in this remote, dusty desolate tract are to supervise and interrogate Iraqi enemy prisoners of war. I must admit that a great satisfaction comes upon me now. Interrogation begins soon.
The P.O.W. camp is set up around a massive crater surrounded by hills and marshes. There are hundreds of American soldiers here, and so far, they capture around 5,000 Iraqis a day. Sometimes we move our locations within Nasriya to different camps in order to obtain new information from the Iraqis. No matter what camp we end up in, the Iraqi soldiers look wretched. Some of them even wear civilian clothes. We really don’t have that much interrogation to do, because they can be bribed easily with cigarettes and food. The MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) that they get are always completely consumed; even the coffee, sugar and chewing-gum supplied along with them are devoured.
Most of the Iraqi soldiers try to appease us with kind words of regret and sorrow about what happened to Kuwait, although most of them do sound like professional con-men. Sure, they can loot and steal, rape, torture, kill and, as it turns out; they’re also first-class actors – right up there with the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials who said they were “following orders.”
Other Iraqis are surprised that Kuwaitis would literally fight for Kuwait.
“What are you fighting for? Oil and the Emir?” asks a People’s Army conscript. I inform him that we fought the war for our heritage, people, our country, but that’s something those poor bastards will never understand, especially after living in a despotic police-state like Iraq. At this point in time I couldn’t give a damn about their rough childhoods, living conditions or their safety in Iraq – they committed crimes against humanity and they should pay for them. But somehow I have the feeling they’re going to get off easy. Since they already surrendered and are speaking out against their regime, they’ll end up at camps, living off the U.S. taxpayers and the Saudis, and enjoying benefits such as fresh food, education, and good living conditions. It’s a repellent thought, but that’s the way the cards are dealt.
If I wasn’t following the Geneva Convention, nothing would give me more pleasure than to aim my M-16 and spray the poor bastards with lead, especially the Iraqi Republican Guard types. Unfortunately, I am following the Geneva Convention and such vicious thoughts have to be suppressed.
KUWAIT- IRAQ BORDER:
March 3-4, 1991
Our latest camp is surrounded by hundreds of mines that are constantly being detonated. Because of them, we cannot walk too far from our tents. We heard from the local Chaplain that two of our doctors had died when their jeep exploded on a mined highway. The black and grey smoke from the detonated mines can persistently be seen as the earsplitting, thundering blasts emanating from them are felt all around us.
The American soldiers here are very gracious and supportive, maybe because they know how much we miss home and family. They are exceptional human beings. An elderly Colonel walks into our tent with bags of Saudi groceries and treats, walks towards us handing us the items and asking how families are doing and if we need anything. We are overwhelmed by this gentleman’s empathy. This Colonel’s gesture reaffirms our pride in serving in the US Army. This is why the United States is a world superpower, a combination of: strength, compassion and morality.
If we were soldiers in an Arab army, I bet you the Colonel wouldn’t even let us wipe his dog’s ass, let alone pay us a visit.
We are used to the atmosphere of ‘war’, but we are impatient to get to Kuwait. Many soldiers from my platoon have family there, and want to visit them now that the city has been liberated. Our wish eventually comes true. We are told that we will be home”very soon.”
KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT:
March 5, 1991
Dozens of oil wells burn in the distance; the city looks like a massive cake surrounded by giant, melting candles. Soon our jeeps and dinghy, brown school buses infiltrate the black smog surrounding Kuwait City.
I feel happy on my return home, but I’m also angry and distressed at the damage around me. Our bus ventures into the once-beautiful oasis of the Gulf. I grit my teeth as I see a burning, white van with Kuwaiti license plates, greenish smoke filtering from its smashed windshield. Many other vehicles, some with missing wheels, lie like scraps of paper on the side of the highway, amidst scorched Iraqi tanks and military vehicles.
The military convoy carefully creeps into the blacked-out city. Electricity is non-existent; the Iraqis had detonated explosives at the electrical plants in the city and we hear there is no water either. To make matters worse, darkness can last more than a day sometimes and when it rains, we all get covered in slimy black patches of liquid.
We are eventually dropped off in front of the American Embassy on the Gulf Road, a long strip of road overlooking the sea-front, to a crowd of cheering, joyous and excited Kuwaitis. This is as close to being a part of a historic event as I ever will be, I think to myself – Kuwaitis spray “We love Bush” graffiti on some walls, drivers honk their horns, teenagers are dancing up a frenzy, and dozens of Kuwaiti resistance members fire tracer bullets into the air from their AK-47 rifles. It is wonderful. And I know one day I will tell my children and grandchildren about this day.
KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT:
March 5 – April 3, 1991
My month-long stay in Kuwait is a hazardous time because Iraqi agents and sympathizers are still here. Explosions and shoot-outs can be heard and felt. Martial-law has just been imposed. Fortunately, my house was mostly untouched by the battle, so I sleep there. There is no electricity so I use a flashlight or an oil lamp. As far as I can see, there is surprisingly little structural damage in the city. Maybe I was expecting a bombed-out city like Beirut. Most of the buildings have been ransacked from the inside, although black bullet holes and smashed windows for Iraqi sniper positions are evident on many structures, especially the buildings that overlook the beach – the Iraqis assumed the Allied forces would liberate Kuwait by mounting a Normandy-style invasion through the beachfront. They were dead wrong.
The hardest aspect of my return home is facing the quiet survivors. I meet a large number of torture victims who speak of finger and toe-nails being pulled out, of naked teenagers being forced to sit on broken glass, of being electrocuted and so on. I hear tales of mothers watching as their sons are shot in front of them and of girls being raped by soldiers and then having their breasts sliced off. There are many sad and horrific stories, and while I listen to them, I guess I’m not as strong as I thought I was.
Various Iraqis who are still hiding in Kuwait City attempt to cause anarchy by firing their Kalishnikoff rifles at us while we do our usual security rounds in the desolate and garbage-strewn streets. Once, they blow up an ammunitions dump close to a Kuwaiti civilian area. Some have just stolen 600 Kuwaiti military uniforms from a truck, and others fire at paranoid, young soldiers who control city check-points.
Three shoot-outs manage to suck me in into the violence. The most notable is at the former twin-compound buildings of the Kuwait Ice-Rink, were, supposedly, some Iraqi agents hiding inside attempt to flee. The ice-rink, during the invasion, apparently was a torture centre and home to the Iraqi Special Forces unit. It was supposedly used as a large morgue where dead Kuwaiti bodies were dumped so as not to decompose. Reeking of a putrid aroma of blood and meat, it is an uncomfortable place to be in. Dark, dried-up blood stains are still on the surface of the floor. The building is surrounded by our friends and some soldiers from a Kuwaiti military convoy. Within minutes, a massive shoot-out begins with soldiers storming the building. It lasts for at least twenty minutes. An English Captain passes by and sends his men to tactical locations around the twin buildings. After a while he comments, in his dry sort of way: “Cowboys and Indians, I see…. But where are the Indians?” He walks away and so do we. We never did get to find out if anyone was captured.
Sometimes we are fired upon from dark, empty voids in government buildings. Bullets fly by from one corner of the street to another as we duck for cover and return fire, but that is all we can do.
Another time, my partner Fahad Al-Gharabally, a fellow interpreter and I are almost accidentally shot by a pair of Kuwaiti soldiers while doing usual security rounds in my neighborhood of Rawda. Out of the blue, shots are fired into the air, and we are ordered to get out of the car. They force us to the ground, disarm us and ask who we are, while they point their guns at our heads and kick us in our stomachs. We tell them we are Kuwaitis and show them our American IDs.
“Are we supposed to be impressed because you guys live in America? Give us some IDs. in Arabic” yells out a young soldier.
“I told you, we are volunteers with the American army. Look at our faces, listen to our accents, and look at our uniforms!” I tell him.
He hands us back our cards while his men look down at the ground embarrassed by their imprudent, dangerous and brainless action. Apparently, they thought we were Palestinian agents dressed up in stolen uniforms (With soldiers like these, it’s no wonder the Kuwaiti military is in shambles). That incident was probably the closest I ever came to getting killed. Other Kuwaitis were not so lucky – many accidents such as these occur daily and some accidentally did get shot.
Driving out of my neighborhood Rawda, I notice a disheveled, bearded Kuwait walking slowly across the pavement, looking somewhat disoriented. I stop the car, roll down the windows and ask him if he needs a ride. He waves, opens the door and quietly sits besides me as I try to make conversation.
“Please take me home. I live in Nuzha,” he requests. I gladly comply and ask him about his wellbeing.
“We just returned from Iraq. We walked here,” he stated; as I realized he had been a POW, a feeling of both grief and relief envelop me, distressed that thousands like him were taken from our streets, yet relieved that this courageous man, this champion of everything that is great about Kuwait, stoically walks back with honor. At that moment he was my brother, I didn’t know him, I didn’t even know his name, and all I knew was that I would do anything for this individual. I dropped him off and thought about others like him, hoping they all return to their families.
The situation continues to be grave. There is still no electricity, and running water is quickly drying up. Explosions are felt on a hourly basis, as well as gun fire. To make matters worse, there is no effective food distribution and no organized law in the country. During this time, it seems, every soldier does as he pleases and there seems to be no order or effective hierarchy in the Kuwaiti chain of command. The truly ironic aspect of the situation is the fact that although my country has already been liberated, it feels like powder-keg about to explode. The violence does not shock or surprise me, but the images of the ravaged country do. The putrid smell of garbage, and dead bodies, darkness at noon, black rain, damaged buildings and burning cars all remain indelibly etched in my mind.
It is the year 2009 now, 18 years following the liberation. Times have changed in Kuwait, and not for the better. To many the Gulf War may have seemed akin to a lavish all-star cast miniseries or a video game but to me it was far from entertainment. I survived the war, although we were never too far away from a gun. I was fortunate because my country had already been liberated by the time my field military duty had been activated, but I won’t soon forget the pain and anguish surrounding Kuwait, as well as the memory of the prisoners of war, some of whom are still missing in Iraq. What I remember most of all are the survivors and the families of the victims. I remember clearly their words, their soft-spoken declarations of being tortured and of losing a loved one.
The Kuwait Resistance did an exceptional job during the invasion and it breaks my heart that they haven’t received the credit and acclaim that they really deserve. There is something seriously warped in this country when the people who really fought for it are neglected for others who have done much less. The Resistance were the unsung heroes of the Gulf War; warriors who sacrificed all for the sake of their country, not the shady politicians whose loyalty lie beyond our borders, the opportunist officials and tycoons who publicly broadcast their loyalty to Kuwait, but in reality did and do nothing, except further their own careers by lining up their own pockets by exploiting the needs of the reconstruction and beyond.
Today more than ever in Kuwait we must remember the invasion. We are now a country that does not even feature the invasion in our educational curriculum, a country that is beginning to forget the lessons of the invasion, a country that continues to meddle in exterior conflicts by wearing the mantle of ‘arbitrator’ and ‘mediator’ without taking care of its own, a country that is beginning to forget who its real friends are, neglecting the increasingly grave perils surrounding us, whether ideological or geopolitical. Now more than ever we must remember the invasion, the occupation and the betrayals (both internal and external) and focus on the true reconstruction of Kuwait, both in mind and in spirit, so that we don’t fall prey to the calamitous ravages of 1991 again.