The trickle of Americans evacuated from the Persian Gulf reached Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday as a jetliner carrying 140 hostages, including 90 children, arrived after an exhausting two-day journey from war-ravaged Kuwait.
As an airport bus carried the former hostages from their jumbo jet to a dingy old hangar, transformed by flowers and red-white-and-blue bunting into a festive reception area, children pressed their noses to the bus windows and waved to waiting reporters. A woman named Diane, traveling with her 4-year-old son, knelt and kissed the ground after embarking from the bus and walking down a waiting red carpet.
"I love America," she said. "I feel safe, free and home where I belong."
Yesterday's flight was the fourth carrying former hostages -- mostlywomen and children -- to the United States from the Persian Gulf.
Elizabeth M. Tamposi, a State Department official, said, "We're deeply concerned that many of these people were forced to leave behind their husbands and their fathers. We're continuing to make arrangement for charter flights -- hopefully later this week."
One who left behind her husband, a Kuwaiti computer programmer, was a 30-year-old woman who gave her name as Karen. "It's great to be here," she said while awaiting a flight to her sister's home in Wisconsin. As she spoke she held her 17-month-old son, Nawaf, in her arms while he nuzzled her neck.
Karen and other former hostages recounted the terror and uncertainty in the aftermath of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Most refused to talk specifically about where they had been sheltered for fear, they said, of endangering those still in hiding or Kuwaiti citizens who could be hanged for helping them. They also refused to give their full names to avoid jeopardizing relatives in Kuwait.
A former hostage, who gave her name only as Angel, said Kuwait City had been reduced to a "ghost town." She and her 13-year-old daughter had been in Kuwait visiting the woman's brother when Iraq invaded. Since then, she said, she had disguised herself by dressing as a Kuwaiti woman.
At one point, Angel said, Iraqi soldiers came to her house and questioned her. She said she feared her Egyptian-accented Arabic would give her away as a foreigner, but her Kuwaiti sister-in-law intervened before the soldiers became suspicious.
Diane, an American from Milford, Conn., who is married to a Kuwaiti and had lived in the country for 10 years, said the Iraqi soldiers were "stealing everything" and destroying the country.
"Our Safeway is bombed," said Diane, accompanied by her 4-year-old son, Ahmed. "Our Safeway is completely destroyed."
Diane said Iraqi soldiers were stealing tires from cars and looting schools. Overwhelmed by the availability and wide variety of goods in Kuwait, Diane said Iraqis even were stealing without knowing what they were taking.
They "were eating Brylcreem," she said. "They think it is cheese. I feel sorry for them."
Karen said her two other young children, who also accompanied her on the flight to Baltimore, had seen Iraqi soldiers shot by resistance fighters and had seen charred bodies in the streets. "My children have seen things you wouldn't see on television," she said.
Like other Americans, Karen said she had been in hiding in the last weeks, fearful of discovery by Iraqi soldiers or of denunciation by neighbors. The weeks passed, she said, in an alternating mixture of drama and boredom.
Karen said she only went outside three times, and then disguised in a black chador, the traditional dress of Moslem women. She said food was in short supply. "Nobody has seen fruits and vegetable for ages," she said.
At first, Karen said, she was hopeful of an Arab solution to the tensions. When that failed, she looked to United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar to fashion a peaceful resolution. When those efforts foundered, she began thinking of escape. At one point, she said she considered making the journey across the desert but decided she couldn't trust anyone to escort her and her children to safety.
Karen said that she kept abreast of news from the outside world through foreign radio broadcasts and that she spoke regularly to embassy officials in Kuwait City and to other Americans. That was how she learned that an evacuation flight from Kuwait would be leaving last Sunday morning.
"Saturday morning, they called me and said, 'Would you like a trip to the United States?'" she said. "I said, 'Thank God.'"
The flight went to Baghdad and then to London. The hostages spent the night at Gatwick Airport there and flew to Baltimore yesterday morning.
The chartered L-1011 American Trans Air jetliner, carrying a crew of 22, was greeted at 5 p.m. by more than 300 federal and state workers and by volunteers.
Maryland officials said the State Department alerted them to expect another planeload of former hostages on Thursday or Sunday.
Karen said that foreigners and Kuwaitis alike were thankful for U.S. efforts to press for their release. "We thought, 'Thank God America is here, because someone is speaking out,'" she said.