Americans who hid in Kuwait praise courage of underground

December 14, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Americans hiding in Kuwait called them "our baby sitters."

Courageous members of the Kuwaiti underground supplied all their needs, say the former hostages, from rice to forged identity papers, from videos to Thanksgiving turkeys, from courier service to a Black Forest cake that brightened a bad November day.

Members of the underground were a varied lot. Not all were Kuwaitis. Some had worked for the exiled emir's government. Some were educated in the West. Many were Shiite Moslems who have a score to settle with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein over the eight-year war he launched against Iran.

Courage seemed to be a common denominator. They all knew that if they were caught, they would be killed. And some were.

"The only thing they asked was: 'Don't forget us,' " said former hostage William Van Ry, a bank personnel officer from Fort Collins, Colo. Mr. Van Ry became a "warden" for the U.S. Embassy, keeping in touch with several groups of Westerners in hiding through the offices of the resistance.

"There is a bonding that takes place in this kind of situation that's very strong," said Mr. Van Ry. "They become more than friends, they become family. It made it very hard for many of us to leave." One American he knows stayed behind to help the Kuwaiti underground.

In the early days of the occupation, resistance meant guerrilla warfare.

"They were fighting every night at first," said Ernest Alexander, a lawyer from Media, Pa. "After some rapes in one neighborhood, the resistance attacked a school that was barracks to Iraqi soldiers." In another case, he said, Kuwaiti girls became "human car bombs," driving cars rigged with explosives into Iraqi camps.

Mr. Van Ry said he witnessed a group of Kuwaiti youths armed with nothing but rocks take over an Iraqi tank. The driver had his head out and was beaten senseless when the tank stopped at an intersection. "The youths called the resistance and said, 'What do we do with it?' " said Mr. Van Ry.

Mr. Alexander recalled nights a few months ago when Kuwaitis went up on their rooftops at midnight to shout "Allah Akbar!" -- God is great -- at the behest of the resistance.

But fearsome reprisals led the resistance to reconsider its military strategy, he said. Guerrilla attacks stopped. Now the underground gathers intelligence, shelters people wanted by the Iraqis and tries to buoy the morale of the populace.

Mr. Van Ry said the military wing was ready to move against the Iraqis if there were an invasion by the United States.

It was individual acts of kindness, courage or caring the former hostages remembered the best.

Dr. Robert Baima, a dentist from Hurley, Wis., was thankful for two Abdullahs.

The first Abdullah was a young Shiite who showed up one day at the house where Dr. Baima and other Westerners were staying. He brought forged papers for all of them, identifying them as citizens of a neutral country Dr. Baima refused to name.

The hostages had never seen Abdullah before, and they never saw him again. But the identity papers were invaluable when Iraqi troops raided the house. The men stuck to their made-up stories, and after eight hours of questioning, the Iraqis released them.

"He really saved our collective butts," said Dr. Baima.

The second Abdullah was a middle-aged Kuwaiti who had an American wife and children in the United States. He brought the hostages food and supplies and went as far as seeing them off at the airport under the noses of Iraqi guards.

"It kind of became like a shepherd and his flock," said Dr. Baima. "He tended to guard over us."

The Kuwaitis who cared for Mr. Van Ry's group looked out for the hostages' emotional needs as well. One day last month, when the hostages were depressed about the prospect of a long siege, the Kuwaitis showed up with a Black Forest cake.

"It wasn't the cake as much as the fact that they were concerned," said Mr. Van Ry.

One night at 3 a.m., Iraqi troops broke into the house. The Kuwaiti who was sheltering Mr. Van Ry went downstairs to confront them. They put a gun to his head and told him they knew he was harboring Americans. The man bluffed the Iraqis, said Mr. Van Ry.

"He said, 'If you want the video [cassette recorder], take it. If you want the TV, take it, but don't come telling me you're looking for Westerners.' "

That gave Mr. Van Ry and the others enough time to hide. "We happened to be asleep," said Mr. Van Ry. "If he hadn't bought us the necessary time, we would have been gone."

Aside from their families, former hostages say they felt their Kuwaiti benefactors were the only people who truly cared for them.

"They're beautiful people," said Gene Hughes of Albuquerque, N.M., for whom a visit to his son in Kuwait turned into a four-month ordeal.

"They risked their lives to save us," he said. "If it hadn't been for them, we wouldn't have survived over there. They told me: 'You are a guest in our country. We are bound by our holy Koran to protect and shelter you.' And they did."

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