Saudis, allies alike find life in war zone trying WAR IN THE GULF

February 19, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Sun Staff Correspondent

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia -- Like the elusive desert oasis that evaporates in the imagination and then reappears moments later, life in a war zone is full of deceptions and surprises.

Iraqi tanks pretend to surrender and then blast their way into a deserted Saudi border town. U.S. pilots attack mobile Scud missile launchers only to find they've hit decoys.

With some regularity, Army scouts are telling of nights when the enemy troop movements they were watching turned out to be a wandering herd of camels.

Cmdr. Kolin Jan of Annapolis, who flies an A-7 Intruder from the carrier USS Kennedy, says pilots can be fooled by the skies over the desert.

"You swear you are in a turn, but you're not," he told a pool reporter. "You're flying straight and level."

Near the Saudi border, chaplains mindful of Saudi sensibilities conceal the crosses they wear as insignia but work endlessly to discuss life and death with anxious soldiers. The demand for Christian services and Bible studies in this Muslim land has exceeded most expectations, and there has been a shortage of Roman Catholic chaplains.

"We don't have a prayer of coming up with enough priests out here to say Mass for all those who might want it," a Marine chaplain told reporters.

British forces give the outward appearance of respecting Saudi culture, but soldiers have such pent-up resentment toward their hosts that they are scrambling for ways to flout the restrictions imposed on their conduct.

"We know that they go over the causeway to drink in Bahrain," Cpl. Stephen Quairby said angrily about the Saudis.

He told a British reporter recently, "Everyone knows that they are hypocrites, so why won't they at least let us have a beer when we are fighting and maybe dying to defend their country?"

The resentment has been fanned by widely circulated tales of illicit drinking and sex parties held by the Saudi upper class.

So British encampments have broadened their menus in defiance of Saudi dietary restrictions. "Since about Christmas, we have been bringing in pork and bacon on ships and serving it to the lads in the field," Warrant Officer Tim Barker, chief chef at the largest British maintenance camp, told reporters.

Among the Americans, there have been more discreet ways to avoid following local customs. There is heavy trading of nude centerfolds in some areas at the front, with some enterprising soldiers discovering they can barter with lusty French legionnaires for some of their continental cuisine.

Here in Khobar, a commercial center on the Persian Gulf coast, not far from Dhahran, local residents do their best to simulate the pace of normal life, but disruptions have been unavoidable.

At the offices of Kanoo Travel, Ricardo Mokled complained that much of his staff fled when the war started and Scud missiles began to fall in the area. Some joined their relatives in the western Saudi city of Jidda, while others sought haven in such unlikely places as Lebanon.

A lot of people have the Scud missile jitters. The siren-like wail of Muslim prayers, heard throughout the city from a network of public address systems, has been known to startle pedestrians, some of whom duck for cover.

Many of the Filipino, Indian and other Asian residents who make up the city's service sector say they feel secure keeping their gas masks and green shoulder bags at the ready, whether jamming the aisles of the local market or haggling with a gold dealer over jewelry for a girlfriend.

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