Iraqi captors 'kept us hoping and dying,' freed Kuwaiti hostage says WAR IN THE GULF

March 09, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

ON THE KUWAIT-IRAQ ROAD -- He was in his back yard changing light bulbs when he turned to find a man in his home, said Adhmed al-Olaimi.

Come with me, said the man, a military man in an Iraqi uniform. There was some paperwork at the police station. It will take only a few minutes.

That was the start of a nightmare in an Iraqi prison for Mr. Olaimi and perhaps thousands of other Kuwaiti men rounded up and sent to Iraq as prisoners.

Crammed into buses for a harrowing trip under the guns of allied airplanes, the hostages were taken from Kuwait to Basra, Iraq, where 300 of them were crowded into a room built for 80, they reported yesterday.

They got a hard chunk of gray bread once a day and drank water scooped from swamps and alive with worms and other living things, they said. They all expected to die.

They were not beaten. They survived about two weeks of captivity until yesterday's weeping reunions with families that had lived only with the mystery of their disappearances.

All of the approximately 1,200 Kuwaitis released yesterday were civilian men seized in a three-day sweep in Kuwait City just before the ground war began. It is unclear how many others the Iraqis hold -- a top Kuwaiti official said about 6,000 -- or when they would be released.

No one is sure why the Iraqis took them. There was no apparent logic to their roundup: The Iraqis pulled Kuwait City men at random off streets and out of their beds in rampages through neighborhoods.

The Kuwaitis freed Thursday night were unceremoniously dumped at midnight from buses at the border.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and Kuwaiti officials were caught by surprise, and the Kuwaiti men stayed at the border for the night with only the food and blankets that nearby Americans GIs could dig out of their knapsacks.

Mr. Olaimi stayed past daybreak, and then, tired and disgusted, started walking.

"We are going home," he said. "If nobody will help us, we will help ourselves."

He and about 70 others set out by foot. Two buses picked them up a few miles later. It was fortunate, for the men had little strength to continue after the conditions of their imprisonment.

For Mr. Olaimi, yesterday promised a reunion with his wife and 3-year-old daughter he feared he would not see again.

"The Iraqis kept us hoping and dying, hoping and dying," he said. "We reached a point that we were thinking out loud the way we would die: Would it be group killing? Chemical killing?"

The 27-year-old computer instructor, who had just returned to Kuwait after earning a degree at the University of Miami, said he was taken out of his home so quickly that his wife, in another part of the house, was unaware.

Other released hostages yesterday offered similar accounts: Men were taken from their cars at checkpoints, from their front doors or led away by men who came into their living rooms and bedrooms.

They were taken to Basra in southern Iraq as allied planes pounded the military convoys on the main roads. Rockets blasted trucks from their midst, but not the buses of the prisoners.

In Basra, Mr. Olaimi said, they were jammed into a 150-foot-by-15-foot barracks, allowed to urinate once a day and given foul and inedible food.

He took a small glass out of the pocket of his maroon robe, now dirty and worn.

"This is my glass, my toilet, my drinking pot, my washing pot, my room" he said of the glass.

The drinking water they were given was from a local swamp, but "I was so dehydrated, I closed my eyes and drank it," he said.

The prisoners sometimes felt the building shaking from nearby bombing, he said. The Iraqi guards were clearly nervous. Some were compassionate. Others sold prisoners food and privileges, such as a quick listen to the radio.

"I have pity for them," he said. "I do not know what happened to them."

The hostages were told earlier that they would be transferred to Baghdad, as they believe other seized civilians were.

But Thursday they were abruptly informed they would be returned to Kuwait.

"It was terrible," Mr. Olaimi said. "I think I have lost my emotions. I know I have lost my youth."

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