Where It's Fun to Be American A Letter From Kuwait City

March 24, 1991|By DOUG STRUCK

KUWAIT CITY. — Kuwait City.

Grafitti on a wall: "I love the USA Army. I love France." Scrawled on another wall: "Free Kuwait. Bush did it! I love CNN."

Kuwait City remains a pot-pie mix: of happy reunions, and horrific recollections of torture; of a nation breathing deeply of liberation and holding its breath for dark secrets still hidden; of expectation and despair.

But this is perhaps one of the few cities in the world where it is fun to be an American. Soldiers and civilians bask in the glow of appreciation to the United States for its lead role in liberating Kuwait.

Every night there is a big demonstration in front of the American Embassy. The American flag is not burned; it is waved gleefully by Kuwaitis.

"Everybody wants an American flag. Everybody wants a picture of George Bush," said Nasser Abdul Kareem, 27. "We can't wait until George Bush comes here. We will give him a hell of a greeting."

U.S. soldiers sometimes stroll down the parade route. They are treated like arriving conquerers. Kuwaiti families crowd around and ask them to pose for pictures. Children hug them. Men shake their hands.

This must have been what it was like for the liberating forces in World War II, except that in Muslim Kuwait, the girls don't kiss the GIs.

"Sometimes you don't think you've done much, and then somebody comes up and shakes your hand and says thanks for being in our country," said Army Spec. Connie Hayes, a military policeman from Champagne, Ill. "Then you think, well, yes, I did do something."

*

On the hotel message board:

"Washington Post: Nora arrived with goodies. Have no transportation. Will catch up with you later."

"I need a haircut (Not military). Bring bowl and scissors to room 351 (NBC). Will Pay U.S."

"Dear U.S. Army and the Allies. We hope you enjoy the staying."

* Reporters covering Kuwait City's wobbly return to life are treated like kings but live like peasants.

Their existence is an odd mix of high-tech and campground. They can beam their reports half-way around the world, but without much power, water or food, the best meal they can come up with is a cold peanut butter sandwich.

In the first days of the liberation of Kuwait City, reporters took over the International Hotel. It had been set afire by the departing Iraqis, but the damage was minimal. The hotel managment had fled. The reporters stepped through broken doors and moved in.

It soon became Kuwait's Grand Central: Kuwaitis, the Allied Army and reporters mixed in the hallways with flashlights. Someone posted a signboard, which became the chief means of communication. The messages scrawled on it are a rough diary.

"Greg. I'm here. Waiting."

"Newsday: Leave message if you still have typewriter and sleeping bag."

"Edie: Hamed is waiting for you outside the garage -- NOW."

"Need a new wheel and tyre for Toyota Landcruiser. Will swap for military fatigues."

"Is anyone planning to go out Sunday to see the oil fires? Please take me!"

"Missing: Spanish journalist Antonio Castel, El Observador newspaper, missing in Iraq since March 3."

It was nearly two weeks before the hotel got a generator to provide limited power and lights, and another week before a single elevator eliminated the nightly trek up the stairway -- 11 flights more or less, depending on the luck of your room draw.

The water comes on in erratic spurts, for about an hour each day. On Wednesday, 22 days after the city was freed, the hotel managment finally brought food from Saudi Arabia. They requested guests pay their back bills-- at $110 a night-- in order to get food.

* Sign in hotel lobby: "Absolutely No Unexploded Ordnanace Allowed. Turn over all Ordnance at Hotel Entrance."

* Even now, there are ironic scenes of contrast in reporting here. I type this, sitting outside, with the latest high-tech portable computer. But I must brush the flies off the keyboard at every other stroke.

To transmit the story requires a 20-minute drive at night through checkpoints with soldiers who level their automatic weapons at the driver of every car. Some of the young soldiers with their fingers on the triggers are very nervous. There have been shootings. In the pitch black of the city, it is always a tense journey.

But once at the big AT&T satellite phone station, reporters are waved to the front of long lines of Kuwaitis who have been waiting for hours for a call. With guilt overcome by deadlines, the reporters accept the offer.

We, too, have felt the gratitude of the country. Kuwaitis -- even soldiers -- usually offer a big smile, a slight bow, and the English word "Welcome" when they recognize an American.

Westerners are ushered to the front of lines at gas stations. The gas is free to all; it is a heady feeling to drive away from the pumps without paying. But for Americans it is difficult to pay for anything. The garage mechanic pulling shrapnel out of a flat tire refuses money from Americans; the first grocery store to open tries to load up an interviewing reporter with free items.

When the wind blows the oil fire smoke away, Kuwait City is sunlit and pleasant. But often the wind brings another "black day," when the soot blankets the sky and drivers must use headlights at noon.

Then, the dismal ghost of daylight is a reminder of the dark side of the war. The gloom is unbroken by the slap of hammers or the hum of commerce, and it recalls that Kuwait is unrepaired and mostly unrepairing. On those days, the stillness of Kuwait is foreboding.

*

Memo on the hotel board:

"Dear Guest: Thank you for being with us. During the Holy Month of Ramadan, smoking eating or drinking in any public area is strictly prohibited. In addition, proper attire must be worn at all times. Thank you. -- The management."

Doug Struck is a Sun correspondent.

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