Remnants of war: mined beaches, cases of grenades WAR IN THE GULF

March 26, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

KUWAIT CITY -- Six-year-old Hussein Ali has deep brown eyes and curly black hair. His tiny voice barely lifts from the hospital bed as he tells how he toyed with a hand grenade.

"We knew it was a grenade. We knew it was dangerous. We were just playing," he said of the group of boys who found the weapon in a can near their home. "One of the other boys pulled out the pin and threw it to us."

His two cousins, 4 and 5, were killed. Another 5-year-old took shrapnel in the chest. Young Hussein's abdomen was ripped open, and he lost one finger.

"We're going to be seeing these cases for a long time," said Dr. Nasser al-Dallal, a pediatric surgeon at Ibn Sina Hospital, where the youngster is recovering. "The desert is full of these weapons."

The casualties of war continue, even as soldiers go home. As life resumes in Kuwait, people are finding that the weapons of war still litter their environment. Many still kill.

At Al-Sabah Hospital, one of seven general hospitals in Kuwait City, Dr. Hussein Afif, a surgeon, estimates that they have gotten 100 to 150 injuries from leftover mines and explosives since the war. He estimated there had been 15 to 20 civilian deaths at his hospital alone.

"Nobody knows how much danger there is,"said Dr. Abbas Ramadan, a physician at Ibn Sina. "The desert and seaside are full of explosives."

The long buildup to the gulf war allowed the Iraqis time to plant hundreds of thousands of land mines to try to stop the allied invasion. The five-week air war also rained tons of explosives on Kuwait, including cluster bombs and mines that will remain dangerous indefinitely.

Demolition experts from the multinational allied force have been working for three weeks to remove ordnance, but the job is far from done.

On an island park connected to Kuwait City by a short walkway, families stroll through dozens of bunkers dug by the Iraqis against a sea invasion that never came. Cases of grenades and mortars lay open. Children climb over the two anti-aircraft guns on the island. There are shells in the breach of each, ready to be fired, and dozens more rounds beside them.

At a beach nearby, a group of French demolition experts make the final test of their success in clearing a 400-yard strip of beach. A 24-year-old soldier, Patrick Dumas, steps into a heavy protective suit, clambers up to the driver's seat of a huge bulldozer and sets it rumbling onto the beach.

His platoon has cleared 650 mines from this strip. But if they have missed one, the bulldozer will explode it -- if they are lucky, without damaging the driver.

"We have disarmed 10,000 mines" in three weeks working on a 5-mile stretch of beach, said the platoon commander, Patrice Hubert, a young officer in a crisp uniform and sharply cocked beret.

His men probe carefully on their hands and knees with shovels and knives to locate mines. When one is found, they cautiously scrape away the sand and gently clip the wires of the electrical circuits to disarm it.

"You can only make one mistake, and that is one mistake too many," he said.

None of the French experts has been hurt. Mr. Hubert said a Saudi team had lost 10 men and 40 injured while trying to disarm mines.

Each of six countries in the multinational team has an area to clear. The United States is responsible for desert areas that are choked with mines and allied-dropped explosives, said Capt. Dale Baron, a U.S. Army ordnance expert.

"There are tens of thousands of mines out there," he said. "I couldn't even give you a guess how long it will take to clean them up. It could be years."

Nor is the desert vacant of innocent traffic. Bedouin shepherds use the land for sheep and camels. Even city-living Kuwaitis traditionally take vacations in the desert.

Inside Kuwait City, the U.S. Army is hauling away massive amounts of munitions left behind by the Iraqi army. The task is immense: The Iraqis had expected an invasion from the sea and had stockpiled vast stores of anti-aircraft, tank ammunition, mortars, grenades and boxes of machine gun and rifle ammunition.

"The vast majority is in pristine condition. It's still in the crates," said Captain Baron. "We're talking about tons of this stuff."

But Kuwait City is unlike London, which was massively bombed in World War II and where live bombs that did not explode continued to be found for years, the captain said. There was minimal bombing in Kuwait City, and "it's a lot better than we expected. The city is virtually free" of those dangers.

The effort to keep the public from the dangers has been spotty. Posters with pictures of bombs and mines to warn children of the danger have recently sprouted, and Kuwaiti radio has broadcast warnings. But there are few areas fenced off or even posted to keep the unwary away from areas that might be mined.

The postwar period has brought other dangers, according to Dr. Afif. Nightly celebrations after liberation featured soldiers and armed young men firing hundreds of rounds from automatic weapons into the air.

They seem oblivious to the rainfall of lead they create.

"One young man was walking with his brother when his brother just dropped over. He had been hit on the top of the skull with a falling bullet," said Dr. Abdulla al-Hammadi of the Ibn Sina Hospital.

The dark month without electricity and water in Kuwait City has increased accidents, said Dr. Afif. As people resorted to candles and lanterns made from shoestrings and olive oil, accidental fires and burns have increased.

A woman suffered serious burns when she was refilling her home generator with gas and using a candle to see, Dr. Afif said.

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