Kuwait: uneasy victors in a spoiled place WAR IN THE GULF

July 28, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

KUWAIT -- In a high school classroom, an air force colonel shows a group of silent Kuwaitis a grisly collection of Iraqi tools of torture. Laid out on wooden tables are the implements used to burn, choke and mutilate, such as a screwdriver modified for the job of gouging eyes.

Col. Ali al-Fadari, a resistance leader during the Iraqi occupation, then makes a well-practiced speech. "We need to rebuild, and we need to be different from before," he says, expressing his hopes for a Kuwait in the process of being remade. "We hope no country in the future will use such tools."

Elsewhere in the same school, other former resistance members are showing the colonel's hopes to be in vain. They are documenting human rights abuses committed in the name of Kuwait's reborn government. One of the latest incidents involved a security prisoner being tortured by a guard, a case apparently closed when a superior ordered the guard to be given a dose of the same treatment.

"Emotions in this country are very high, and people do things they didn't do before," said Ghanan al-Najar, director of the country's first human rights organization, the Kuwait Association Defend War Victims. "Under the umbrella of cleaning up and purging, anybody could be put in jail, and there are some very sad stories."

Kuwait's rulers, the family named al-Sabah, came home to face their own disturbing circumstances: an oil fortune going up in smoke, plundered palaces and a disgruntled, mistrustful population.

The emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, fled Kuwait as the Iraqis invaded last August and deeply offended many of his countrymen by waiting until two weeks after liberation to return. Since then he has rarely appeared in public. Kuwaitis, while professing affection for him, say they would respect him more if he surrendered his absolute powers and settled for a role as a figurehead.

People wanting a "new" Kuwait are dismayed at seeing the return of the old. Rebuilding and reform are taking place at a frustratingly slow pace and according to no discernible plan. In re-creating itself, the society displays many of its old qualities, plus a streak of vengeance.

Crown Prince Sheik Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, prime minister and the emir's cousin, is in charge of the day-to-day running of the government, as he has been since 1978. He is derided as hopelessly indecisive, precisely the wrong quality for the times. He has been reluctant to delegate authority, or when he does, to reach outside a small retinue of loyalists.

"The mentality is unchanged," said Jassin al-Mutawa, editor of the newspaper al-Watan. "Before the invasion, we used to try to explain the desire for change to those in charge, but we discovered it was pointless. Maybe they feel now that they were wrong in the past. But so far, we haven't heard."

One young Kuwaiti lawyer who was active in the resistance against the Iraqis compared support for the royal family before the invasion with support now.

"If for the emir it used to be 10, now it is maybe 6," he said.

The crown prince? The lawyer laughed, "The crown prince is a 3."

Impatient for change

Kuwaitis emerged from the underground impatient for change but poorly organized to press for it. The emir has promised elections in October 1992 for Parliament, a body he disbanded in when it began to show a mind of its own. While opposition figure are already planning to run, there is grumbling that they are as shopworn as the al-Sabahs.

Meanwhile, every few days some disquieting rumor sweeps through: The Iraqis are about to invade again. The Palestinians have created a vengeful underground army. The al-Sabah princes have organized private militias to guarantee the family's hold on power.

Given the uncertainties, some resistance members have chosen keep their weapons and thereby defy government orders.

"People still think guns might be needed," said Mr. Najar, the human rights activist. "They don't know whether against Iraq or against the government."

In the face of such sentiments, the government has shown much of its old prickliness toward criticism. Officials closed down one newspaper after it called for an early reconvening of Parliament. Another had a cautionary visit from the censor, the same person who filled the post before the invasion.

Mr. Najar's experiences on behalf of his human rights group are at least as sobering. So far, the government has refused to grant official recognition to his or any of the other private organizations to emerge since the war. Without official recognition, a group can be ignored by the government-controlled television and radio but is likely to be watched carefully by the security apparatus.

Officials ordered the association to give up its offices, near one of the palaces of the crown prince. He was apparently upset when families of war victims held an outdoor protest about government inaction.

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