Kuwaitis recall bravery and tears

History: With a new conflict near, they remember Iraqi occupation and the Persian Gulf war.

March 03, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AL QURAIN, Kuwait - Hazem Jaber lifts his arms in the shape of a rifle, points out at the street below and squeezes an imaginary trigger. This is where he shot at Iraqi troops, he recalls. Then, pointing to a gaping hole beside him, he shows where an Iraqi tank fired back.

During the final days of the Persian Gulf war, Jaber was one of 19 Kuwaiti resistance fighters cornered inside a three-story brick home by Iraqi troops. During a 10-hour gunbattle, Iraqis peppered the house with tank, rocket and machine-gun fire. Twelve men were killed. Jaber was one of seven to survive.

Today the bullet-scarred house in this quiet, middle-class neighborhood outside Kuwait City is as sacred a place as the fields of Gettysburg, the Alamo or Pearl Harbor would be to Americans.

Kuwaiti Emir Sheik Jaber al-Sabah visited the house after the war and ordered that it be made a national monument. No repairs were allowed. An Iraqi tank is still parked outside the front gate, its turret pointed at what remains of the house. Until recently, bloodstains were visible on the walls.

Now the Kuwaiti government plans to open the Qurain Martyrs Museum there as part of a nationwide effort to commemorate the history of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait from Aug. 2, 1990, to the end of the gulf war Feb. 26, 1991.

"Some small children don't know what happened in Kuwait. I want to make sure that they know," says Jaber, a 34-year-old police officer who survived the Iraqi attack by hiding in a storage closet.

"The Iraqis thought we were the U.S. Marines because we were fighting so good," he says, eager to tell his story to museum visitors on a recent afternoon.

Scenes of war

It would be easy to forget there was a war in Kuwait. Kuwait City is a gleaming collection of office towers, high-rise hotels, mosques and minarets, and shopping malls with splashing fountains.

But during the Iraqi occupation, government offices, banks, homes and businesses were destroyed, more than 70 percent of Kuwait City's old markets and shopping malls were looted, and more than 700 oil wells were set on fire.

In recent months, Kuwaiti residents have been more preoccupied with fears of a new war with Iraq than with memories of the first gulf war. Armored vehicles are stationed at many traffic circles and intersections with their guns pointed to the sky. The government is urging residents to be prepared in case of attack. Stores offer sales on duct tape, flashlights and electric generators.

Still, Kuwaitis have started to look more closely at their war history. Across town from the Qurain museum, curators of the Kuwait House of National Works Memorial Museum, which opened to visitors last year, are putting the finishing touches on exhibits documenting the Iraqi invasion and refuting Iraq's claims to Kuwait.

The story of the gulf war is told through miniature models depicting the events of the invasion. The sounds of approaching Iraqi tanks, screaming fighter jets and helicopters descending on the capital blast through speakers. Flashing lights mimic machine-gun fire, explosions, and homes and businesses burning. Model tanks and armored vehicles rumble down the streets. Little plastic figures portray Kuwaitis fleeing in terror.

It is a dizzying display of oil fires, parachuting troopers, babies crying and sinister Iraqi voices, which ends triumphantly with U.S.-led coalition forces arriving in Kuwait City.

"After liberation, Kuwait built up immediately. Other countries that have been through war remain broken up. But after two years, there was nothing to show that Kuwait had a war," says Kuwaiti Air Force Col. Muhammed al-Shaiji, a tour guide and the designer of the museum.

Iraqi war crimes

The museum is as much about the war crimes of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as it is about the sufferings of the Kuwaiti people. Several exhibits document the war crimes of Hussein's government, including gruesome photos of gas attacks in Kurdistan and Iran.

Another room is dedicated to the 605 Kuwaitis who were arrested during the occupation and are still missing. The Kuwaiti government says Hussein continues to hold them as prisoners of war, an allegation Iraq denies.

To enter the museum, visitors step across a doormat bearing a drawing of a grinning man seated on a toilet. The toilet is in the shape of Hussein's head.

"We want to show the people that Saddam is not a nice person," says al-Shaiji.

On a tour last week, al-Shaiji emphasized that theme as he showed visitors a group of photographs of ruined government buildings, oil-soaked birds and dead Kuwaitis. The visitors appeared shocked by the scale of destruction in Kuwait City after the war.

"If you know Iraq, you will not be surprised. It is jealousy. It's not the Iraqi people. It's the regime," al-Shaiji says.

Disturbing images

About 250 people, many in school groups, visit the museum each day. Last week, more than 1,000 people looked through the exhibits during the celebration of Kuwait's National Day and Liberation Day.

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