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SUNDAY, MARCH 10, 1991
Kuwait City

In anticipation of the drive to Kuwait, I arose three hours early for our 5 a.m. departure. Partly because I had a lot to do before I left, but also out of sheer excitement to be going at last. Once I had taken my last hot shower for the next few weeks, I sat down at the computer to type out final messages to the home office, Kevin in Amman, Ken in New York, and my buddies Rob and Chester whom I was leaving behind. That took well over an hour, and by then Ernie our local helper had loaded the entire pile of provisions into the Land Cruiser. I felt guilty about that through all of breakfast.

map by the CIA, 2003
detail of map by the CIA

We hit the road late, of course, ourselves and another vehicle of reporters escorted by two Saudi officers in Suburban wagons. And those guys flew up the freeway; Mike Haan drove the first shift and had to do 140 kilometers per hour to keep up--that's a healthy 85 mph! This was okay on the freeway, but once we passed Jubail the road turned to two-lane, with lots of heavy military vehicles doing their lumbering 40 mph. This just presented a high-speed obstacle course to our escorts and we had no choice but to weave in and out behind them, dodging the oncoming cars. In that situation one always prefers to do one's own driving rather than watch it all helplessly from the suicide seat, and shortly I got my wish. Soon I was leapfrogging madly around the convoys at 80 mph, but at least I was in control. The worst part was the damnable alarm on the jeep we were driving; when the speed limit of 120 kph is exceeded, it begins bleating in an irritating tone. And no matter how long you listen to it, you never get used to it; you only get more anxious and on edge. I would have preferred to slow down to a reasonable rate, but I had no faith that the Saudis ahead would wait for us.

Between lane changes I observed what I could of the scenery, what there was of it. North of Jubail the vast stretch of drifting dune suddenly sprouted a thin coating of green. This intrigued me; it must have been a sparse grass just come up from the rain. It was so short and thin that it looked like a coating of mold or green lint spread over the sand. Along with this vegetation appeared several flocks of sheep and goats. I also noticed the occasional ten spotting the plain, but whether they were Bedouin or military I couldn't guess. But in spite of the hint of greenery and life, the terrain never ceased to be dreary and inhospitable--a flat, empty, two-dimensional world.

"...Arab driving
is pure abandon,
even oblivion..."

The only changes of scenery were the vehicles themselves. The local drivers are a mix of fancy new American cars and beat up old ones, and each one is driven at its top speed. To say their driving is erratic understates the case--whereas I would describe Mexican driving as macho bravado, Arab driving is pure abandon, even oblivion. They tailgate until the last possible panicked instant of squealing brakes; they change lanes without looking, or even straddle the lanes to avoid making any kind of choice, they'll pull into speeding traffic from a dead stop or stop dead on the freeway to back up or make a u-turn. Culture and custom I willingly make allowance for, but life-threatening practices I don't appreciate. But my defensive driving techniques have been raised to an art. If I needed any encouragement, the wrecked cars along the highway serve as regularly spaced reminders. For every freshly mangled, twisted heap of scrap on the side of the road, there is a matched partner on the other side facing the opposite direction.

I cleared the last line of huge, empty transport trucks on their way to bring home the heavy tanks, and found myself entering the war zone. We had reached the border town of Kafji, and I recognized the bombed-out tower I had seen on TV. Here is where the Iraqis had probed across the border and been beaten back in a day of fighting. It was eerily deserted, except for a military checkpoint and a sentry or two.

"First I would pass
an engine hulk,
a hundred feet farther
would be a
twisted chassis..."

And now the driving changed considerably. Instead of dodging other vehicles, I found myself dodging potholes, craters, and debris in the road. Though it was 10 a.m., the sky grew darker and darker from the smoke of nearby oil well fires. At one point the air grew so thick visibility was barely 100 yards-we could barely make out the outline of the electrical towers alongside the highway. And the number of wrecked vehicles increased, but with a marked difference--these all seemed to be burned out rather than smashed. I saw my first knocked-out Iraqi tank, but for every dead military vehicle there were eight or ten wrecked civilian vehicles, probably commandeered by the soldiers. But the creepiest part of all were the pieces of vehicles scattered about. First I would pass an engine hulk, a hundred feet farther would be a twisted chassis, and still farther down the road would be the cab of the truck or the storage tank from the truck bed. When it dawned on me that something had flung these pieces hundreds of feet along the highway, I shuddered.

The Saudi escorts left us at the Kuwait border and the guards waved us through the deserted customs station. Most of the buildings were shot up or blown out. And for some reason the entire in-bound lane of the freeway was destroyed for the next couple of miles. The pavement was tossed and broken up in chunks right down through the subsurface to the underlying sand. Mike thought it was the work of American cluster bombs. If so, the logic escapes me. Did they wreck the lane into Kuwait City to prevent a retreat, or did the Iraqis do it to halt an advance? Whatever the reason, we simply did the logical thing and crossed to the other side, driving up the intact south-bound roadway.

The scattered wreckage continued the next 50 miles well into Kuwait City, but as we entered the outskirts of town the abandoned autos looked more looted than the victims of combat. Hoods and doors were flung open and tires were gone. Scattered about were other loot, anything from clothes to TVs to a case of doorknobs. We passed empty bunkers and gun emplacement, but very little evidence of fighting. There were a couple of burnt Iraqi tanks, both of them pointing away from the border and into the city, no doubt stopped in full flight.

And at last the signs of life were beginning; indeed, flourishing. The homes along the freeway showed much activity, and cars began appearing along the freeways and side streets. Flags fluttered from numerous buildings-the red, white, black and green of Kuwait, the white graffiti on green of Saudi Arabia, British union jacks, French tricolors, and of course the stars and stripes. There are armed soldiers of all nationalities on every street corner, parked in armored cars and manning roadblocks. But the civilians greatly outnumber them. As we made our way to the downtown hotel, we passed lots of looted and burned buildings, but the overall impression was not so much of a dead city, but one very much come back to life.

Again, may luck is holding and my timing remains impeccable. We walked into the hotel at high noon,, and learned that the elevator had just been reactivated. Power has been restored to the hotel, the cause of much rejoicing. Mike and I had barely gotten the Land Cruiser unloaded (with the help of 4 Filipino bellboys) when we were handed a Hi-8 weenie-cam and told to go shoot a press conference with the crown prince of Kuwait. Since I had played with one in Dhahran and Mike hadn't, I became the shooter. All went well until the camera fell off the tripod. But we did get a sound bite out of the deal.

Once we got back with the tape, it was time for introductions. A few of the "Dirty Thirty" were old acquaintances, and it was good to be remembered. But even the people I just met were genuinely warm and friendly. I got a rundown on the editing decks, a briefing on the feed station, a tour of the camera gear. It was the end of the workday and crews were just settling in, and the socializing was getting into high gear. I was struck by the camaraderie of the crew; they all seemed to get along and work as a team. At last, I'm where I want to be.

"...that morning
a booby-trapped car
had been discovered
parked out in front."

Outside, the Kuwait social hour was also in full swing. The waterfront boulevard just below our window is the scene of the daily parade, which begins right after evening prayers. The honking of horns is understandable, but the constant gunfire is rather disturbing. Those bullets have to come down somewhere, and some have landed on the hotel roof where we have our live cameras.

After dark, I tagged along with Mitch from Beijing and Styke from Chicago to learn the live shot set-up. They got set with camera and lights, then we got the word the shot was cancelled. That was no surprise--the surprise came when two bottles fell from nowhere and shattered in the darkness about twenty-five feet from where we were standing. We figured they were tossed from one of the hotel windows above, but what we didn't know was whether or not they were aimed at us.

Our jumpiness is justifiable. On our way to the roof we had spoken briefly with two of the marine guards at the hotel. They are buddies of Mitch, and they had an unofficial word of caution for us, on deep background and not for attribution. It would be a good idea, they suggested, that we check under the hood and in the wheel wells of any vehicle we got into before we started it and drove off. Our hotel is situated directly across the street from the U.S. Embassy, and that morning a booby-trapped car had been discovered parked out in front.

It was a sobering reminder that this city is still an armed camp. The fleeing Iraqis left behind all sorts of weapons that were there for the taking in the chaotic days following the liberation. The tracer rounds glowing against the night sky emphasized the fact that lots of folks out there were still armed to the teeth. "Watch yourself," one marine told us, "these people are hotheads."


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