journal home table of contents previous entry next entry comments/contact

Kuwait City

The past two days were long, hectic hours, but they began well enough--to the glorious sound of sweet, flowing water. No matter that it was ice cold, I plunged in with abandon and washed my hair and most of my body for the first time in days. The soot and oil ran thick in the drain, and after it was gone I filled the tub with a two-day supply.1 (A wise precaution, it turned out, in light of subsequent events.) Meanwhile, my pitcher of shaving water was boiling over a sterno can, so I luxuriated in a hot shave. I celebrated the occasion with a change of clean clothes, and rode in splendor in an electrically powered elevator to the hotel lobby, and as I stepped out a fellow with a British accent stopped me dead in my tracks.

"Pardon me," he asked, "but where do I take breakfast here in the hotel?"

I blinked and stared; where had this guy come from, and how could he show up without knowing he had to bring his own food? I stammered that there weren't any restaurants open anywhere in town, and he answered, "Oh."

"That day was spent
in line--
in bread lines,
water lines,
and gas lines."

That day was spent in line--in bread lines, water lines, and gas lines. But we were only shooting them, unlike the thousands of hungry, thirsty citizens who were out of gas. We visited the Hawalli neighborhood which is predominantly Palestinian, so it is a misnomer to call these people citizens. But they still have to eat, and the Kuwaiti government has to feed them. Three hours in line got them each 3 loaves of pita bread; another line for a sack of rice, cooking oil and some cans of coffee. An American camera crew is still a novelty, and a woman photographer quite a curiosity. The women usually hid their faces when we pointed their way, but the men stared like startled deer ready to bolt for safety. And naturally a pack of children followed us everywhere.

At the head of the line all was pandemonium with the classic images of arguing, shoving, pleading and gesticulating. Jane, as hard-charging as ever, just plowed right in, and I was hard-pressed to keep up in my tangle of mic cables.2 Though I speak no Arabic, I certainly understood the oft-spoken phrase "CNN." We sought out English speakers, and others found us. Many complained of the postwar conditions, but were equally reluctant to blame anyone, especially a government that graciously allows them to stay in its borders.3 In the end we saw much and learned little more than we knew when we started: the country is still in a shambles.

As zahahfi, we took our place in the front of the gas line, and our driver filled the Land Cruiser while Mark Dulmage shot his stand-up. He's a no-nonsense ex-Marine, now heading the Rome bureau. Intentional or not, his stand-up was an ironic inside joke; he reported with straight face that life in Kuwait is now spent in line, except for the privileged few who go first everywhere.

Thursday was my day to go on the double shift, teching by day and editing by night. After doing the bread line piece, I rounded out the evening with a wrap-up of the big event of the day: the return of the Emir of Kuwait. His reception, though full of pomp and ceremony, was attended by what could be considered a sparse crowd. Except for bodyguards and journalists. The stories by the returning crews made it sound like a donnybrook, and the footage would seem to bear this out. But beyond the hardcore press corps, no one else seems to want him back.

Friday we left early, in search of adventure up on the Iraq border. Our reporter this time was Richard Blystone, who works in London. He arrived in town the day after I did and was anxious for a look around, so I was happy to be along for the ride. As we headed north out of the city, the modern trappings fell away alongside the highway, and the true desert setting emerged. More sand, with a type of sagebrush sparsely scattered about. I noticed a few adobe-like houses under what few trees grew in the barren ground. Indeed, the scene was very reminiscent of the Texas-Mexico border along the Rio Grande. Except for the headgear and flowing robes, the farmers and herders could easily pass for Mexican peons.

"...the ragtag Iraqi retreat
ended in a traffic jam,
and that's when
American air superiority
made itself felt..."

We approached the only relief to that flat expanse, a ridge of rock and sand called Mudiyah. This might have been of interest in itself, but its height was overshadowed by what lay at its foot. The mile-long grade reaching to its summit is what has been labeled "the killing field." At this chokepoint the ragtag Iraqi retreat ended in a traffic jam, and that's when American air superiority made itself felt with awful might. The scene of mangled vehicles has been photographed and described by every passing journalist in the past two weeks, so we didn't stop. But weaving through the craters in the road, I observed what I could. The wreckage had been pushed to either side of the road, and the bodies long since hauled away. What was left was scrap and clearly people had already been through scavenging what they could. Not a single tire was left, for they are priceless commodities in Kuwait and Iraq. And just as on the southern border, civilian vehicles far outnumbered the tanks and transports. The numbers are anyone's guess, surely in the hundreds if not thousands. But what of the passengers? How many died in their vehicles, and how many fled before the destruction began? And were they all soldiers--or was it a rout of Iraqi civilians, families, Palestinians and sympathizers too?* Did they stand a chance, or were they cut down as they ran? And was any of it necessary? There were no answers as we sped by.

At the top of the ridge, another burning oil field. It was Blystone's first view of these fires, so we stopped to shoot some tape. Then we finally hit the border, through the bombed-out village of Safwan and past the refugees living in Red Cross tents. In the streets young children block the road, pointing to their mouths with one hand and reaching out with the other in pleas for food. Then came the end of the road-at least for Americans who value their safety. A couple of tanks and armored cars formed a checkpoint bustling with activity. So here we went to work.

"Everyone had
a story to tell,
in Arabic
or broken English."

The army colonel briefed us on camera: his mission was to interdict and destroy all weapons going either way across the border. We watched car after car being searched, a steady flow of locals all desperate to get from one side to the other. The vehicles came in all descriptions, and so did the passengers. Farmers with truckloads of onions and tomatoes, peasants with chickens and goats, families with old people and young crowded in with all their belongings. Everyone had a story to tell, in Arabic or broken English. And everyone was a civilian, put upon by the Iraqis, a friend of America. A few weapons were found, confiscated, and destroyed with thermite bombs. Anyone carrying a military uniform was turned around and sent back to Iraq. Deserters begged to surrender; they were told there was no more war and their fate awaited them back where they had come from.

We spent four hours at the checkpoint, shooting almost two hours of tape. It was good stuff, only too much of it. Once we got back, Dick wrote his script--or rather two of them. First, a short essay on the beauty and horror of the oil fires. That was done after dinner. Then the hard part--cutting the border story into a concise report. This proved more of a problem. The piece ran three and a half minutes, and took 3 hours to edit. By 3 a.m. I was bleary-eyed and frustrated--too much good stuff and none of it fitting. I kept a producer and engineer up patiently biding their time while I agonized over two-second shots. There is no way to be pleased with a piece like that even after you get it done. But by 3:30 I called it quits and staggered off to bed--up 17 flights of darkened stairs.

Saturday morning I slept in, got up and did my laundry with my carefully hoarded bathtub supply of water. I went on the balcony to hang things out to dry, and discovered a magnificent scene--bright blue skies and clear aqua seas. It turned out to be a lovely day all around, hanging out in the bureau with nothing to do. A long phone call home helped relieve some homesickness, and in the afternoon the supply truck arrived--our first load of food and water since the Saudi border was closed on Wednesday. Among the provisions, fresh steaks, charcoal and barbecue grills. Tonight is the eve of Ramadan, the month of fasting and prayer, and the occasion is welcomed first with a big feast. Our whole crew will be participating at the home of Abdullah, one of our translators. It should be some much-needed fun and relaxation... except for the one lonely soul who has to stay behind and edit the late packages.

*Author's note, 1991: Perhaps some casualties were Kuwaitis taken hostage by the invaders and being bussed into Iraq. There are still a few thousand Kuwaitis missing and unaccounted for.

bathtub water supply
Kuwait water supply
1Editor's note, 2011: The water from the tap was fine for bathing and shaving and washing clothes, but not for drinking. It was also necessary for the toilet; we had to scoop a bucketfull from the bathtub and fill the toilet tank before we could flush our troubles away.

2Editor's note, 2011: In those days before wireless microphones, the sound technician's mics were connected by cables to a sound mixer strapped to the technician's chest. That mixer was attached by an umbilical cord to the back of the videographer's camera. Wherever the shooter went, the sound tech had to follow.

3Editor's note, 2011: Things were looking grim for Palestinians in Kuwait at that time. Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization had sided with Saddam during the conflict. During the next few months, as many as 400,000 Palestinians would be forced to leave Kuwait.


The big barbecue went well, and it was good for the whole gang to get together and cut loose. Our Kuwaiti hosts semed amused by the hi-jinks and fun that went on, and joined in with enthusiasm. Life of the party was the garrulous Chris Turner, who led a video camera tour of the gathering while Todd Baxter did the shooting. Everybody got their chance to squirm under the lights, an unnerving experience for most of us used to being on the other side of the lens. And to his credit, our supervising producer John Towriss shut the bureau down and made sure everyone went to the party. John commands the respect of everyone on the staff with his calm, reasoned way of getting things done. He has an experienced core of veterans working with him on this job, and their closeness makes things go much more smoothly. It's lucky to join a group like that, and to their credit they have never treated me like an outsider. Any distance between them and me is what I put there--but a given, considering the fact that I am new to the scene and not outgoing by nature.

But there was one hint of dissatisfaction in the ranks; a rumor swept the elevator this evening that one of our reporters had obtained a substantial supply of liquor and was not sharing. This seems incredible, given the circumstances of a dry time for so long here. I suspect that if the cache exists, it is earmarked for later use, most likely as payment for our Kuwaiti arrangers. But it's a situation that can fester if not aired out right away.

The lowdown on Ramadan is intriguing. It is scheduled to begin probably tomorrow evening, if the moon comes up in the right phase of crescent. A bulletin in the lobby advises us that for the next month no one is to eat, drink, or smoke in public during daylight hours. This would seem to roughly correspond with the Christian Lenten tradition. But as often happens, the original intent has been subverted by popular practice. The Muslims here have adapted to the daytime restrictions by staying up all night with their festivities, then sleeping in for most of the day. Thus, for a month, the hours are turned upside down. It can only make our work more difficult as we try to function in a world closed for the holidays.

As our host Fawzi (not the party host, but one of our guides-ed.) drove us back to the hotel through a dark and spooky silent city, I asked him if a Ramadan without electricity would be a Ramadan of a depressing rather than festive atmosphere. He agreed; there was not much hope of having power restored anytime in the next month. Just then we drove up to a checkpoint; procedure is to turn off our headlights and illuminate the car interior so the guards don't get jumpy.

"Zahahfi Amerikahn CNN," Fawzi explained. The soldier answered back with some joke, and he and Fawzi both laughed. I asked for a translation. A little embarrassed, Fawzi explained the guard's comment: "Let them try fasting for a month."

If Allah wills it. Inshallah.

journal home table of contents previous entry next entry comments/contact

© 2011 Chuck Afflerbach for The Hick Town Times