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MONDAY, MARCH 18, 1991
Kuwait City

Yesterday was a day of stark contrasts. It began at the Central Bank of Kuwait, and an interview with the with the Governor (as the bank director is called.) He also happens to be a sheikh. The building itself is built like a fortress, the kind you would expect Beau Geste to be defending with the Foreign Legion. Of course it was cement rather than mud walls, with arabesque bas-relief and ornate grillwork barring every window. This bastion stood untouched, which seemed peculiar compared to the bombed and gutted buildings scattered around it in downtown Kuwait.

The pre-war Kuwaiti Dinar, Arabic side
Prewar Kuwaiti Dinar, Arabic side
Prewar Kuwaiti Dinar, English side
The pre-war Kuwaiti Dinar, English side
The post-war Kuwaiti Dinar, Arabic side
Postwar Kuwaiti Dinar, Arabic side
Postwar Kuwaiti Dinar, English side
The post-war Kuwaiti Dinar, English side
The interior, too, was unscathed, remarkable given the opulence inside. Marble floors, paneled walls, inlaid wood display tables trimmed in what appeared to be gold leaf. Inside one of the sitting rooms in his lavish office suite, the sheikh told us his sad tale: the Iraqis came and took his gold, every last ounce. 900 million dollars worth. This must have satisfied them, because they left everything else untouched. But what of the elaborate security precautions to keep them out of the building, not to mention the vault? Alas, they got the combination. From someone.... No, it was impossible to show us the empty vault--security considerations, you understand. But the computer system, the terminals, the spools of tape, all the records, even the office furniture escaped harm. We were allowed to film this as we pleased. And when the brand new Kuwaiti currency arrived from the printer in London, we would be invited back for a press conference where the new dinar would be revealed. Before we left, we took a peek inside the boardroom, with its grand table and plush chairs where the bank directors made momentous decisions regarding their missing 900 million dollars.

The afternoon provided an interesting side trip. From the bank parking lot, we noticed a cloud of smoke rising from an abandoned building a few blocks away. Curiosity and a nose for news dictated that we swing by. What we found was a deserted shopping arcade, one building hit by a bomb once upon a time, the rest looted and wrecked. And the basement of one of the shops was on fire. Loud popping noises were heard down the stairwell as thick, black, acrid smoke poured out. And so did human voices, oddly enough. To our surprise, two men emerged, choking and rubbing their eyes. They spoke no English, but made it clear that they needed help to put out this fire. Only problem was there were no working phones anywhere around. So our reporter Tom Mintier ran to the car for our walkie-talkie, and radioed to the hotel that a fire truck was needed. Then Jane and I went to work--shooting the fire. It was a stringer's dream1--a burning building all to ourselves. After about fifteen minutes we heard a lonely siren, then the truck appeared with several news crews in hot pursuit. What ensued was a Keystone Kops routine as they pulled hoses and turned them on, only to find them full of holes. Then the water ran out. Soon another tank truck arrived, and with the help of several civilians and two U.S. Army Rangers who happened by, they finally got the fire under control, no thanks to all the camera crews getting in the way.

The evening was scheduled for another interview, this one with an anchorman for Kuwaiti TV, who had worked to keep broadcasting while Iraqi troops rolled into town. The TV station presented an eerie scene in the gathering dusk. Wrecked cars and demolished barricades surrounded the building, and the holes blasted by artillery shells were visible in the upper stories. We picked our way through broken glass and plaster, and found our way into an empty control room: empty of equipment, empty of people. A layer of dust and grit covered everything, a sign of months of neglect. Eventually we tracked down a couple of living souls, who were operating one patched-together radio broadcast booth. But we had missed our interview; at sundown he left to break his fast, and wasn't due back until 8 p.m. The first day of Ramadan was already taking its toll on our news coverage, and the predictions of missed meetings and cancelled appointments were already coming true. Rather than wait, perhaps in vain, for two hours, we too left to get our dinner and try again another day.

Our reporter, on the drive back, made much of his previous experience as a cameraman, partly to justify his constant supervision of Jane's shooting. In return, he encouraged us to make editorial contributions to the content of our stories. In the pecking order of news crews, it's the sound man's job to shut up and listen. But at this invitation, I decided to make a comment.

Wasn't it curious, I pointed out, the stark contrast between the bank and the TV station? At one place there had been a pitched battle; at the other the Iraqis had waltzed right in--and out again, to hear them tell it. The whole story seemed fishy to me. I felt compelled to mention that a good number of bank robberies are inside jobs, that the chaos of an invasion was too convenient a set-up for the disappearance of an entire treasury. Far-fetched, our muckraking reporter replied. The bankers were clearly forced to turn over all their money to the Iraqis. The Iraqis needed the bank intact, and that's why it was left untouched. But the TV station was useless to them, so it was destroyed.

I didn't bother to point out his inverted logic: that once they had the gold they didn't need the bank, while a TV transmitter is always a valuable tool. After all, it's his name at the end of the story, not mine. But it bothers me that we are all too often taking the official version without question. One day the Iraqis are stupid and brutal, the next day they're cunning and clever. And in this case, they were both in the same day.

Today was another wild goose chase, again thanks to Ramadan. Everyone's schedule is turned upside down, and we spent a fruitless morning in search of a story. We were supposed to track down a doctor who is doing a study of the air quality from the oil well fires, but a search of three different hospitals failed to turn him up. I didn't mind, though; I slept in the back seat of the car most of the time.

And it was a day to sleep. The smoke was the worst it's been in the city for days. The rumor going around among the press is that it's the equivalent of smoking a thousand cigarettes a day. All I know is that it made me lethargic.

But without a story, I had an afternoon off, so I decided to get up the energy to go souvenir hunting. Some of the crews had brought in nifty wooden ammo boxes they had found abandoned along the beach, so I decided to try my luck. The only problem is that the beach is still heavily mined. I watched my step as I poked around through the empty bunkers and trenches. It was fascinating to see the fortifications constructed to repel an amphibious landing that never came. It was also amazing to see all the explosives still left lying around on the waterfront. Unused mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades were scattered by the dozens. Inside one brick pillbox I found what I was looking for--and a little extra. It was a perfect specimen of the kind of box I was looking for, only it was still chock full of perfectly good RPGs. I looked them over carefully, with their unintelligible Russian markings, wondering if I could safely unload them. Discretion being my better part, I left them and the box untouched. Later I found a weather-beaten but conveniently empty case at the marina, so I lugged it home. Back at the hotel, the guys with the good boxes said, yeah, sure, their boxes had been full too, but they had gently unloaded them. I think I like my box just fine.


LATE SUNDAY NIGHT, MARCH 18

After the gossip about someone hoarding alcohol, came a strange turn of events. As I was screening tapes Sunday evening, Jane whispered to me that there was a surprise awaiting outside the office, in the part of the lobby reserved as our smoking lounge. The surprise turned out to be a treat-Fawzi had brought in a fifth of vodka to share on the first evening of Ramadan. So half a dozen of us who had gotten the word slipped out with our cans of tomato juice and discreetly mixed ourselves some Bloody Marys. It was superb. Other CNN staffers drifted by and were each given a taste until the bottle was almost gone. It was a much better use of the stuff than hoarding it in a room. I presented Fawzi with a pack of Marlboros2 out of gratitude. He graciously accepted the gift. It's amusing that the locals will fast during the day to purify their bodies, then smoke and drink as soon as the sun goes down. Well, what's the point of purifying if you don't need it?

1Editor's note, 2011: A "stringer" is a freelance journalist who gets paid by the piece, selling footage to every network that missed the story. Anywhere in the world, a burning building is news director's dream. We are all pyromaniacs at heart.

2Editor's note, 2011: I have never been a cigarette smoker, but I had taken to carrying around a pack of American smokes to offer for trade or favors. Okay, full disclosure: I would occasionally puff on one offered by a new Arab acquaintance, because to decline would have been rude. But I actually preferred my pipe. Someone had left it behind in Dhahran with a pouch of tobacco, and I picked it up out of sheer boredom. Once I got to Kuwait, pipe smoke was the least of the health hazards to worry about.


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© 2011 Chuck Afflerbach for The Hick Town Times