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

Kuwait City

Kuwait City exists in limbo. Downtown sits on a small peninsula jutting into the bay, and our hotel rises 18 floors above the waterfront. When the smoke comes in, the gray water blends with gray sky to remove the horizon; the effect is a city suspended in the void.

Kuwait City on a good day...
Sunny Kuwait Skyline
...and a bad day.
Smoky Kuwait Skyline

Yesterday the water stopped flowing. After a week of indulgence, we were all caught unprepared, our bathtubs unfilled. Life is far from normal here; we just get used to it. The regular rumble of explosions is barely noticed, just the routine clearing of unexploded bombs. Every now and then a big blast from close by will rattle the windows, and our nerves. My reaction is always "Earthquake!" and my reflex to look for the nearest doorway or sturdy table for protection. But by the time the shaking has stopped we are laughing it off with some lame joke about tourists on the beach.

After our overnight excursion, Sean and I were given a light day Monday; we went back in search of the same government official we had missed on Friday, and again with the same results. The soldier guarding his gate probably has standing orders to tell everyone he just left. So we went back to the bureau without even a story to edit that day. Life has gotten much easier since a new full-time editor arrived this weekend from Dhahran. He's anxious for the work, and I'm anxious to give it to him. I spent my free afternoon and most of the evening chatting with Rob and Chester, who had come in while I was off to the Easter services. We had three weeks of gossip and tall tales to catch up on.

And I also spent a few hours putting together my contribution to the CNN music video library. It is tradition on these long-running assignments to edit the best footage to a soundtrack of some popular song, the idea being to evoke the mood of the place with humor and/or irony. It's definitely a practice born of the MTV generation, spawned by boredom. I find these pieces to be overused and trite, but it's expected of every editor these days. And there's already a lot of good work to compete with coming out of this war. For a change of pace away from the themes of war, death, and destruction, I chose an old Fifties rock tune "Summertime Blues," mainly because I happened to have it on tape. And I used the outtakes of various CNN people on the job here--the purpose to make more of a company scrapbook than an essay on man's inhumanity to man. By the time I was done editing a three-minute piece with cuts every one and a half seconds, I was sick of the song, sick of the people, and sick of Kuwait. But the crew liked it.

This morning as my shaving water came to a boil and I chatted with Carolina by phone, I heard that old familiar sound of rushing water--coming through the ceiling from the room upstairs. I hung up with Oakland, alerted the front desk, then called the room above mine. A sleepy woman answered, apologized quickly and went to turn off her faucet.1 I opened the curtains to check the weather, and was greeted by the darkest day we had seen in a while. Tuesday was not off to a good start.

Our assignment was back to the border, usually a welcome drive out where the air is warm and clean. But today the wind had shifted, and we found ourselves heading deeper and deeper into a pitch-black cloud of smoke. In the fifty miles to the border we never saw the sun, and most of the time we drove by headlights. After all the trips we've made up that road, it was odd to have with us someone who had not seen these sights before: our driver, Hamad. Much of the wreckage has been pushed clear of the road, scavenged and graffitied. But to Hamad it was all new, horrific, and fascinating. And a little bit satisfying, I noted, for a civil engineer whose own office had been looted during the occupation. But the tone changed as we climbed out of "Death Valley" to the top of the ridge. "I designed that building..." he almost whispered. We saw a large, flat roof resting on a pile of concrete rubble; that was all. No one knew what to say, least of all Hamad.

When we got to the army camp to pick up our escort, our story for the day changed three times as we talked first to the captain, then the major, then the colonel. We had come to visit one of the new refugee camps mushrooming along the border, but then we heard about a flag-raising ceremony to be held in Kuwaiti land occupied by Iraq. Of course there was a small hitch--300 soldiers of the Republican Guard still held this "liberated" land. So how would we like to watch the demolitions experts clearing cluster bombs?

The threat was immediate and real:
Styke Dimas
I had seen these on the ground before, but never in such numbers. What had once been a peaceful tomato patch now sprouted a deadly bumper crop. The bright yellow cylinders were everywhere, even along the dirt road we carefully drove in on. And living in the middle of this was a family of farmers; the teenage son led the soldiers through the furrows and pointed out the bombs to be marked with bright orange flags. The Iraqis had allegedly stored ammunition on this farm, so it was hit by several attacks. But the weapon of choice is designed to explode when it hits a hard target, like a vehicle or road. So there must have been hundreds of bomblets embedded in the soft sand, waiting patiently to be run over or stepped on.

We took up our camera position a few hundred yards away. Each of the four engineers had set two fuses, timed to go off in two minutes. Then they walked, they did not run, to their jeep and drove deliberately away. I checked my watch and thought, "Gee, only..."

"...Five seconds!" an engineer yelled at us as they pulled alongside. I looked up and a bird flew right past the camera and chirped brightly in my headphones. Then my eardrums ruptured. Not once, but eight times in quick succession. I learned a little too late that if you're going to point a microphone at a bomb blast, you shouldn't wear a headset.

But all this sound and fury is only a small part due to the actual cluster bomb; most of the explosion comes from the plastic explosive used to set it off. There's two reasons for this. First of all, once they go to all the trouble to find the bombs and detonate them, they want to make sure they don't have to go back and do it again. And secondly, these guys are in the demolition business because they like big bangs.

On our way home, we swung by the refugee camps to check out the latest developments. In the past four days, over 200 bright blue and orange tents had sprung up along the highway, courtesy of the Red Cross/Red Crescent. There were still twice that many shanties and lean-tos at the original site, but this new camp had a bright, almost happy look to it in contrast to the squalor next door. The other new feature, alongside the women and children begging in the road, were men waving money at the passing cars. I looked more closely and realized they were waving Iraqi 25-dinar notes--the ones with the picture of Saddam Hussein. These are coveted souvenirs among the Americans; indeed, I had been coveting them myself for quite a while. Against Mark's wishes (reporter Mark Dulmage-ed.) and much to his disgust, I made Hamad stop the car so I could haggle. The first fellow told me in plain English he wanted twenty dollars or a carton of Marlboros! I had four packs of Kools to offer him, but now Hamad also got upset. "Keep your cigarettes," he told me, "I have some of those at home I'll give you." He didn't realize that I don't actually smoke, and that Kools are as worthless to me as Saddam money is to these refugees.

But it did raise questions I couldn't answer or ignore, the sight of these relatively healthy and rather indolent young men wheeling and dealing for cigarettes. All their food and water is handed to them free by some government (other than their own.) They have nothing to do and nowhere to go; is there anything left for them but to make babies and trouble?

When we got back to town, Atlanta didn't even want our story today. They were still running Mark's carry-over piece from the day before Easter, the report on the mood of the troops still in the desert. The star of that package was a stray puppy named "T-Bone" adopted by a soldier. It turns out the G.I. didn't have the $600 fee required to take the dog back to the States. So forget about the daily reports about thousands of destitute refugees streaming out of the war zone; show a homeless puppy and the phone starts ringing off the hook with people wanting to donate.

Mark, Sean, and I didn't laugh, but we didn't cry either. In fact, we had predicted it. It may not seem fair or even normal, but you get used to it.

1Editor's note, 2011: With the water flow intermittent and unpredictable, hotel residents had taken to opening the tap and closing the bathtub drain to catch it when it came. The trick was being there to shut it off once the tub was full. My room was flooded from above more than once during my stay.

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

© 2011 Chuck Afflerbach for The Hick Town Times