Kuwait: The Last Forty-Eight Hours

Sheikh al-Sabah
Sheikh al-Sabah; drawing by David Levine

Just beyond Jahra, a satellite town of the cheap, two-storied houses favored by Kuwait’s one-time army of Arab and Asian “guest workers,” the highway northward to Basra narrows from six lanes to four. A concrete divide separates incoming from departing traffic. During the night of February 25, when the Iraqis at last gave the order for their troops to leave Kuwait, the heavy concrete blocks dividing and narrowing the road funneled the escaping Iraqi army and Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians accompanying it into a lethal killing zone.

How many died at the hands of the allies that awful, pitch-black night is impossible to say. Certainly thousands. More than two weeks later, British and American burial parties unceremoniously shoveled whatever human remains they could find into mass graves. There were few, if any, survivors. When I recently visited Kuwait on a mission for Human Rights Watch, no one I talked to doubted that Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians were among those who died on the night of February 25. I was told by gravediggers in the allied forces that some of the corpses were dressed in civilian clothes. But without a final accounting of the 5,400 Kuwaitis said by the Kuwaiti government still to be missing, we will not be able to identify the civilians who were killed on the road.

I saw the first signs of the carnage on the Sixth Ringroad, the outermost layer of this city of circumambient layers. Iraqi T-54 and T-62 tanks stand silently by the roadside, gun barrels pointing impotently skyward; burntout trucks lie on their sides; abandoned cars litter the verges, some lie on their roofs. One consequence of the seven-month-long Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and its liberation is that much of Kuwait City has been turned into a scrap heap.

I had been told about the extensive damage visible on the road, but nothing prepared me for the utter devastation a few miles ahead, where the highway rises gently toward the Mitlaa customs post. To judge by the intact street lamps, as well as by the heatblasted wrecks piled crazily one on top of another, the US Navy fighters responsible for much of the slaughter must have used a combination of fuelair explosives and cluster bombs against the hopelessly snarled convoy of vehicles attempting to leave the city. In awesome testimony to the allies’ firepower, the trail of destruction stretches a full thirty miles along the road toward the border, and fans out into the desert as far as the eye can see. “It must have been the nearest thing to hell that can be imagined,” said Lt. Commander Gareth Derryck of the British Royal Navy, one of the first allied officers to arrive on the scene.

In the euphoria of victory, the fact that innocent civilians were killed on the night of February 25 has been passed over in silence by the Pentagon. Queasy…

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