My recent trip to Kuwait took me to the usual round of energy, oil and investment companies, but before we went to the airport having spent less than 24 hours in the country, our taxi driver insisted on giving us a quick tour of the main sights.
We went round the gleaming and impressive mosques, spanking new skyscrapers in the business district, a few traditional old dhows still lurking in the port. We passed the parliament, and Ali reminded us that his country was still the only true democracy in the Middle East. It is a moot point. The parliament can certainly wield the axe to new legislation, if the delicate networks of checks and balances are not successfully negotiated. But it remains an Islamic democracy, and corruption is frequently alleged when the passage of a bill needs to be oiled.
We ended up at the fabulous blue round telecoms towers that have become emblematic of the new state. Ali said he would like to take us to the Iraq war museum. As the flight was getting near, we said it would have to be quick; but he insisted there was no rush hour traffic, so we went.
It is a bijoux little building, next door to a theatre which has an incongruous gold stretch limo outside it. It looks like Goldfinger has taken his revenge on the car population, which clogs up the streets in rush hour. Cars can be driven virtually for free because petrol is heavily subsidised.
The museum looked rather dusty, and we could see a cartoon model of a Dr Strangelove type bomb inside the building, and outside there was the rusting ochre of an artillery weapon of some sort. I am sure many visitors who sells arms to the emirate feel a warm glow of recognition when they pass such guns, but I must admit I had no idea what it would have been used for; it looked more like something out of World War II and with its sights pointing up at the sky, I imagine it had some kind of anti-aircraft function.
A month or two earlier I had met an Irish lady while skiing in the Alps; for the sake of this blog, I will call her Ciara*. She had told me over gluhwein how she had escaped the clutches of Saddam Hussein after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1991. Her soldier husband was enjoying the challenging black slopes, and my son and companion were enjoying being able to ski at full speed, without my halting but inevitable snow-plough.
Ciara had arrived back in Kuwait on August 1, 1991 from a holiday in Kenya; and the Iraqis had invaded the next day. What bad timing, I said, and she nodded regretfully. They had battened down the hatches, cooking on small primus stoves in a single apartment in the block where they lived; the expatriates had clustered together in the flat, sleeping on beds, sofas and floors. The women had set up a make-shift school, and taught the kids, ensuring a routine in what must have been frightening circumstances. Days passed. There was no electricity, so the summer heat — which reaches 50-55 degrees C at the hottest period of the year — must have been unbearable. Finally, the inevitable knock on the door was heard.
They had seen the Iraqi troops enter the building by peeping through the permanently drawn blinds, and had heard their boots clacking as they ascended each floor, knocked and then battered down the doors of the apartments. Ciara said the first soldiers to arrive had been polite and well-disciplined; “professional soldiers,” she had said, with the respect that people who kill other often have for each other. “Not like the squaddies who followed”.
They had tried to separate the men from the women and children, but Ciara’s husband had refused; and the Iraqi officer had given way meekly. They were bundled into a convoy of trunks, and driven for hours in relentless heat up through the border and into Baghdad.
My impression was that they were treated well. A benign and smiling Saddam met them in the evening, shook hands in front of the television, anything but the monster that he was reputed to be.
The rest is already well known from news reels at the time. A youngster had his birthday, I forget if he was two or three years, but Saddam dandled him on his lap and made a fuss of him, as the child looked with big anxious eyes at his nervous parents. Then Saddam said he should be released, and soon the “benign dictator” was freeing the other children, and then their parents.
At this point, the story was broken up by returning skiers; but I recalled Ciara’s extraordinary tale when I was at the museum, which still was pocked by bullets from the invasion.