Iraq-Kuwait war trauma is ‘like an open wound’

The 25th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion has brought painful memories back to the surface for many Kuwaitis.

Kuwait trauma
Kuwait's Bayt al-Qurain museum pays tribute to the more than 1,200 people reported to have died for their country [Megan O'Toole/Al Jazeera]

Kuwait City – Ali al-Taibi vividly remembers the day three of his comrades died instantly in an Iraqi missile attack.

It was 25 years ago, and he was in a convoy of soldiers on a supply mission between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He remembers their vehicles speeding through the desert when the Iraqis began closing in, firing a volley of missiles. 

Amid all the chaos and confusion, Taibi remembers thinking what an excellent shot their Iraqi assailant was – he hit his targets repeatedly, despite their speed.

And in an instant, the last vehicle in the convoy was taken out. Taibi and the rest of the soldiers had no choice but to keep driving. They never found out what happened to the bodies of their three fallen comrades. 

It was like a dream, a nightmare. Nobody had all of his senses. We woke the next day and still we were in this nightmare.

by Ali al-Taibi, former soldier

“It was like a dream, a nightmare. Nobody had all of his senses,” Taibi told Al Jazeera. “We woke the next day and still we were in this nightmare.”

TIMELINE: Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, 25 years on

Although 25 years have passed since that day, Taibi says the trauma remains fresh – a sentiment echoed by a number of former soldiers and resistance fighters who spoke to Al Jazeera about the horrors of the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

Thousands of people died during the seven-month conflict, which was sparked by Iraqi debt and a dispute over territorial rights to regional oil fields. Scores more went missing or were imprisoned and tortured during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, which began on August 2, 1990, and continued until coalition forces pushed the Iraqis out on February 26, 1991.

Those who lived through the war have coped in different ways over the past 25 years, noted Ahmed al-Tattan, who manages the Bayt al-Qurain museum, which commemorates the more than 1,200 Kuwaitis reported to have died for their country over the years. The vast majority, approximately 1,000, died during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

“Many of the resistance fighters’ families feel grief, [but they are also] very proud of what their children did, especially as it was their choice – no one forced them,” Tattan told Al Jazeera. “These martyrs chose to die for Kuwait’s sake.”

The museum stands next to the bombed-out remains of one of the homes that came under Iraqi fire during the war. At the time, 19 resistance fighters were holed up in the house, whose occupants had earlier fled the conflict. 

After 10 hours of battle on February 24, 1991 – just two days before Kuwait’s liberation – Iraqi soldiers killed three of the fighters and captured nine others, subjecting them to “all kinds of torture imaginable” before executing them the next day, Tattan said.

When the war ended, Kuwait’s emir declared that the Bayt al-Qurain site should be turned into a museum to remember the sacrifices of those who fell. Tattan was tasked with tracking down the survivors in order to tell their stories, and he keeps in touch with all seven men to this day. Many have coped over the years by focusing on their slain comrades’ role in history, he said.

“They’ve been quite strong, because they are proud of what they did during this battle. They were happy to help Kuwait,” he said, adding the museum plays a key role in keeping the memories of such battles alive.

“This house is still here, and we have to keep it for the next generation to see,” he said. “Without such places, it is hard for young people to understand what happened – how Kuwaitis sacrificed themselves [to try to break] the Iraqi occupation.”

During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, Saad Hamdan Sharar al-Khatlan spent months in Iraqi custody, where he endured brutal torture [Megan O'Toole/Al Jazeera]
During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, Saad Hamdan Sharar al-Khatlan spent months in Iraqi custody, where he endured brutal torture [Megan O’Toole/Al Jazeera]

For others, such as former soldier and resistance fighter Saad Hamdan Sharar al-Khatlan, there has been no glory. His role as part of a local resistance group during the Gulf War was to rig remote-controlled cars with explosives; his devices killed dozens of Iraqi soldiers as his group pushed to end the occupation.

“I felt my country was slipping away from me,” Khatlan told Al Jazeera. “I saw tanks filling the roads. I heard bombing, crying, ambulances, clashes, everything… I saw killings. The Iraqi soldiers arrested many Kuwaitis, many officers.”

One day, Khatlan packed a car with explosives and sent it to a local hotel, where 36 Iraqi officers and six military experts were meeting. All of them died. 

Khatlan quickly became a wanted man.

About five months into the war, Iraqi forces arrested Khatlan and took him to a Kuwaiti zoo, where they held him in chains connected to heavy gas cylinders to ensure he could not run away. For two weeks, they tortured him. “They put electric wires on my hand to shock me,” Khatlan said. “They removed my fingernails, beat my legs.”

Khatlan says he was later moved to Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where he was swiftly sentenced to death by firing squad. After the court imposed his sentence, Khatlan says Iraqi guards taunted him by tossing into his cell the black bag that is placed over a prisoner’s head prior to execution.

RELATED: The day Kuwait would rather forget 

“Abu Ghraib was a psychological prison. I went for days with no food… I just drank dirty water. I was alone in a small cell, about 2 metres by 1.5 metres, with a small window with three bars over it and a view of the desert,” he said. “When they fed us, they gave only bread. I would break the bread into small pieces and put it on the window. When a bird came to eat it, I would grab the bird and kill it [and cook it using a lighter].” 

Khatlan’s life was spared when Red Cross workers entered the prison in March 1991 and freed him. Reuniting with his family after his prison ordeal felt like being granted “a new life”, he said.

Ali al-Taibi lost three comrades in an Iraqi missile attack [Megan O'Toole/Al Jazeera]
Ali al-Taibi lost three comrades in an Iraqi missile attack [Megan O’Toole/Al Jazeera]

In the years since, however, Khatlan says no Kuwaiti official has ever shown appreciation for the role he played in repelling the Iraqis. All that has helped him cope over the past 25 years has been his faith: “I believe strongly in God [and he saved me].”

No matter how many decades elapse, Khatlan says he will never forget what happened, nor forgive the Iraqis for what they did.

“Every year on August 2, I remember the whole thing – what happened to me, and what happened to Kuwait,” he said. “I remember my friends who died, the bombs… I tried to save a man and he died in my car. I have colleagues in prison who were executed by the Iraqis in front of my eyes.”

For Taibi as well, the 25th anniversary of the invasion has forced him to relive painful memories that will stay with him forever. 

“The 2nd of August is a wound,” he said. “During the year we forget this wound, but as we get closer to that date, it is like someone opens this wound up again.”

Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole

Source: Al Jazeera