Published: 06 October 2005
Back at Safwan, the empty clover-leaf motorway interchange had transformed itself from Western-normal to Eastern-terrible; drifting down the highway towards us came the damned. Some were Iraqi soldiers, others frightened women, many were wounded. Around us flowed a mass of huddled, shuffling figures, many crying, others throwing themselves into the motorway ditches to sleep.
Hundreds of Kuwaitis kidnapped in the last hours of the occupation but newly freed by the Basra insurgents were now on the road with terrible stories of hospitals crammed with the dead and dying. One of them was a pharmacist and former Kuwaiti MP called Ahmed Baktiar. He had been taken to Basra hospital to help the wounded men and women littered across the floors, he said.
"A young man just died in front of me. The tanks were coming and they were firing straight into the houses on each street, reducing the houses to ashes. There are lots of people dying of a strange sickness. Some think it's because they have to drink the water lying in the streets which is contaminated. Others say it's because the water in Basra now contains oil from the smoke over the city."
And all the while, the tide of sick and starving and frightened people shuffled past us. Some came in hand-pushed carts, old men and babies with filthy blankets thrown over them, and I thought of the medieval carts that went from house to house when the Great Plague struck Europe, collecting the dead. Some of the people in these carts were dead. There were two television crews pointing their lenses at close range into the faces of the refugees, and I noticed how, for once, the faces did not react to the cameras. It was as if every face was also dead.
Two US embassy officials were standing beside a station wagon along with a senior American officer. "We can't have them just all coming down here," one of the embassy men said to Staff Sergeant Nolde of the 1st Armored Division. "They can't cross the border. We have no facilities to handle this. They've got to go back."
I noticed Fred Cuny, an American aid official, standing beside the embassy men, listening in silence. "Look, you've got to stop them moving down this road," the embassy man was saying. "It's tragic, I know that, but we simply don't have the facilities for them." Cuny asked if extra first-aid tents couldn't be erected for the refugees, and the embassy man sighed. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Liberation, a clean victory - and now this mess. And on television. You could see his problem. "You've got to stop them, Sergeant," the embassy man repeated. The officer joined in. "Iraqi agents could infiltrate back into Kuwait among the refugees."
But suddenly, there on this cold, damp, hellish road, all the bright sunlight of what was best about America - all the hope and compassion and humanity that Americans like to believe they possess - suddenly shone among us. For the young, tired 1st Armored staff sergeant turned angrily on the man from the US embassy. "I'm sorry, sir. But if you're going to give me an order to stop these people, I can't do that. They are coming here begging, old women crying, sick children, boys begging for food. We're already giving them most of our rations. But I have to tell you, sir, that if you give me an order to stop them, I just won't do that."
You could see the embassy men wince. First it was these pesky folk cluttering up the highway, then the television cameras, and now a soldier who wouldn't obey orders. But Sergeant Nolde just turned his back on the diplomat and walked over to a queue of refugee cars. "Tell these people to park at the side of the road over there," he yelled at the soldiers on his checkpoint. "Tell them to be patient but we'll try to look after them. Don't send them back."
Around Nolde, two famished Iraqi families, the women in filthy black chadors, the children barefooted, the men's faces dazed, were sitting in the dirt, tearing open the American military ration packs with their nails, scoffing the cold lumps of stew, pouring the contents of the sauce packets into their mouths. Across the cold sand, Nolde's soldiers had already helped to house an Iraqi woman and five children.
Their story was simple and terrible. Their father had been executed for refusing to join the Republican Guard, their mother raped afterwards. The children were taken by their aunt southwards towards the American lines and here they all were now, squatting in an abandoned electricity shed. The Americans were feeding them, and had found four puppy dogs and a small, gentle-faced donkey which they had given to the grimy children.
Now a line of battered cars was driving steadily towards Nolde's position, packed with fearful civilians. Many had not eaten for days. The men were unshaven, the women in tears, the children had urinated in the car in the long journey across a devastated Iraq. Whole families were crying for civilian relatives killed in the allied air assault. Their convoy stank. A little girl was held out of the window of an old black Mercedes by a screaming woman. The child's body was jerking grotesquely, the convulsions about to kill her. This was not quite what the generals in Riyadh had been thinking about when they announced their days of "battlefield preparation' and 'communications interdiction".
Nolde ordered one of his men to run down the line of cars. "Where is the car with the sick child?" the soldier kept shouting in English, until someone translated his question into Arabic. There was a wail from the Mercedes. "Get a medic down here, fast," the soldier ordered.
Two more Americans arrived, a big, black soldier who took the little girl into his arms and touched her brow. "Oh, Jesus, she's having a fit," he said. "Tell the field hospital we're coming down with her." The stricken child, together with her distraught mother, was taken from the car. Nolde arrived to order the vehicle out of the column. "Tell the rest of the family we need to search their vehicle then they can go and wait by the Red Cross truck," he said. Nolde and his 12 soldiers of the 1st Armored handed out more of their own rations. There would be no medals for performing these duties. And with good reason. For a conflict of interest was becoming apparent. That is why the American officer and the US diplomats had arrived to inspect Nolde's position. The newly returned and "legitimate" government of Kuwait - on whose behalf the Americans had gone to war - had no desire to see these refugees given sanctuary in Kuwait.
The officer even muttered into Nolde's ear the following revealing sentence: "We had an Iraqi soldier give himself up near here the other day and a Kuwaiti soldier just took him to one side, shot him in the head and pushed his body into a ditch. If you let these people through Safwan, they could face the same danger."
Nolde looked at the officer in contempt. He must have known very well what was going on. He was being ordered to send these people back to their deaths - not because of "lack of facilities" or "Iraqi infiltration" but because the Kuwaitis didn't want them cluttering up their newly liberated treasure-house emirate.
Extracted from The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk, published by Fourth Estate this week, £25.
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