This article was filed yesterday from Saudi Arabia by Britain's Financial Times correspondent Mallet, who fled Kuwait on Monday.
I never thought I would be so glad to see the Saudi Arabian flag. After several hours in the blistering heat and sandy winds of the Kuwaiti desert, I and my companions could hardly believe that we had reached the frontier and escaped our uncertain fate in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait.
We feared that the flag we saw fluttering in the breeze would be Iraqi, but as we approached the border post we could see that it was Islamic green, emblazoned with the Saudi sword and the words: "There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet." We embraced each other and the Saudi soldiers, who greeted us with broad smiles and offered us sweet tea and cold water. We were free.
Ours was not a heroic escape. It was a madcap expedition marked by moments of farce and by incompetence which would have made a Boy Scout blush.
I set off at dawn from the comfort of the Holiday Inn with Britons Michael Trew and Tony Mustafa of Overseas Financial Services and Hettie Lubberding of Dutch radio in OFS's rented four-wheel-drive Nissan.
We and thousands of other refugees had been encouraged by statements on Baghdad Radio the previous night suggesting that foreigners could leave the country. Like swarms of bees trying to escape from a shuttered room, we tried, in turn, the tar roads to each official border crossing into Saudi Arabia. First south, then southwest, then west. But on each occasion we were turned back by Iraqi army roadblocks.
Returning disconsolately to our hotel, we decided to reconnoiter a desert route we had heard about through the sands to the southwest, so that we could organize an escape in the days ahead with a compass, a guide, plentiful supplies of gasoline and water and several four-wheel-drive vehicles. We drove through a hole in a roadside fence, past a Bedouin shantytown and through a quarry.
As we tried first this track, then that, asking advice of anyone we saw ("Turn left at the abandoned white Mercedes," said one Egyptian quarry worker), an astonishing scene began to unfold.
A few miles in the desert outside Jahra, amid piles of debris left by construction companies, convoys of vehicles carrying Indians, Filipinos, Afghans and Egyptians drove frantically from place to place in search of Saudi Arabia. Dozens of cars had been trapped in soft sand. We picked up four sunburned Egyptians walking back to civilization with their suitcases after leaving behind their car.
Our common sense deserted us when we saw a convoy of Filipino workers crammed into a motley collection of trucks and cars, and we assumed that they knew where they were going. We followed them but it soon became apparent that they were no better informed than we were. Jovial Iraqi soldiers in a four-wheel-drive vehicle turned us back, not to prevent us from leaving, but to return us to the right road.
A few miles later, we were more lost than ever, and it was the middle of the day. Sand whipped across our faces, and the sun beat down, making it impossible to navigate without a compass.
In one incident, a gerbil-like creature crawled up the trouser leg of one of the Filipinos. He thought it was a scorpion and crushed it to death. Even the Iraqi soldiers seemed like a blessing in the wilderness.
Panic, for me at least, was not far below the surface. Each group of refugees, having helped each other out of the sand drifts, now began to suspect the others of wanting to steal their water or their gasoline. The bearded Afghans and the Filipinos with bandannas around their faces suddenly seemed menacing.
We decided to head back to Kuwait in what we thought was the right direction but the featureless landscape and rows of pylons in all directions confused us more than ever.
After a few hundred yards, we decided it was folly to leave our Filipino companions and went back to find them, but they were nowhere to be seen. Somehow a convoy of more than a dozen vehicles had disappeared in the desert, or rather we had lost it
It was the realization that Kuwait City would be just as difficult to find as Saudi Arabia that forced us to proceed with our unplanned escape. We headed off in the general direction indicated to us by a Bedouin camel herder whose pick-up truck we had helped to push out of the sand.
By now the sun had begun to drop slightly in the sky, allowing us to steer in a general southwesterly direction, although we feared we would veer too far south (deeper into Kuwait) or too far north (back to a main road sealed off by the Iraqis).
It was also becoming clear that the desert was far from empty, a comforting thought for travelers short of gasoline and water. In addition to the wandering refugees, the sands were dotted with Bedouin encampments and sheep and cattle.
As we approached the border we were summoned by Iraqi tank crews to their emplacement. We feared the worst but they merely exchanged friendly greetings, gave us water, and asked us the question we were now repeating every five minutes: "Which way is Saudi Arabia?"
Our main concern now was that we might still be in the middle of nowhere even if we found Saudi Arabia. The Bedouins we questioned in our rudimentary Arabic were vague about what village or town we might find on the other side. One moment the border was 30 kilometers (18 miles) away, the next it was 70 (kilometers, or 42 miles).
It was only when one of the Bedouin said "five or six kilometers" (three or 3 1/2 miles) that our hopes soared. The next time it was two kilometers, and then there it was ahead of us, the border post with its Saudi flag and a little archway to freedom.