LINTHICUM, MD., SEPT. 10 -- More than 160 weary but grateful Americans arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport here late this afternoon after five weeks as hostages in Kuwait, bearing harrowing tales of their lives in hiding and of deteriorating conditions in the occupied country.
The American Trans Air jet that touched down here at 5:10 p.m. was the fourth flight chartered by the U.S. government to evacuate people caught in the crisis, which began when Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2. Among the passengers were 90 children.
"I have three words: God Bless America," said one woman, who lives in Kuwait and who knelt and kissed the ground when she and her 4-year-old son debarked in front of a flag-draped hangar. The woman, like others, spoke with reporters only on the condition that she not be fully identified, for fear that her Kuwaiti husband would be targeted for retribution.
The woman, who said she was planning to stay with relatives in Milford, Conn., said she was a virtual prisoner in her home from the time she learned that Americans were not being allowed to leave Kuwait.
After hearing from the American Embassy last weekend that a flight was available to carry her and her son to freedom, she covered her face and blonde hair and crouched in the back of a car as her Indian driver took her to Baghdad. From there she flew to London, then to the United States after a night's layover.
"Our Safeway was completely destroyed . . . . There wasn't a time when I wasn't frightened," she said. "I couldn't go to the window because I might be seen."
Another woman, a native of Prairie Farm, Wis., who also is married to a Kuwaiti, said she escaped Sunday with their three children, ages 7, 5 and 19 months, after the family saw a shooting. At one point, Iraqi soldiers came to their house looking for foreign nationals.
"By the grace of God they didn't see me," she said. "I went out three times in five weeks . . . . People are afraid of being turned in by their neighbors."
The evacuees told of soldiers looting office buildings, schools and hospitals for air conditioners, computers, blackboards, desks, and even infant incubators and radiation equipment. They described food shortages that afflicted soldiers as well as civilians, and random acts of violence.
"Day by day, it's getting worse and worse," said one. "The reality for the people is it is just very dicey and increasingly so by the minute. It's a war of nerves that is very tough."
The women said they were heartened by the resolve of the Kuwaiti resistance, but said that because of its small size, it has been no match for the Iraqi armed forces. A 19-year-old said young Kuwaitis were being rounded up in large numbers because the Iraqis suspect they are part of the resistance.
The former hostages also gave high marks to President Bush's handling of the crisis, saying that their bleak days were cheered by regular broadcasts on Voice of America. But they added that their faith was tested as the weeks wore on.
"When you are sitting there, you just want to be rescued. You want something to happpen, and while we all understand the need for restraint, it's cold comfort that they are going to be having a meeting next week," said one.
The former hostages received a warm greeting as they stepped into the airport. Dozens of officials wearing yellow ribbons, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, greeted them with applause as they walked across a red carpet to a "repatriation center," where travel agents, babysitters and Red Cross workers awaited them.
Federal officials said they would receive loans for hotels or travel, if needed, and each child was given a teddy bear.
Nearly 1,600 Americans remain in Kuwait and Iraq. A State Department spokesman said officials hope to get another two planeloads out by the end of this week.