More than 280 people released from Kuwait and Iraq arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday afternoon, bearing few possessions but many memories of their weeks in hiding and captivity.
Those who agreed to speak to reporters described Kuwait City as ravaged and largely deserted, but with brave residents who sheltered Westerners and helped them find food.
A large number of men and Middle Eastern nationals with American-born children were on board the U.S.-chartered flight, which left London yesterday morning.
Most of the 285 passengers, who included more than 30 children, began their trip in Kuwait. A few more joined the flight in Baghdad, officials said.
Some expressed a mixture of relief at escaping Kuwait and guilt at leaving friends and relatives behind.
Most had arranged with U.S. Embassy representatives for passage on the chartered plane. But for one recent captive, the ticket out of Iraq came in the form of a letter from home.
Thomas Ewald, a 25-year-old banker from Greenwich, Conn., was released from two weeks in captivity after his mother wrote to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"I think there have been a lot of humanitarian appeals to the Iraqi government, and this is one that worked," said Ewald, who learned of his mother's letter from a story in the Baghdad Observer on Sept. 13.
"The fact that it was a note from my mom is a little embarrassing."
One of a few American men released after being held at an Iraqi military installation, Ewald said that he and his fellow captives were treated well. He played down suggestions that he was released as a pawn in a publicity game by Saddam.
"Pawn? Well, I'm not a queen or a rook or a king," Ewald joked.
Ewald arrived in Kuwait to begin a job at the Al-Ahli Bank on Aug. 1. He spent the next four weeks at his hotel and in hiding before he was captured by the Iraqi military on Aug. 30 and taken to Baghdad.
Ewald said he and four British men were held at "some sort of an installation" near Baghdad, where he said their Iraqi captors treated them like guests at a luxury hotel, cleaning their rooms twice a day and bringing them food from the city's finest restaurants.
"They'd bring us menus and we'd say we want this and this and this, and they would go into the city and get it for us," Ewald said. "They were actually very nice to us."
Ewald's mother, Mary, a writer, characterized her letter to Saddam via the Iraqi Embassy as "just a heartfelt" plea for her son's release.
Another passenger, an Iraqi-born U.S. citizen, said he spent his last weeks hiding in his home, reading and watching television.
The man, who identified himself using only his first name, Kais, said that he was most afraid the night before he left, when Iraqi soldiers stormed his neighbor's home.
Their mission, he discovered, was to disable his neighbor's satellite dish.
"They do not want people listening to CNN," said Kais.
Food is still available in the exclusively Kuwaiti sections of town, but elsewhere in the city, where foreigners live, shortages are extreme, Kais said.
"The city is deserted, but life goes on," said Kais. "You have to admire the Kuwaitis."