FRANKFURT, GERMANY, DEC. 10 (MONDAY) -- Only after Iraqi Airways Flight 3431 touched down at Frankfurt International Airport this morning did Robert Denton feel he was "out of the gulag."
Within minutes of getting his baggage, Randy Taylor was on the phone to West Palm Beach, Fla., trying to reach his wife and son. Allen Finney was trying to get in touch with his family, hoping for word of 4-month-old Matthew. Finney last saw his son in his fourth week of life.
There was a burst of applause when the Iraqi 747 touched down in Germany, the last way station on the long journey home for 175 Americans and 147 other hostages released from Iraq and Kuwait Sunday. Most of the Americans planned to continue to Washington on a U.S.-government-chartered Pan Am flight this afternoon.
Since August, they had been captives in their own apartments, surrounded by a ransacked Kuwait City. Or they were "human shields," living in cramped quarters in oil refineries, factories or military sites that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein feared would be attacked by the United States. Or they were corralled as prisoners, under the constant guard of Iraqi soldiers.
This morning, after they collected what little luggage they could get out of Iraq and Kuwait -- at least three men got cats out and at least two held onto their dogs -- they registered for a free night at the airport hotel.
In their first moments away from the pressure of living in the epicenter of a global crisis, there were angry men who snapped at reporters and cursed U.S. diplomats for failing to get them out. There were gentle men who praised the Kuwaiti, Palestinian and even Iraqi people who had helped to hide and feed them through 130 days of terrifying uncertainty. But, mostly, there were exhausted men, craving a bed, a shower, a phone call home.
Denton was a human shield, living 20 miles outside Baghdad at a place called Central Refinery-Special Projects 3. He said he still doesn't know what the Iraqis do there. He was among eight hostages -- American, British, Japanese, French and German -- kept at the plant. Every day, Denton ran 15 miles in the morning, read in the afternoon "and became quiet proficient at bridge from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m."
Picked up by Iraqi authorities off a Baghdad street on Aug. 28, Denton was moved first to a hotel and later to four other locations, the last being the refinery. "There was a point in captivity when we got the upper hand over our captors," he said. "We'd been moved so many times and they wanted to move us again, to a small house big enough for only three. I said, 'I'm not going to move.' . . . I just sat down and got everybody else to sit down. Two hours later, they gave in. We won. We weren't moved."
Many of those who came from Kuwait had had little human contact for months. Peter Dooley, 40, had stayed in his own apartment, staying silent, with the windows covered. "It was terrible," said Dooley, a restaurant manager. "The depression. The time went so slowly. It got very difficult to sleep."
Finney, who taught at the American School of Kuwait, survived undiscovered in his apartment in a suburb where few Americans lived. Only an Indian friend knew he was there and brought him food, whistling as he came up the stairs as a signal that he was not an Iraqi soldier searching for stray Americans.
Finney said he had come to love Kuwait in his five years there, and when he started to talk about what it looks like now -- littered with rubble and the refuse of Iraqi plundering -- he began to cry.
"The Kuwaiti people are so kind," he said. "You didn't have to lock your vehicles. It was so safe."
Stuart Williams of New York City, who managed a branch of the Gulf Bank of Kuwait with his wife, Charlene Coutre, spent most of the past four months in an Iraqi prison camp in Kuwait. Coutre was one of the few women who turned down a chance to go home and instead stayed with her husband -- a move that Williams believes brought both of them better treatment.
Williams and the 47 other hostages kept at his prison camp arrived at a set of buildings that had been taken over by Iraqi soldiers. "They had completely destroyed the place, covering it with every foul human substance," he said. "We had nothing to do, and the Iraqis mostly left us alone. They were scared of us. They had the Kalashnikovs, and they were scared of us."