Americans returning from Kuwait last night described a capital city robbed of both life and wealth, with military trucks carting off furniture from private homes and stripped cars clogging streets filled with debris.
"There are abandoned vehicles in the roads, the highways are all chewed up, the streetlights aren't working," said Gale Rogers, consul at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City, one of 156 Americans who arrived at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday afternoon. "You could see, through the embassy gates, truckloads of mattresses and furniture going out every day. Everything that wasn't nailed down was loaded into trucks."
Kuwaiti government officials and others who fled after Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2 have described numerous atrocities by Iraqi occupation forces against Kuwaiti citizens, including torture and summary executions. For the most part, Americans returning yesterday had been hiding in the city or holed up in the U.S. Embassy with little direct knowledge of events elsewhere in Kuwait, although several said friends had witnessed the violence.
David Forties, an employee of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait who moved in late August to the embassy in Baghdad, said he witnessed a Soviet-built T-72 Iraqi tank rolling down a highway in Kuwait in August "with a refrigerator strapped on the back."
Forties said he also saw an armored personnel carrier towing a pleasure boat taken from the yacht basin in Kuwait City.
He said a British friend of his told him that the friend's teenage son had been killed in a car accident as Iraqi soldiers were taking the boy to the airport. The soldiers "left the dead body on the tarmac and stole his jewelry right off his dead body," Forties said the friend told him. "I have absolutely no doubt that Kuwait is being raped on a grand scale . . . the world's largest armed robbery."
Forties and another embassy employee said Iraqi soldiers broke into the home of a top embassy official, where they discovered boxes of cellophane-wrapped dog food patties and several bottles of white wine. Embassy employees later visited the ransacked home and found evidence the soldiers had fried and eaten the dog food.
"They had Gainesburgers and white wine," Forties said. "They couldn't figure out how to open the wine so they just broke the tops off the bottles."
"It looks like a war zone," said a former hostage who spent most of the last four months in Kuwait and asked not to be identified. "Some buildings look like they've been shelled. There's big sear marks."
Many returning Americans had little idea of the extent of the devastation until they emerged from their sanctuaries to go to the airport and freedom earlier this week. Several described a kind of modern ghost town, with stripped cars lining the highways and car wreckage and pieces of heavy machinery strewn on the airport runways.
The accounts suggested that Iraqi forces have not stopped at looting luxury-car dealerships and grocery stores. "Quite clearly, they're still stripping houses," said Rogers.
Conditions in the city varied. Rogers said that although streetlights were out and water service was sporadic, "power still seems to be functioning" in many areas.
Interviewed in Frankfurt, Germany, their way station to America, other Americans described similar scenes.
"There's cars everywhere with their tires off," said Allen Finney, 39, who, with his wife, taught at the American School of Kuwait. Finney survived undiscovered by Iraqi patrols largely because he was in Salmiya, a suburb where few Americans lived, he said. There Kuwaitis, Palestinians, Indians and other foreigners are living a meager existence, foraging for food. Still, they managed to take care not only of their own families, but also risked arrest by smuggling supplies to Westerners in hideouts sprinkled through the neighborhood.
The Americans described an Iraqi occupation force that seems alternately brutal and lackadaisical -- largely depending on whether officers are on hand. Left on their own to complete their patrols, most soldiers made only half-hearted attempts to find the hiding Americans.
"Every couple of weeks, the police or the soldiers would come to the door and we'd stay silent inside," said Randy Taylor, 49, of West Palm Beach, Fla. "A lot of times, they were plainclothesmen with pistols on their belt. Fortunately, they were always the type who didn't break down doors. We'd stay on the roof till they were gone. But we always had the sense they weren't really after us. They were really looking for Kuwaitis."
The Americans also praised Iraqis who had been resettled in Kuwait. "There were Iraqis who risked their lives to protect Americans," said Stuart Williams, a banker from New York City who lived in Kuwait with his wife for a year.
A Western diplomat in Baghdad said yesterday that Kuwait had a six-month store of food -- from flour to M&Ms -- that Iraqi forces have since pilfered and brought to Baghdad. One American who left Kuwait Sunday told the diplomat he had seen Iraqi soldiers "gorging" a 30-ton truck with sacks of rice.
"The airport is totally trashed," said Peter Dooley, 40, a restaurant manager from Hopkinsville, Ky. "The runways are covered with car wreckage and other pieces of heavy machinery so they can't be used. The whole country is just a garbage heap."
"Any place Iraqi soldiers had been, conditions were horrible," said Williams, who wore a white ten-gallon hat throughout his captivity "to remind the Iraqi bastards that I am an American."
But even Williams, who came out of an Iraqi prisoner camp in Kuwait angry at Saddam Hussein and the U.S. government, said he would return to work in Kuwait.
"It's going to take at least a generation to rebuild Kuwait after what the Iraqis have done," he said. Staff writers Marc Fisher in Frankfurt and Dana Priest in Baghdad contributed to this report.