For three months in Kuwait City, Al Stone and two other Westerners lived like fugitives in their blacked-out apartment, wrapping the telephone in a blanket to muffle its ring while Kuwaiti friends risked their lives to bring them food and remove their trash.

But in an interview yesterday, Stone, a highway engineer, suggested that the Iraqi roundup of Western civilians in Kuwait was sporadic and disorganized, to the point where he once approached two Iraqi soldiers for help when a friend became stuck in his apartment tower's elevator.

As Americans began arriving here from Kuwait, their accounts painted a picture of an Iraqi military that was at least as preoccupied with looting the country as it was with any systematic roundup of Americans and Europeans. While some returning hostages have told harrowing tales of days spent hiding in air shafts, disguising themselves as Arabs and dodging Iraqi patrols, others have said that at times they moved almost freely about the city.

B. George Saloom, a data processing manager from California, said in an interview yesterday that although he and his wife were confined for 16 days to a hotel in Kuwait City, they were able to sneak out to seek medical help at a hospital when Deborah Saloom became ill.

A hotel employee who knew how to avoid the roadblocks because he was "the forager for food for the hotel" drove them to the hospital, Deborah Saloom said. "When we got there, the nurses pulled the curtains around us and told us not to talk. Not to let the Iraqi soldiers hear us."

Those who emerged from hiding in Kuwait were nearly unanimous in their descriptions of a country in which nearly everything of value had been carted off. "We even saw {them taking} some kitchen sinks," said Stone, adding that he once counted 32 moving vans filled with looted household goods.

Similarly, although few appear to have directly witnessed the violence, many returning hostages have told of reprisals carried out against Kuwaiti citizens.

Stone said he saw four Iraqi soldiers gun down an unarmed Arab in white robes one night when he and his wife sneaked out of their apartment to walk their dog.

That was perhaps the most horrifying moment of an ordeal that began with the Aug. 2 invasion and did not end until Stone heard the Baghdad announcement about the hostages' release last Thursday on the BBC. A vice president of the engineering firm DeLeuw, Cather International Ltd., Stone had lived in Kuwait City with his wife, Sandy, for the past four years.

For the first few weeks after the invasion, the couple ventured out of their apartment, stocking up on food at grocery stores, but they became much more cautious after Iraqi authorities in mid-August ordered all Westerners to report to hotels. Sandy Stone was able to leave with other women on Sept. 8; Al Stone remained behind with two co-workers in their fourth-floor aparment in a luxury high-rise building.

Before Sandy Stone left Kuwait, the Stones had watched Iraqi soldiers kick down the doors of a neighboring apartment complex in a search for Westerners, and were anxious to avoid the same fate. "We thought if we got picked up and taken to Iraq, we might spend the rest of our lives there," Stone said.

He said they were aided by Kuwaitis in the apartment building who persuaded Iraqi authorities that there were no Westerners in the building. To ward off detection, Stone said, the three men taped cardboard over their windows, listened to music at low volume and told friends to call only during the day.

Conditions were bearable until the air conditioner broke in late September, sending daytime temperature in the apartment into the upper 90s. But the power never went off and the building kept getting water until a few weeks ago; the men were able to rig up an alternative supply from a fire system.

Stone said he could not have survived without the help of Kuwaiti friends, one of whom visited every other day with supplies of one sort or another. "Once he brought a watermelon," Stone said.

They summoned a Kuwaiti doctor when one of the men became ill; when their trash chute filled up -- garbage collection in the city had stopped -- a friend carted it off in his Mercedes. "Lots of people helped out," Stone said. "The only reason I was able to stay hidden was because of some good Kuwaiti people."

Boredom and depression were the toughest adversaries. The men read books, watched videotapes and exercised on a stationary bicycle. Stone trimmed his hair with dog shears. They watched CNN until Iraqis "stole the dish," Stone said of the antenna.

Perhaps most important, the men kept in close touch with other Westerners in hiding, as well as the U.S. Embassy, on a phone system that never stopped working.

While Stone was aware through his telephone contacts that Americans and others were regularly getting picked up -- "Our little group got smaller and smaller," he said -- he also suggested that the Iraqis were not as aggressive as they might have been.

Once, in October, when a visiting friend got stuck in the apartment elevator, he ventured out into the street and accosted two Iraqi soldiers. But "they didn't speak English," said Stone, who subsequently was able to flag down a Kuwaiti driver and tell him to call the fire department, which surprisingly was still functioning.

The ordeal of Americans and others trapped in Kuwait varied from person to person, with days of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.

Saloom, who arrived in Kuwait on Aug. 2 to take a new job, spent 16 days at the Hotel Meridien in Kuwait with his wife and their 17-year-old son. They ventured out twice, once to make a run to the hospital when Deborah Saloom's kidney infection became intolerable and once to flee to the U.S. Embassy.

"I was running a fever and passing blood. My back was hurting. I just started to cry. I couldn't believe this was happening," Deborah Saloom said. "I can tell you that all I felt was fear, total fear."

The hospital nurses told the Salooms that the Iraqi soldiers had robbed the pharmacy of most of its medicines and forbidden Kuwaiti soldiers to be treated there. Because Iraqi soldiers were in the building, they told the couple to remain quiet and hide behind a hospital curtain.

"I was petrified while we were there," Deborah Saloom said. "It was bad enough at the hotel, but at the hospital we could see Iraqi soldiers in the halls."

The Salooms made their way to the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait and took refuge. Deborah Saloom left there on Sept. 2 when some American women and children were allowed to leave. Her husband remained at the embassy until this week.

In London yesterday, several British citizens described creative approaches to eluding Iraqi forces:Clive Harburn, a mechanical engineer, hid for four months in his apartment in the Abu Halifi neighborhood along with three Britons and two Americans. When Iraqi patrols searched the area, the six men would climb up a ladder into a crawl space above the ceiling. They even wrapped the top of the ladder, which they took from the apartment block's swimming pool, in cushions so that it would not leave marks on the wallpaper. Peter Agnew, an elevator inspector, stashed food and drink on the roof of an elevator in his apartment building, fixed the buttons so that it could not be called by Iraqi search parties and then rode the top of the elevator up and down the shaft when search parties entered the premises. David Walls, a Royal Air Force technician, burned his uniform and personal documents, hid his medals in a yucca tree and hid for more than three months in a Kuwait apartment along with John Heley, a British Airways purser. When they were discovered by Iraqi troops two weeks ago, they posed as part of a German group being taken to the Baghdad airport for liberation, evaded Iraqi officials at the airport and, when they realized they could not get through immigration, took sanctuary in the old East German Embassy in Baghdad. The captain of the British Airways jumbo jet stranded in Kuwait on the morning of the invasion said he disguised himself as an Arab to avoid capture. Capt. Richard Brunyate said he foraged for food at night wearing a Kuwaiti headdress and robe.

Returning hostages all had words of praise for the Kuwaitis who helped them. Stone, for his part, said he hopes to return in as few as three months. "I've got to do something for those people," he said. "They did so much for me."

Staff writer Glenn Frankel in London contributed to this report.