BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- Kevin and Dawn Bazner were on a routine stopover in Kuwait, heading back to their temporary home in Malaysia, when their private lives were yanked away from them and they were thrown into the cauldron of the Persian Gulf crisis.
Until the early morning of Aug 2., they were in most respects an ordinary couple. He was an A&W restaurant company executive returning from vacation. She was a housewife and mother of two children, ages 5 months and 6 years.
They became "human shields," one family among the several thousand Westerners seized by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to fend off attack. They lived on the grounds of the State Enterprise for Phosphate, a factory near the city of Kaim, about 25 miles from the Syrian border. The hostages called the core of the plant "The Chocolate Factory." The engineers among them believed it was a uranium processing facility.
Bazner's wife and two children were released by Saddam on Aug. 29. Bazner was moved to the core of the factory complex a month later. His temporary home, if it actually was processing uranium, could be ground zero in any attack.
The hostages struggled to maintain the ordinary rhythms of life amid their nightmarish surroundings. Immediately after arriving at Kaim, they organized themselves to ask for better food, clothes and recreation. Three of them would later meet with Saddam.
Together, they saw strong men buckle under the pressure of captivity and become irrational. And when Iraqi guards, at unannounced moments, rounded up selected hostages and drove off with them, they shared the terrible belief that their new friends were being taken to prison, or to the executioner.
Dawn Bazner returned early this month with a group of U.S. hostage relatives to beg Saddam to let their loved ones go. Two days after the wives arrived, Saddam announced he would free all foreigners in Iraq and occupied Kuwait. Last week, Bazner, 35, was released into the arms of his wife.
What follows is an account of what it felt like to be a human shield in Iraq these past four months, gathered during interviews with the Bazners and dozens of other hostages while they still were captive at Baghdad's government-run Mansour Melia Hotel. The Flight to Kuwait
Usually, the British Airways flight from London to Malaysia refuels in Abu Dhabi, on the southern end of the Persian Gulf, but the Bazners' flight had announced a refueling stop in Kuwait City instead.
Before the plane's departure from London, Kevin -- who had made the trip several times before -- had taken time in the airport lounge to glance at the newspapers. He was alarmed to read about a buildup of Iraqi troops on Kuwait's border.
"I asked, 'Why are we going into Kuwait?' " he said. "They said, 'Oh, no problem.' "
When the plane landed in Kuwait at 2 a.m., the 367 passengers could hear shots being fired in the distance. Some thought it was a coup.
The pilot's voice came over the intercom: "Evacuate! Emergency!" Dawn grabbed 5-month-old David. A flight attendant grabbed the Bazners' 6-year-old, Elizabeth. With the other passengers, they were bused to a dingy, poorly equipped hotel in Kuwait, where they lived for the next five days.
They were then piled onto a military bus and were told by a military officer that they were going to Baghdad "for your own safety."
It was summer and the bus had no air conditioning, and no food was given out. Dawn nursed her baby. The 6-year-old daughter went hungry. At Basra, the southern Iraqi city near Kuwait's border, the group was put on an overnight train to Baghdad. The train was so cold that Dawn could see her own breath.
The Detention Sites
As the Bazners headed for Baghdad, hundreds of other Americans, Europeans and Japanese who had been working in Iraq or Kuwait were being "installed " at sites around the Iraqi countryside.
Most of these hostages were moved more than once, their empty beds filled with a rotating crop of hostages, including many captured in Kuwait.
Tal Ledford of New Hampshire went to a camp near the disputed Rumaila oil fields straddling the Iraq-Kuwait border.
Britons Don and Sudha Fisher lived next to the turbine housing at the Derbendi Khan Dam in northeastern Iraq. Other hostages, they said, lived above the Fishers' noisy quarters, atop the dam itself.
Robert Vinton of Santa Fe, N.M., ended up at the Special Refinery Station No. 4, about 12 miles south of Baghdad.
Edward Smiley of Los Angeles went to the Iraqi Goods Depot near Baghdad.
Keith Sharpan of Pacifica, Calif., was at a steel processing plant about 30 miles north of Baghdad.
Mike and Steve Grady, a father and son from England, lived with 45 Italian workers at the Shemal Thermal Power Station 19 miles south of the Turkish border.
Baghdad's Rasheed Hotel
The new "guests" from Kuwait -- 30 men, four women and three children -- arrived on Aug. 7 at the Rasheed Hotel, Baghdad's finest. It caters to wealthy Persian Gulf businessmen who stroll the lobby in checked kaffiyehs, rubbing their colorful prayer beads.
The hostages were allowed to use the hotel pool, so long as they did not speak with the other guests. Still, Dawn managed to communicate with some Irish women, who smuggled clothes to her in the women's changing room near the hotel's pool.
On Aug. 19, the guards told the hostages to pack their bags. They were put on a bus and transferred overnight to a camp called Kaim, about 25 miles from the Syrian border. 'The Chocolate Factory'
The State Enterprise for Phosphate was a camp within a camp. On the outskirts were circular residential neighborhoods of prefabricated trailers stuck together in dusty rows. Skinny, wild dogs scavenged through trash scattered by the dry wind.
A fence surrounded the camp. The hostages were allowed to walk around the grounds for exercise. There was a common mess hall where they ate meals and played pool or Ping-Pong.
The guards had handguns and automatic rifles but never used them.
Within this camp was "The Chocolate Factory," which the engineers among the hostages concluded was a uranium processing plant.
The plant was housed in a large facility that was protected by concrete blast walls and sandbags. Inside the facility were living quarters and construction offices made of plywood. Security men patrolled inside the plant, which only 11 of the hostages saw after being moved there Sept. 24. The entire facility was protected by soldiers. Kevin Bazner said he could see missiles and mobile antiaircraft guns as well.
On the first day at the camp, the group of 37 men, four women and three children formed a four-person committee to negotiate with the guards over creature comforts and, of course, their release.
"Going home was the top of our list," Kevin Bazner said with a laugh.
A Visit With Saddam
On Aug. 27, three of the men from Kaim were invited to meet Saddam. They believed that the meeting was his attempt to undo the public relations damage of his first meeting with British hostages, which was broadcast on Cable News Network and unfavorably received in the West.
The talk lasted three hours and was recorded by French and Iraqi television crews.
"I felt he was sort of in a box and he knew it. Public opinion was against him," said Kevin Bazner. "I got the impression he was sorting it out as he went along."
Back at the camp, Dawn Bazner and the others gathered around the television set to listen to the exchange. They were excited. They thought good news was to come.
Then came Saddam's answer to a request by the group to release women and children.
"He told us in no uncertain terms that women and children would not be released, that innocent Iraqi women and children would be killed in the war, and so would innocent Western women and children," said Kevin Bazner.
That marked one of the low points for the hostages.
"Here was Hussein telling mothers to their faces that their children are going to die," said Dawn Bazner. "Nobody could speak. There was a stunned, shocked silence."
At the meeting, Saddam gave a "present" to one of the British families because it was their son's birthday: They could go free. Then he had a color photo taken of the group. Each of them got a copy, mounted in a leather binder.
The next day, to their surprise, Saddam announced that the women and children could go free.
"We realized fully then that our fate was going to be decided by that man by whatever mood struck him," said Kevin Bazner. "We were going to wake up one morning and go to war or we were going to wake up one morning and go home."
"Or wake up one morning and be dead," added Dawn Bazner.
Coping With the Stress
As the truck carrying the women and children drove away, the camp director alerted everyone to a new development: 10 of the men were to be taken away the next morning. Many believed they would be taken to prison or shot dead.
The actual separation was too much for one man in the group. He went wild, threatening to throw himself out of the car to escape. His American colleagues restrained him, as did the guards. Everyone feared he would provoke the guards to shoot.
Men and women reacted differently to the strain of captivity and uncertainty that hung over them daily.
Sharpan said he remained ready for anything. "I didn't ever make friends with the guards because I figured I'd have to kill them someday," he said.
Sharpan, like others interviewed, kept a "go like hell" bag nearby at all times. It contained provisions for an escape and journey in inhospitable terrain. For this purpose, Sharpan froze some of the bread and eggs he was given at mealtime.
At the Rasheed hotel, a U.S. military employee who was captured with the Bazners had dreamed up improbable schemes for the group's escape. He suggested everyone steal knives and forks from the hotel to be fashioned into weapons. He plotted to paint an American flag atop the hotel's roof so that U.S. aircraft would know they were there. More than once, he prepared to overpower his guards, some of whom were armed with assault rifles.
Others, like the Bazners and their fellow captives at al-Kaim, befriended their guards. They believe it paid off, as many of the guards apologized repeatedly for the situation and tried to bring them what they needed in food and other goods.
The Final Days
A new camp director took charge of al-Kaim during the last weeks of Kevin Bazner's captivity. The new director appeared to be better educated and seemed embarrassed about the situation. He also was flexible with the hostages, allowing them to order and prepare the type of food they wanted.
Phone calls home were available beginning Nov. 3, around the time of President Bush's most severe attack on the treatment of the hostages.
Meanwhile, Kevin and the others were following the progress of a trip his wife and 17 other hostage relatives planned for Dec. 3. On Dec. 5, after the families had arrived and were lodged in Baghdad at the Mansour Melia Hotel, Kevin Bazner and Lourens Van Engelen, another American at al-Kaim whose wife had also made the trip, were driven into Baghdad.
Dawn Bazner was on the steps of the Mansour Melia watching a wedding procession when she spotted a man in a familiar blue shirt and raced toward him. It was her husband, and he looked healthy, she thought.
Together in their hotel room waiting for their evacuation flight, the Bazners reflected quietly on what they had experienced.
"The important thing at this point is to deal with what we've been through as a family, to 'get rid of the baggage,' " said Kevin Bazner, his eyes growing red with tears.
His wife, seated on the bed, grabbed the bed sheet and began wiping her own eyes.
"I know that I am a better, stronger person, and I know it will have a positive impact on our family and our marriage," he said. "To have come through this without falling apart, it's rather nice to know that the strength is there."