Fatima Saleh still makes her son's favorite chicken and rice dinner and puts it out for him on the table. But Khalid has not been there to eat it in 12 years.
Soldiers in the Iraqi force occupying Kuwait surrounded the Saleh house on Oct. 21, 1990. It was 7 a.m., and when they stormed in, Saleh recalled recently, they demanded her 16-year-old son Khalid by name. A month later, the Iraqis returned. This time, they arrested the rest of the family: Saleh, her husband and their three other children. Her youngest daughter was 3.
For the next 41/2 months, the family endured life in a string of Iraqi prisons. They saw Khalid again only once -- on their first day of imprisonment. His nose was broken, Saleh recalled, and he told his mother, "They are going to execute me."
Used to life in one of the world's richest countries, to new cars and the diamond rings she wears casually today on both hands, Saleh still cannot help lingering over her family's trauma -- and Kuwait's. "I always dream of my son, that he is calling me to save him," she said. "What Saddam Hussein did cannot be forgotten."
Khalid is one of 605 Kuwaitis who the government says never returned home after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, an unfinished saga from the last war that looms again in the lead-up to what could be the next one. Most of them were dragged off on accusations that they resisted the Iraqi occupation, although Khalid's family says he spent most of his time in front of a computer screen. The Kuwaitis call them prisoners of war, and the U.N. Security Council resolution passed on Nov. 8 made a full accounting of their fates a condition for Hussein to avoid another war.
U.N. special envoy Yuli Vorontsov was scheduled to travel to Baghdad to try to determine what happened to the missing Kuwaitis. It is the first time Iraq has agreed to host such a meeting, and comes 12 years after the start of the U.S.-led war that drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
The missing Kuwaitis are an emotional reason Kuwait has offered itself as a platform for a U.S. attack on Iraq. A dozen years may have passed, but many Kuwaitis say that only in hearing stories like Saleh's is it possible to understand their country's position on the prospective war.
"These Arabs who object to American policy vis-a-vis Iraq, they don't live next to Saddam," said Abdulla Bishara, a leading politician. "They haven't experienced his terror."
Whether matter-of-factly or in tones of amazement and horror, Kuwaitis are quick to relate their tales of suffering during the Iraqi occupation, from Aug. 2, 1990, until Iraqi forces were driven out seven months later. Some stories are baroque narratives of cruelty -- toddlers in jail, torture, families ripped apart.
"Kuwait is such a small society," said Mohammed Jassem, editor in chief of the newspaper al-Watan. "We are all connected to each other. In practically every Kuwait family there is a relative of one of the POWs."
In this country of 2.2 million -- only about 800,000 of whom are citizens -- the suffering of a dozen years ago is often connected to a straightforward calculation about the possibility of another war: We can never be secure until Hussein is gone, this line of reasoning goes. And even then, many Kuwaitis worry, Iraq may still harbor designs on its tiny neighbor made wealthy by oil. A historical Iraqi claim to Kuwait's 6,880 square miles was revived during the 1990 occupation, they recall.
Not surprisingly, those whose relatives are on the list of the missing tend to be more hawkish than others. But with so many Kuwaitis connected in some way, that adds up to a lot of hawks. No one here expects the talks with Vorontsov in Baghdad to produce much, although nobody rules out a surprise. Some Kuwaitis are optimistic that Hussein's downfall might at last bring news of the disappeared.
"We think if the Americans are really serious this time, there will be good results. Our main task now is to topple the regime, because without toppling the regime, there can be no use," said Abdul Hameed Attar. "Talking with this man Saddam Hussein is no use."
Attar is a top official at National Committee for Missing and POW Affairs, whose plush brick headquarters displays photos of the 605 missing Kuwaitis and dioramas of Iraqi prisons. "We still hope that at least some of them are alive," Attar said, "but knowing Iraq, having experienced the Iraqi regime, the possibility that all of them are still alive is very, very slim."
Attar's son Jamal is pictured on the wall. He was 26 when the Iraqis overran Kuwait, a serious-looking young man with a mustache and glasses. An assistant engineer at Kuwaiti state television, he was accused by the Iraqis of planting a bomb in the Hilton Hotel here that killed several Iraqi soldiers, as well as blowing up an Iraqi vegetable truck. When the Iraqis came for him, he spent all day on the run with three friends. They were captured in an abandoned school on Sept. 13, 1990.
At the police station, Attar said, he heard his son's voice one last time. Attar was out front, begging for information about Jamal. The Iraqis insisted he was not there, but then came a voice: "Father, I am here." After the war, when about 7,000 Kuwaiti prisoners were released, two men who had been in jail came to Attar and told him Jamal had been tortured, but that he was alive and in the southern Iraqi city of Basra when they last saw him.
Five years later, in 1996, Kuwait received its only communication from the Iraqi government on the subject of POWs. It was a letter, handed to officials through the Red Cross, with a list of 126 Kuwaiti "criminals" still being held in Iraqi jails, Attar said. The other missing Kuwaitis, it said, "were probably killed by allied bombs."
Attar's son was on the list of those still jailed. So, too, was his friend, Hossam Sayafi.
Sayafi was 24 when he was arrested by the Iraqis, just starting out in his father's marine supply business. Later, the family heard from a man who said he was in the jail where Sayafi and Attar were first brought. According to Sayafi's brother, Fadil, the man said they were seen blindfolded and handcuffed. "The other prisoner told us they'd been tortured so badly they had a hard time recognizing them," Fadil said.
Eventually, the Iraqi jailers told Sayafi's father that Hossam had been transferred to Basra. In December 1990, a freed prisoner came with the news that he was alive there. "That was the last we heard from him," Fadil Sayafi recalled recently.
But the family's own troubles had not even begun yet. On Jan. 2, 1991, the Sayafis were hosting a meeting at their house to discuss resistance to the occupation. There were guns inside, and senior Kuwaitis from the military. Iraqi soldiers surrounded the house and arrested everyone in it, including the two-week-old baby of Fadil's sister.
Fadil was 19. He was blindfolded and taken to where his father was being tortured. "They were threatening my dad using me. They were saying they will hurt me if he doesn't say anything," Fadil said.
The women of the Sayafi family were released after two weeks at a detention camp in Kuwait. Fadil and his father, along with the other men at their house that night, were transferred to Baghdad, where they cowered in unheated cells as U.S. bombs exploded outside.
Eventually, the International Committee of the Red Cross secured their release.
Correspondents Peter Baker and Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Baghdad contributed to this report.