The Kuwaitis were smiling and gesturing grandly as they led us to the bodies. Half a dozen reporters who had arrived in newly liberated Kuwait City the night before wanted to see evidence of the atrocities inflicted by the Iraqi army during its final, frantic hours of occupation. The locals were happy to oblige.

The dead had been laid out on tables in a makeshift morgue in an abandoned warehouse on the edge of the city. A dozen stiffening and bloated forms, perhaps three days old, were covered with burn marks and scars from whippings. Some were missing arms and legs. Others had no heads.

"Do you see what they have done to our people?" cried one Kuwaiti. "Come closer and see," he urged.

The reporters were hesitant to move forward. We had come to see the bodies, but once in their presence we wanted only to be somewhere--anywhere--else. Some took a few halting steps, furtively snapped a photograph or two and hurried out the door. A young BBC camera operator muttered, "Oh, my God," dropped her equipment and ran outside to vomit.

"What?" sniffed one of her colleagues. "Didn't she expect this?"
He was right. We had been warned.
But the stories we found were not just of the dead. They were also of the living. Stories of a transplanted Arizona woman who, crouching terrified in her tiny apartment in darkened Kuwait City, waited for news of her missing husband. MD120 Of a father who mourned the death of a son arbitrarily shot by a hastily organized Iraqi firing squad. Of tortured, beaten and burned bodies placed on public display as a "lesson" to the populace. And of conflicts between the city's Kuwaiti and Palestinian populations that threatened to erupt with murderous intensity, providing ominous evidence that the bloodshed in Kuwait may not yet be over.

FOR MONTHS SINCE the August 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, smiling, friendly Kuwaiti expatriates had been corralling any reporter within earshot at the press center in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, regaling journalists with horror stories filtering down from Kuwait City. These rotund little men, unfailingly polite and sincere in the flowing robes that are their traditional dress, told of the beaten children, the random killing and the misery endured by the Kuwaitis--which they said had increased dramatically in the days before the counterinvasion. They had glossy color photographs of torture victims, inserted into slickly packaged press kits. Their approach was professional. Too professional.

The more cynical members of the press corps were openly questioning the authenticity of the atrocity reports, believing Kuwaitis were simply trying to drum up support for a ground invasion of their country and destruction of Saddam Hussein's army, rather than allowing time for a cease fire and a peaceful withdrawal--which would leave the Iraqi army largely intact and still menacing across the border. Jonathan Rawlkin, a Reuters correspondent, said he believed the reports of thousands of torture victims and "disappeared" in Kuwait were merely "bullshit propaganda" from the Kuwaitis and the Bush administration aimed at keeping the fight going. They want to kill Saddam's army, Rawlkin theorized, and this is just a good way to get public support for it.

"There have been abuses, I'm sure," he said. "But it can't be as bad as they say."

Unfortunately, it was worse.
The Kuwaiti stories, as the reporters who rolled into Kuwait City on the heels of the advancing allied army the night of February 27 discovered, were all too true. Driven by their sorrow and a compulsive need to explain and share the brutalities they had endured, the Kuwaitis were quite conscientious about preserving evidence of their ordeal. Not wanting to trust photographs--which a thick, gray fog that utterly enveloped the road. At first, it appeared to be a huge storm cloud, quickly turning the bright, sunny afternoon into a dank, dreary and foreboding twilight. Then suddenly, the gray fog turned black, and the afternoon glow disappeared completely, totally wrapping the convoy in darkness. Visibility was reduced to an arm's length, and navigation consisted of obsessively staring at the taillights of the vehicle in front, staying within a yard or two of its back bumper, afraid of losing the way in the strange midday night that had descended upon the desert.

We had encountered what the Saudis call "The Great Cloud," the enormous mass of greasy smoke produced by the 500 burning Kuwaiti oil wells set aflame by the Iraqis. For more than 150 miles, this cloud remained a thick soup, the sickeningly sweet smell of burnt petroleum filling the lungs and depositing a gritty black soot on cars, clothes and skin. At regular intervals, a light misty rain would begin to fall, and the black water droplets made what would be permanently gray stains on the paint of trucks and cars.

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Darrin Hostetler