Jeff Rickert will never forget the scene. Racing home from a breakfast meeting at the Kuwait Airport on Aug. 2, dodging tanks in the highway median and the Iraqi shells cratering the asphalt around him, Rickert roared past a Kuwaiti policeman who had pulled his patrol car to the side of the road. The Kuwaiti held his pistol high, angrily firing back toward the advancing Iraqis. "He's dead now -- he must be," Rickert sighs. But that spirit, he notes, lives on in the Kuwaiti resistance today.
He should know. Rickert, a 30-year-old chemical worker who recently returned to his North Carolina home, had lived in Kuwait about 18 months when the Iraqis invaded last August. In the ensuing weeks, he was propelled into what he says was a highly organized, even computerized, Kuwaiti underground.
Rickert and wife Brenda, 30, hid in their beachside apartment in Fahaheel, about 35 miles south of Kuwait City, until Sept. 9. A sympathetic Egyptian neighbor brought them food and water. Just before fleeing the country, he moved them a block down the street to another apartment owned by a family friend. The second building was safer but populated by hostile Palestinians, and the Rickerts were forced to stay indoors at all times.
Over the next two months, they survived door-to-door searches (neighbors told Iraqi looters the apartment was vacant) and several gun battles, including a 35-minute grenade siege of the building (Iraqi soldiers were trying to kill a sniper who was discovered in the complex next door). The couple nearly starved: Rickert lost 35 lbs., and his wife lost 30 lbs. "I've learned that you //will// eat anything," he says. That may have been the least of his worries: on one occasion, Rickert says, he saw five Iraqi soldiers rape a neighborhood woman. Kuwaitis were routinely beaten in the street.
In mid-November, the Rickerts heard on Voice of America that Western women and children were being allowed to leave Kuwait for home. In the early morning darkness of Nov. 18, the couple flagged down a car, bribed the driver into taking them to Kuwait Airport, and then bluffed their way through five checkpoints with a fake Austrian ID. The Iraqis were interested primarily in the luggage; most everything was stolen. The Rickerts made it to the airport in time.
Brenda boarded the plane to safety, and Jeff was left to figure out a way out of the airport without being caught. He fell into the arms of the Kuwaiti resistance.
The couple had caught the eye of a Lebanese man at the airport gate. He asked Rickert's nationality; Rickert lied at first, but eventually admitted to being American. The Lebanese -- who, as it later turned out, had relatives in who were naturalized Americans -- told him to "relax and blend in," and said he would get Rickert to safety. He was put in a car driven by a Kuwaiti national; the Lebanese man drove another car ahead of them. At the airport checkpoint, he cajoled the soldiers into not interrogating the "Austrian" because he'd already been stopped at several other checkpoints. The soldiers, apparently disinterested, let the second car drive by without inspection.
Rickert was taken to a safe house with three other Americans, a Briton, and the Kuwaiti who lived there. They were soon visited by a Kuwaiti businessman who, says Rickert, had become an intelligence officer in the resistance and was responsible for several other groups of Westerners. But Iraqi soldiers suddenly moved into the building next door and began interrogating the Kuwaiti host. The soldiers wanted to search the villa, mostly to see if there was anything inside worth stealing. Four days after their arrival, the intelligence officer returned and told the Westerners they'd have to move again -- to his own home. They donned traditional Kuwaiti garb, marched out the side of the villa in broad daylight, piled into a car, and followed a lead car driven by another Kuwaiti about 15 miles to another safe house. They stayed there until they were released two weeks ago.
The second Kuwaiti's villa turned out to be pivotal to resistance operations. Rickert learned two important lessons: first, the Iraqis were "more brutal than people have been led to believe"; second, the Kuwaitis were not a wealthy, unpatriotic people interested only in reestablishing their collective bank accounts. Rickert says he found determined, brave opposition to Iraqi rule. The Westerners immediately volunteered their services.
"We wanted to help out," says Rickert. "I had witnessed all these atrocities. I saw a woman gang-raped. I saw five Kuwaitis carried into a villa by Iraqi soldiers -- collaborators had turned them in -- then brought out all bloodied. As they were forced into the car, their heads were shoved into the molding. I'm sure they were killed." In the new villa, the Westerners found Polaroids of other Iraqi brutalities. Rickert vividly remembers one in which a local businessman who refused to hang a portrait of Hussein in his establishment was pictured with all his fingers chopped off, his right arm and both legs broken, and a square cut in his face. "We knew of a man killed for his car, a man killed for his carpet, and a 2-year-old child killed during rape," says Rickert. "These guys are just animals. These people are victims of genocide."
According to Rickert, the Kuwaiti resistance started last August with defiant acts of terrorism, particularly bombings and drive-by shootings (Iraqi vehicles were often broken down by the side of the road. Another former hostage, Miles Hoffman of Columbus, Ga., claims to have been approached by Kuwaitis who needed silencers for the shootings; he was unable to help.)
"Although we did not fight battles, we did organize raids and car bombings," Rickert says. "They were really clever about it. There were always two bombs. One would go off and destroy a building where the Iraqis were. But there would also be a car bomb about 20 meters away, set to go off about 30 minutes later when other soldiers came to clear the debris.
"Now the Iraqis are //very// paranoid about parked cars. There are no cars allowed in the airport unless allowed by the [Iraqi security agency] CID. When the American men were leaving, the Iraqis kept saying they weren't going to let anyone on the plane until they found out whose Mercedes was parked into the lot outside."
By the time Rickert was introduced, however, the underground was already abandoning guerrilla tactics. Too many young Kuwaitis had died, he says, and leaders realized that these largely symbolic efforts would not defeat the enormous Iraqi army.
"It's highly organized," says Rickert. "It's not a hit-and-run group anymore. They decided that's just not as beneficial as the work they are doing now....They had to change tactics. Living under occupation, you'll be caught at [high-profile acts] eventually.....They're more organized now about where to go and not go, what to say and not say. They've had four-and-a-half months experience. The ones who are losing their lives now are civilians who have something that the Iraqis want to steal."
The Kuwaiti resistance has turned its attention to gathering intelligence on the locations and activities of Iraqi soldiers and fortifications. The intelligence officer with whom the Westerners lived was responsible for compiling reports from various informants, including Iraqi soldiers paid for their services. The Kuwaiti relied on his Western guests to help identify Iraqi weapons systems -- occasionally sketched out on the table -- and to write the info on computer in readable English.
"This information was gathered at the site where we were located, and it was compiled in English," says Rickert. "We typed it into a computer, and it was smuggled out to certain divisions. We had a high success rate. Smugglers were caught trying to come in to help the resistance, but not going out."
The information on computer was normally faxed from the villa to military contacts with the multinational force in the Saudi desert. Some material, though, had to be hand-delivered. Four Kuwaitis often carried Polaroids and videotapes from Kuwait City to the Saudi desert. "Never has the Allied command been better informed of placements than it is now," says Rickert. "Where can the soldiers hide? There are no trees, no mountain ridges. They're out in the open."
The underground is financed by Kuwait's outcast leaders. "The government in exile was smuggling money into the resistance," says Rickert. "It was Iraqi dinar. The resistance would take the money and divide among the groups responsible for Westerners. Others groups would get money for weapons or to pay informers in the Iraqi army. It was a beautiful system."
The Westerners hidden in villas wrote up lists of what they needed; Kuwaitis bought it for them with the smuggled funds. They were occasionally assisted by those foreigners who had freer run: Austrians (Waldheim's visit eased tensions there), Lebanese and, to a lesser extent, Canadians. It was too dangerous for most to leave their villas: Iraqi CID agents constantly were looking for foreigners, hoping they might lead them to resistance leaders. A favorite CID tactic: simply to approach and ask the time. Many of those in hiding quickly developed strong Austrian accents.
While declining to provide specific numbers, Rickert claims the resistance "is run by a few military men and a lot of businessmen, with some individuals who've just volunteered. I'd say 98 percent of it is Kuwaiti....It's lots and lots of people everywhere, more people than you would believe....They're resisting every way they can." Many in the Kuwaiti military, Rickert notes, were executed during the first days of the invasion. Those who escaped did so with forged identification.
Early on, says Rickert, the underground's efforts were hampered by "misinformed" Palestinian collaborators who endorsed Saddam Hussein. He claims that their support has eroded, though, and that Iraqis have been reduced to threatening and harassing the Palestinians as they do the Kuwaitis. At the same time, the underground has developed sources within the occupying Iraqi army. Not all are paid. "The resistance has a few Iraqi collaborators who tell them what they should or should not do because they disagree with what Saddam Hussein has done," says Rickert.
According to Rickert, the Kuwaiti underground long ago gave up the notion that the Iraqis will leave without force, and members have staked their hopes on a multi-national invasion. There are two primary reasons. First, Rickert says the resistance believes the sanctions are ineffective.
"Until Nov. 18, I thought sanctions would work," he says. "But when I got with the Kuwaitis and I saw food and produce and dairy products, I thought, 'What a joke!' There's milk, pasteurized milk, powered milk -- even chocolate milk over there. We could get Washington state apples! They were smuggled in from Lebanon and Jordan, and a little from Iran. The stuff had country labels on it. I have a pack of cigarettes that says 'imported especially for the Iraq private sector.' They're not suffering, except for spare parts and oil exports....
"The Iraqis just joke about it. The soldiers laugh and say, 'Let the sanctions work' and lean back and smoke a cigarette....The petrol flows freely. The only reason they have gas tickets is to trap Kuwaitis who haven't signed their IDs over to Iraq. Food is actually cheaper -- Saddam is heavily subsidizing it. Don't ask me where he gets the money."
Second, Kuwaiti resistors also maintain that Iraqi troops are far less prepared than they've been described in the Western media.
"The media over here are touting the Iraqi army as a professional military machine," says Rickert. "It was a joke among those of us in hiding and in the resistance. Only the [Republican] Guards, called the Red Berets, and the CID are well trained. The others are just highly trained looters and experts in torture....
"In terms of military strategy, from our own knowledge, these [soldiers] are not well trained. They are bakers and gas-station attendants, and the Iraqis just gave them uniforms and guns and said, 'OK, here's number 1,999.' But they've made their fortune. They've looted the country. Kuwait City is a ghost town. Every building has been looted -- there were trucks just going building to building. And now Iraqi families are being bussed in and rewarded with free furniture and appliances."
Since his return, Rickert has been outraged by the widespread perception that rich Kuwaitis are doing nothing for themselves. "I owe my life to these people," he says. "They are extremely brave and courageous, and in all the time they were hiding us, not once did they ask us for favors or reward. They felt it was their duty to protect us because we were pawns."
Rickert says he and others were in contact with the Kuwaiti who compiled information at the villa until last Sunday, when communication suddenly stopped. Rickert fears the man has been discovered. "The Iraqis proved time and time again that the price for helping Westerners was death," he says.
And a final warning: "Keep in mind they get your magazine and CNN, and whatever is specifically pointed out, they use."