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Coverage of Kuwaiti 605 in Philadelphia News and Inquirer (US)

In Kuwait, hope lingers for 605 
They were grabbed after Iraq invaded in 1990. The U.N., too, wants to know
the POWs' fate. 

By Barbara Demick

KUWAIT CITY - With hardly a trace, Samira Marafie vanished one Saturday
afternoon almost a decade ago.

It was Nov. 10, 1990, during Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, and Marafie was
volunteering as a nursing assistant at Mubarak Hospital. Her mother, Bahahja
Marafie, recalls that her daughter came home for lunch that day and returned
in the afternoon for a meeting.

"She said she would call me after her meeting at 6 o'clock, but by 5:30 I
was perspiring," Bahahja said. "I felt something had happened." 

Sure enough, it had. But exactly what and why remains a mystery.

Samira Marafie is officially classified as a prisoner of war - one of 605
Kuwaitis missing nearly 10 years after the Iraqi invasion. The POWs might be
more properly termed hostages since four-fifths were civilians snatched off
the street by the Iraqis with no apparent pattern. Some were merely
teenagers at the time, the youngest a 14-year-old picked up for writing
anti-Iraqi graffiti.

Yesterday, the plight of the Kuwaiti prisoners drew the attention of the
U.N. Security Council. Security Council members expressed "deep concern" for
the missing Kuwaitis and called on Iraq to cooperate with the U.N. envoy
trying to determine their fate. 

The best evidence of Marafie's fate comes from hospital colleagues who say
that she was taken for questioning by Iraqi soldiers who suspected she was
part of the Kuwaiti resistance. Marafie's mother got one tantalizing glimpse
of her daughter through the locked gates of a police station. A witness
later told the family he had spotted Marafie working in the laundry of a
Baghdad hospital in August 1991, six months after Iraq's defeat in the
Persian Gulf war.

In the aftermath of the gulf war, the POWs are the most pressing issue
outstanding between Kuwait and Iraq. Hardly anybody in Kuwait talks about
the $2 billion in war reparations still owed by Iraq, or frets over the
threat of Iraqi biological and chemical weapons; but the question of the
POWs is very much alive.

Neon yellow ribbons illuminate some office buildings in Kuwait City - in
honor of the POWs. Holiday celebrations in Kuwait are muted since the war,
out of respect for the families. Step into any Kuwait embassy and you will
see walls covered with posters and photographs of POWs.

An aggressive lobbying campaign has also kept the POW issue alive in the
international arena. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in February appointed
an envoy, retired Russian diplomat Yuli Vorontsov, to deal with the POW

The first meeting between Vorontsov and Kuwaiti officials and families took
place this month. Yesterday, Vorontsov met with Security Council members,
and afterward, council president Robert Fowler of Canada said Vorontsov was
still trying to meet with Iraqi officials. 

The U.N. report did not state flatly that Iraq refused to receive Vorontsov.
But it said that he had "already attempted to contact the Iraqi
representatives to assure their cooperation" and that he would "continue his
efforts to establish dialogue with the Iraqi side."

To an outsider, it might seem a disproportionate fuss for 605 people, but
there are only about 700,000 Kuwaitis in total. If the equivalent percentage
of the United States were missing, it would amount to 250,000 people.

"Imagine if a quarter of a million Americans were in the same situation, the
issue it would be in the United States," said one diplomat. "Bigger than

In a report to the U.N. Security Council last week, Annan said that
"progress in solving the issue of Kuwaiti missing persons would improve
Iraq's stance in the world and, in particular, ameliorate the political
climate among the Arab states." 

Kuwait's National Committee for POW Affairs is ensconced in a spacious
cultural center and museum on Kuwait City's outskirts. Most evenings, family
members gather at the center to commiserate with one another.

Bahahja Marafie, a regular at these sessions, spreads out a wad of old
photographs on a table like a deck of cards. There is Samira as a 4-year-old
sticking her tongue out at the camera. A vampy teenager with long, black
hair tossed Veronica Lake-style over her face. A grown-up Samira with
shoulder-length hair tastefully highlighted.

"She was a very clever girl. She liked poetry. She liked drawing," Bahahja,
60, says with matter-of-fact resignation.

With slight embarrassment, she tells of her dreams. "I'm not somebody who
usually believes in dreams. But every two or three nights, she comes to me.
Sometimes she wears a green dress, the other night a white dress. She holds
out her hand and says, 'Mother, help me.' " 

Kuwait takes the position that most of the POWs are alive, held somewhere in
Iraq as potential bargaining chips for some future round of trading. Duaij
Al Anzi, general manager of the National Committee for POW Affairs, notes
that Iraq and Iran are still trading and releasing prisoners from the war
that ended in 1988.

"Iraq always denied they had Iranian POWs," Al Anzi said. "They were denying
it for years, just like they denied they had biological and chemical
weapons. This is the kind of regime you're dealing with." 

Four years ago, Iraq acknowledged that it had held 126 Kuwaitis but said
that it "lost" the prisoners during the chaotic final days of the gulf war
and the uprisings in southern Iraq. Kuwait rejects that explanation.

"This is a totalitarian regime. They don't simply lose people," said Abdul
Hamad Al Attar, a retired Kuwaiti government official, whose son Jamal is
among the missing. 

Jamal Al Attar, who was 25 at the time he was taken, worked as an engineer
in Kuwait's radio station. On the morning of Aug. 2, 1990, when the Iraqi
army rolled into Kuwait, the radio station was seized and the Iraqis started
a hunt for its employees, hoping to mobilize them for their own
broadcasting. Jamal went underground, sleeping at different friends'
apartments and frequently changing locations.

Nevertheless, he was caught on Sept. 15 and taken to a police station under
Iraqi control.

"I saw his blue Suzuki jeep in the parking lot," recalled his father. "But
the Iraqi soldiers denied he was there. I was arguing with them and my son
heard me and yelled out, 'Father, I am here.' After that, I didn't hear one
more word, as though somebody grabbed him or pushed something in his mouth."

In total, the Iraqis captured more than 6,000 Kuwaitis during the nearly
seven months that they occupied Kuwait. The prisoners were eventually sent
to Basra, a city in southern Iraq. But most of those prisoners managed to
get free during an uprising against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that swept
Basra in March 1991.

At the time, the Iraqis were in the process of transferring the Kuwaiti
prisoners to Baghdad, and it would seem that the 605 still missing were
those who had the misfortune to be on the first buses out of Basra.

"They were the unlucky ones," said Abdul Al Attar.

Unlike most other family members, Al Attar believes that most, if not all,
of the 605 POWs are dead.

"My personal point of view is that there is no reason for the Iraqis to keep
them," he said. "They are of no use. It's interesting that there were
members of the ruling family and government officials who were released
immediately after the war. But these were not important people." 

Those Kuwaitis who are devoting their lives to the release of the POWs say
that in the absence of bodies or any other evidence of their deaths, it has
to be assumed that the prisoners are alive.

Ahmed Abdul Wahad, 40, a volunteer at the POW committee, is the brother of a
19-year-old Kuwaiti student who was captured on his way home from a school
vacation. Loai Abdul Wahad had been traveling in Asia with a school group
during the Iraqi invasion and tried to sneak back into the country through
the Saudi desert to see his family.

"They [the Iraqis] captured him," Ahmed said. "They tortured him. They
burned him with cigarettes. I visited him twice and I could smell death
inside the jail. So we have to assume the worst. But we who do this work
have stopped asking ourselves are they dead or alive. We want now one simple
thing: to clarify what happened to them."

Barbara Demick's e-mail address is 
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