Kuwait Zoo, Museums Assess Iraqi Damage
Besides mistreating and killing animals, invading soldiers stole or burned valuable cultural artifacts
KUWAIT CITY — TO see the very worst in human nature that came with the Iraqi occupation, one need look no farther than the Syrian brown bears at the Kuwait City Zoo. As food is offered to the huge creatures in their filthy cages, the bears are barely able to grunt. Instead, they peer out with dull eyes, the result of nearly seven months of abuse and neglect after Iraqi troops turned the zoo into a military camp.
But if the bears' eyes reflect the worst of human cruelty, the very best in human nature is found in the two Kuwaiti brothers who took it upon themselves to try and defend the animals and bring them food.
Ali Mubarak Al-Houti and his brother Suleiman had only been occasional zoo visitors when they watched in horror as Iraqi troops used birds for target practice, ate everything from gazelles and llamas to the pigs in the children's petting zoo, and left many other rare animals to fend for themselves.
"I talked to the commanding three-star general as he was about to shoot the monkey," Mr. Al-Houti said as a monkey hobbled across a square in the zoo, long-since out of its cage.
"But he didn't listen. Others I tell them, 'Wait, I will bring you videos, cigarettes, but do not kill the animals.' And some I saved like that."
Before Aug. 2, Al-Houti was a sanitation man, Suleiman a security guard. Now they are dressed in red zookeeper fatigues, having come to help out after the zoo's regular employees fled in August when the Iraqis tried to conscript them.
Of the 442 animals originally in the zoo, only a handful survived. The two brothers often brought meat for the lions and tigers, the only animals which now appear healthy. And they say they did what was possible to maintain the zoo grounds, now scattered with the debris of the departed Army, including sandbags and litter.
A giraffe, camel, and bison-like Scottish Highland steer wander aimlessly around the zoo grounds, as do those monkeys and baboons that escaped. Aziz the elephant has a bullet wound in her left shoulder but is on the rebound, according to John Walsh of the Boston-based World Society for the Protection of Animals.
"You can see where they were ramming bars up against the animals to torment them, apart from having shot and eaten many others," Mr. Walsh said as he watched members of the Army 100th Veterinary Medical Unit pump fetid water out of the hippopotamus pool recently.
"They were purely sadistic in nature. We're trying to identify the general who oversaw this, and bring [this issue] before the United Nations so he can be tried under the cruelty laws of this country."
The city zoo is not the only Kuwaiti cultural institution ravaged by the invasion. Equally appalling are the charred remains of the Kuwait National Museum, which scholars say housed one of the world's top collections of Islamic art.
The central bank and the complex of red-brick museum buildings were among the first targets of the invasion, and the Iraqis lost no time in hauling off many priceless treasures to Baghdad. What they could not take was destroyed when the troops subsequently torched the buildings, including the library.
The antiquities ranged from medieval Persian carpets to ancient Egyptian crystal chess pieces and priceless manuscripts. All have vanished, and museum authorities are still unsure just what was stolen and what was burned.
"I feel as if a part of me is gone," said museum director Ibraheem Al-Baghli two weeks ago as he looked wistfully at the destroyed buildings. "Each piece was like a son to me, and now they have died."
Buried in the ankle-deep ashes of the main archaeological room are the fragments of a Greek column of Persian design, as well as vases and artifacts from various civilizations that have inhabited offshore Faylakah Island. Beginning more than 3,000 years ago, the island was a trading center and was a stopping point for the armies of Alexander the Great.
MAKING reporters on a walk through one burned-out room after another, museum guide Ahmed Al-Tattan was crushed to see that only the hinges and intricate doorknob remain from a huge 14th-century wooden door from Fez, Morocco. He called it one of the museum's most important pieces.
"It had elaborate carved inscriptions from the Holy Qu'ran, and was the centerpiece of the Islamic wing," Mr. Al-Tattan said dejectedly, looking at the tall metal frame which once held the door in place.
"Really, I had hoped and prayed they had taken it to Baghdad, but now I find the doorknob and ashes here."
Fortunately, 140 of the Islamic section's 1,500 pieces were out of the country last August in a traveling exhibition currently in Dallas. The collection belonged to Kuwait's ruling Al-Sabah family, which was the target of Iraqi wrath - as were buildings throughout the city such as the Emir's residence.
Under the cease-fire agreements, Baghdad has agreed to return stolen treasures, as well as gold reserves from the central bank. But the burned remains are grim evidence that much is lost.
"Saddam Hussein committed crimes against humanity and the environment, but this is a crime against civilization," said United States Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Greenhut, a historian now helping assess the damages with the Kuwaitis.
The soldiers also destroyed the adjacent planetarium, firing tank rounds at the metal dome from outside. And they used precious weavings of Bedouin nomads for bedding. These were kept in a carpet museum inside a nearby adobe house that is the oldest building in Kuwait.
"Most of those weavings are from Bedouins who primarily live in Iraq, so if their intention was to destroy things Kuwaiti, there's certainly a bitter irony," said Manuel Keene, an Islamic art scholar from the US, and a long-term resident of Kuwait.
Mr. Keene was one of few Americans who remained in Kuwait throughout the occupation, staying with friends and using a false identity.
"I had 20 years worth of papers and research work, and could not bear the idea of leaving them behind to their fate," the soft-spoken man said. Keene has had a long association with the museum, which opened in a landmark ceremony in 1983 as one of the Middle East's most outstanding cultural institutions.
Not all of Kuwait's museums have been destroyed. One private collection of gold and jewelry survived when its owner built a false wall to hide it. Institutions such as the Natural History Museum were hardly touched.
Some missing items may also have been saved when people hid pieces in their homes.
"We still don't know everything that's out there, and probably won't know until the Iraqis themselves start bringing things back," said Col. Greenhut.