Sense of Security Still Escapes Many Kuwaitis

Iraqi government statements insisting on Baghdad's claim to Kuwait persist

FREE Kuwait!" From bumper stickers, coffee cups, and wall grafitti, the slogan rings out wherever one turns in Kuwait City. But just how precarious that sense of freedom feels to Kuwaitis, nearly two years after Iraqi troops were ejected from their land, is equally obvious.

At the refurbished airport, underground public shelters have been installed. Detailed public service announcements on Kuwaiti television instruct viewers on how to defend themselves against missile assault. As many as 100,000 Kuwaitis have armed themselves, illegally, against the threat of attack.

"Kuwaitis don't feel secure at all," says Dr. Ghanem al-Najjar, director of the Kuwaiti Association for the Defense of War Victims. "[Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein showed us what `secure borders' mean. They don't mean anything."

Memories of the shattering seven-month Iraqi occupation are still fresh in Kuwaiti minds. And while some say that time will ease the pain, others feel that the government's policies, and its alleged neglect of those who suffered most, will only worsen it. Profound insecurity

At every level - individual, social, and economic - Kuwait is still traumatized by its experience at Iraqi hands, and a profound sense of insecurity bedevils every aspect of the country's life.

"Kuwaitis know that they live in a dangerous neighborhood, and a lot of them believe literally that tomorrow morning Saddam Hussein's tanks will be in downtown Kuwait," one Western diplomat says.

Although defense agreements with the United States, Britain, and France offer a measure of protection, "most people here do not trust the government or the Army to provide them with security," says Jassem Hajia, a child psychologist who works with victims of the occupation. "In just a few hours on Aug. 2 [1990] all our institutions simply collapsed."

Such worries are commonplace on both sides of a deep divide in Kuwaiti society, between those who stayed in Kuwait and suffered the bitterness of occupation, and those who fled or who were out of the country when Iraqi troops invaded.

The government has been anxious to play down those differences, arguing that "we are all Kuwaitis." But that attitude, and many instances of preferential treatment shown to those who sat out the occupation abroad, have bred resentment among many who stayed. "The government says that to reward us would be divisive for society," argues Fatima Abdali, a scientist who remained in Kuwait during the occupation. "But not being fair divides society too."

"My colleagues who were outside were working at universities and publishing papers while I was doing civil disobedience, not going to work, and waiting in line for two hours for a loaf of bread," she complains. "And we feel that the people who don't deserve it are getting all the rewards" in terms of jobs and influence in the new Kuwait.

Without the benefit of their exiled royal family and government, Kuwaitis organized themselves under the occupation, a development that threatened the emirate's traditional rulers, Dr. Najjar says. "The government went in very forcefully to take its rule back," he adds, "and that alienated a lot of people."

The anger they feel overlays the deep personal stress that all of them underwent, and which persists, Dr. Hajia says, although most "try to pretend everything is OK and sweep it all under the carpet."

The evidence, he says, is clear. "I used to have one appointment a day. Now I have no free time." Also, he adds, "we see a lot more violence in society now. Before people hardly ever settled their differences by shooting. Now it happens often."

That, suggests Adl Omar, the man in charge of assessing the physical damage Kuwait suffered under the occupation, is a darker side of the new freedom of expression people feel since liberation. "People use any means to express their feelings, even firearms and violence," he worries.

Meanwhile, according to Hajia, Kuwaitis who did not personally endure the occupation feel guilt. "The children say that their parents forced them to leave, and the parents deal with their guilt by minimizing the suffering of those who stayed," he says. "It only makes things worse." Corporate anxiety

Independent organizations working with those who suffered worst at Iraqi hands - torture victims, relatives of people killed, or the families of the approximately 700 Kuwaitis still believed to be imprisoned in Iraq - charge the government with doing little to help. "The government set up a center to help torture victims, but I don't think it will have much effect," Najjar says. "A few hundred people have registered, but I don't see a serious marketing effort to get all the way to the people in need."

Kuwaitis' personal fears about their future are matched by corporate anxiety, and uncertainty is widespread in the business community. Continuous Iraqi statements insisting on Baghdad's claim to Kuwait have dampened the emirate's economic recovery, businessmen say, as potential investors hedge their bets.

"There is a lack of confidence, because the private sector people are not so sure where things are going in the future," says Dr. Omar. "A lot of people have moved their money abroad."

Some Kuwaitis hope that the new National Assembly, elected last week, will help cure both individual and economic ills. "Parliament will be a wonderful remedy," Hajia predicts, "because up until now we have not dealt with anything. Parliament will speak for the people and maybe cure the pain. At least they won't deny it."

But if parliament can help deal with the past, planning for a secure future will be an even harder task. "Looking at the longer term, we cannot be happy," says Ayed Manna, a journalist and political analyst. "Because if one day there is a pro-Western government in Iraq, and it renews Baghdad's claim, we can't expect the same as what happened in 1991."

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