From then on, few Baghdadis went to shelters anymore. Clearly, it was safer at home. The sirens and missiles and bombs became just another part of their miserable lives, and, astonishingly, children began to emerge from their homes, flying kites and playing football and pretending all was well.
Banker Tarik Mazidi heard it first on the radio. He was up at 4 a.m., listening with his brother. The British Broadcasting Corp. had reports of American air strikes against Baghdad.
His friend, Othman Othman, was sleeping. "I got a phone call from Tarik," Othman recalls, "saying, 'Five rockets are hitting over Baghdad. Get to your basement! Hurry up!'
"I feel quiet, so quiet. I don't hear anything. I wake up my mother and my sisters and tell them, 'Wake up, wake up, the war started.' "
He remembers it all clearly. And it still makes him excited.
Suddenly, all over this city in captivity, Othman recalls, all 47 varieties of hell broke loose. Virtually every antiaircraft battery opened fire, sending a stream of rockets and tracer rounds streaming into the sky, turning the darkness a dull red and causing an unearthly sound.
"The Iraqis were telling each other the war started--not by phones, not by CB, but by bullets," Othman says.
For many of the next several days, Kuwaiti families stayed in basement shelters, sure that an invasion of liberation was imminent. But it wasn't. And as the air war dragged on, fear set in.
"We kept thinking today, tomorrow, he's going to withdraw. When Saddam realizes they are serious about this, he's going to have to. But a day passes, another day, a day, another day, a week passes, a month. Then we say, 'Wait a minute, don't tell me 28 countries aren't going to beat this guy,' " says Walid Abdul, a bank employee. To him, it still seemed an incredible thought.
Actually, little of the air war was visited on Kuwait city. Shelling from the big guns of the battleships Wisconsin and Missouri pounded some fast-food restaurants and a marina. Occasionally, a boom and a plume of smoke would indicate that some target on the outskirts of the city had been hit. Frequently, Kuwaitis could hear the dull thud of B-52 strikes against Iraqi troops near the Iraqi city of Basra and see plumes of fire rising into the air from the north.
Suddenly, the booms from the heaviest bombing started coming from the south, and Kuwaitis could hear an incredible barrage being unleashed against Iraqi forces along the Saudi border. Still, Saddam Hussein did not withdraw.
"I heard the quantity of bombs was equivalent to the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima," Othman says. "I asked Tarik, 'How can he resist? What kind of human being is he?' And he told me he doesn't care about his army, he doesn't care about his people."
The Iraqis holding Kuwait city hostage became even more vicious, arresting people randomly on the streets and accusing them of representing the Kuwaiti resistance, or simply taking people into custody with no explanation at all. People were rounded up in the mosques, in their homes, at the point of a bazooka--several thousand over three days.
Two Iraqi soldiers in Rumaithia halted a man driving in a car, forced him into the trunk, then drove off in the car. Cars became hot property. A merchant family had a Mercedes tanker truck with no wheels parked next to their home. Iraqi soldiers showed up with wheels to fit it, hot-wired the vehicle and drove it off.
"I was praying to God the ground war would start so it would occupy the savages," says one Kuwaiti.
As days passed, conditions in Kuwait city deteriorated even more. Sometime around Feb. 19, phones were cut entirely. But many were still able to receive CNN broadcasts through Bahrain and Dubai TV. There was always talk of a ground attack. Kuwaitis were hopeful that rescue was imminent at last.
On the other hand, they heard news analysts express concern about violent house-to-house fighting, or the possibility that Iraq might unleash chemical or biological weapons on Kuwait city.
With the phones not working, Othman and Mazidi strung rope between their two houses with bells on either end.
One would pull on the rope if he needed to talk to the other.
There was little sense here of a city at war. Security was tightened at government buildings--tours of the White House and Pentagon were eliminated; a street alongside the State Department was closed and became a parking lot for delivery trucks; police officers at Washington airports began picking up and disposing of stray baggage.
Yet, for the most part, life continued much as before. Except for one thing: television. Suddenly, television sets were everywhere. People put them on their desks in government offices. Work simply halted when Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly's daily 3:30 p.m. Pentagon briefing aired live. In the offices of some senior government officials, CNN's theme music became a background hum.