KUWAIT CITY — Desperately, she grasps at each vague rumor that her husband might still be alive.
For Fawzia Ali and her seven children, the weeks of waiting have become months. Her husband, a captain in the Kuwaiti navy, was among the first to disappear during the Iraqi occupation.
He may never come home. Ali's husband, Mohammed Jasim Rowmaydeen, is one of an estimated 3,000 Kuwaitis still listed as missing nearly three months after Iraqi troops were driven from this desert emirate.
Their enduring absence and the official lethargy in accounting for them has given rise to an ad-hoc human rights group--a rarity in Kuwait--that is campaigning to prevent these victims from becoming the forgotten casualties of the Persian Gulf War.
Even more important, discussion of the missing has become yet another forum for Kuwaitis to vent their increasing frustration and impatience with the government.
"The government gives the impression that they are not eagerly pursuing these cases," said Abdullah Nubari, a leading opposition figure who counts two relatives among the missing. "Is it negligence or an inability to do something because of the Iraqi attitude? We cannot be certain. It seems to be a sort of incompetence. Of course, this applies to everything else the government does. It's a mess."
Most of the missing were last seen being taken away by the Iraqis. They include civilians, military personnel and police.
The government maintains that it is exhausting all means available to locate Kuwaitis taken captive. Officials have filed complaints with the United Nations and, at periodic meetings among Iraqi military authorities and allied commanders, a Kuwaiti representative demands information on the cases, sources familiar with the sessions say.
Privately, officials believe that many of the missing are dead, killed either by the Iraqis or in the punishing allied air strikes that pummeled Iraq's cities.
About 6,000 Kuwaitis have been released by Iraq under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. They returned with tales of deplorable conditions in which they were held: sewage-filled cells, filthy drinking water and torture.
The return of all prisoners of war is required under the U.N.-sponsored cease-fire that formally ended the Gulf War.
Several times in March and April, Iraq announced that it had released all its allied prisoners. But as recently as last week, 15 more Kuwaitis were identified and returned.
The Kuwait government has also been accused of refusing to recognize some of the missing because they are \o7 bidoun\f7 --stateless Arabs descended from nomadic tribes--or Arabs with other nationalities. These "non-Kuwaitis" might have lived in Kuwait their entire lives but are not considered citizens and are accorded second-class legal status.
Some of the missing are \o7 bidouns\f7 believed to be languishing in a border refugee camp and refused entry by a new Kuwaiti government policy aimed at reducing the numbers of "non-Kuwaitis" in the emirate.
The list of the missing and prisoners of war, nonetheless, includes some prominent Kuwaiti names, including that of a former Parliament member and his family.
Impatient with what they see as their government's lackluster efforts, and fearful that the world has begun to turn its attention to other causes, relatives and volunteers founded the Kuwaiti Committee for the Defense of War Victims.
From a converted banquet hall used during better times for wedding parties, committee members talk to the fathers, mothers and spouses who almost daily file reports on missing loved ones. Names and addresses are entered into a computer and regularly updated. Hoping to drum up publicity, the group this month launched a Western-style campaign that has included a 10-mile foot race, bumper stickers and supermarket sign-ups.
But for people like Fawzia Ali, the quest is more personal, unending and filled with illusory glimpses of hope.
The 42-year-old mother of seven scours accounts given by returning captives, searching descriptions of those left behind in the hopes of finding one that might match her husband's. She asks about him when meeting anyone who might have any information from Iraq.
"He's a bit chubby, has a bald patch . . .," she tells anyone who will listen.
First, she heard the rumor that his name was called out among a group of war prisoners, as though he were being summoned or singled out. Then, she heard that he had been killed. Then, she heard he was alive. Most recently, a returnee told a friend of a friend that he thought he had seen Rowmaydeen.
"There is lots of news that he is still there, alive," Ali said. "But there is no evidence. . . . We are not sure."
Rowmaydeen was seized by the Iraqis on Aug. 2, the first day of the occupation. He was held for three days at a Kuwaiti naval base, then released. He dropped out of sight in September when he went underground to work with the resistance, Ali said.