KUWAIT CITY — It was just after 1 o'clock one quiet afternoon last week when a middle-aged engineer sauntered into the headquarters of Kuwait's National Committee for Missing Persons and Prisoners of War. He asked for his former wife, a secretary in the office that has come to symbolize a war-scarred nation's continuing battle from within.
He had 51 bullets in his pocket, a .357 magnum in his hand and, as his former wife's colleagues later put it, "the madness" in his mind.
Before he left the building moments later to quietly surrender at a nearby police station, the engineer, a member of Kuwait's upper middle class who had earned degrees at top American universities, had pumped nearly a dozen bullets into his ex-wife and her boss, adding two more names to the list of dead in postwar social carnage that is Kuwait's enduring nightmare.
"It's the \o7 mahjnoun\f7 , the madness--this tension that piles up and piles up and, finally, it breaks your mind," explained Duaij Anzi, the committee's chairman. "Two years ago, this kind of killing never could have happened in Kuwait. Now, we see it all the time.
"During the occupation of our country, we have seen so much. So much killing. So many guns. So many bullets. So much crisis. So much pain. . . . You cannot imagine what is still in the mind."
Kuwait was liberated nearly 18 months ago, but its people remain prisoners of the pain and the violence that seven months of Iraqi occupation sowed deeply within them.
The double murder at Kuwait's committee for missing persons was not an isolated incident. A week earlier, a teen-age boy shot and killed a classmate outside a high school to settle a fight they had had three years before. A Kuwaiti man tortured during the Iraqi occupation turned on his wife with a machine gun during a domestic dispute.
Such incidents have contributed to a murder rate that police officials say has more than doubled in this tiny nation, where most families are related and where killing was, until two years ago, the stuff largely of Western videotapes.
Behind the violence, say senior police officials and psychologists who are now working overtime to treat postwar Kuwait, is a nation in deep trauma--hundreds of thousands of men, women and children with nightmares, psychosomatic disorders, insomnia, frustration, guilt and, for many, unvented hate.
This trauma, experts say, is compounded by Kuwait's cultural and social traditions--ancient Bedouin traits of shunning madness, revealing only strength and, as a result, institutionalizing what psychologists call denial.
"We are a scarred nation," said Jasem M. Hajia, one of Kuwait's handful of professional psychologists, who reckons that as many as 80% of all 700,000 Kuwaitis suffer forms of what experts call post-trauma stress syndrome. "Everywhere, I see the displaced anger. I see the frustration. I see the guilt. I see the denial. I see the sadness, the grief and the pain. So much pain.
"On the outside, we cover it all up. But inside, no, we are traumatized. We are sad."
It's not that the tiny Persian Gulf emirate is awash in crime. The murder rate doubled in a year--but from fewer than 40 killings in 1991 to more than 80 homicides so far this year. Kuwait city remains among the safest metropolitan areas in the world, where foreigners walk unmolested at night and beach cafes are filled nightly. (Each, though, has a large-screen television where Kuwaitis constantly monitor news stations.)
But in a society where murder, armed robbery and crimes of passion were virtually unknown before Iraq's invasion, senior police officials have concluded that the mounting incidence of violent crimes is proof of a fundamental change in Kuwaiti society.
"Not many societies have experienced a total occupation, as happened here in Kuwait," declared Brig. Gen. Abdul Wajeed Khuraibet, chief of the police department's statistics, planning and criminology division. "We are witnessing a new phenomenon of human society, and of our society's behavior."
Khuraibet said police were forced to crack down on traffic violations, which had long been all but ignored in the emirate, when mad speeders were "killing almost as many people as we lost in the war."
Compounding the problem of violent crime are "hundreds of thousands of guns, ammunition and explosives left behind after the war," he said. And so severe has the crime problem become that his division launched a massive behavioral study, distributing 20,000 68-item questionnaires to a random sample of Kuwaitis about such matters as their attitudes toward violence and whether they still say "please" and "thank you."
"The Iraqi occupation was a time of complete lawlessness," he said. "During that time, people witnessed so much killing, so much looting--even the traffic lights were stolen. And the people lived in that environment for so long. We are just now beginning to see its full effects."