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Postscript : Families of Kuwaiti POWs Haunted by Doubts, Fears : The fates of 625 seized by Iraq are still unknown. Nearly every Kuwaiti counts a relative among the missing.


KUWAIT CITY — When Ahmad Asfoor's kid sisters first started drawing pictures and letters for him on walls of the family's home here, their mother tried to stop them. But now Amina Asfoor just paints over the walls from time to time, creating a new slate.

"They do it out of anxiety and frustration," she explained. "And I don't want to stop them. I've lost my son. I can't bear to lose my daughters too."

Four years have passed since Iraqi soldiers seized Ahmad as his family watched in shock, and the question of whether he is dead or alive lingers daily in his home. His mother regularly goes to Ahmad's small room, where the bed is made for his return. She presses his clothes to her chest and sobs.

Ahmad Asfoor was 18 at the time, one of 625 Kuwaitis arrested during the seven-month Iraqi occupation of 1990-91. Although known collectively here as "the prisoners of war," their fates in fact are unknown. Some may be in Iraqi jails; others are probably dead.

Their disappearance has devastated families, reached deeply into society and created a pervasive sense of unfinished business in Kuwait.

The slogan "We Will Never Forget You" is seen everywhere--on the windshields of cars, on the door of the Kuwait Airways ticket office and on the annual report of the Central Bank. At a medical conference last month, it was plastered on a booth between those for peddlers of intravenous drips and computer programs for doctors.

Kuwait's missing are so emblazoned in public consciousness that they are muzzling a government that wants to open up its rhetorical guns on Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president.

"Here you are dealing with a very sensitive question," said Sheik Salam al Sabah, a leading member of Kuwait's royal family. He is in charge of the National Committee for Prisoners of War. "You can't put too much pressure on Saddam because you don't know how he will react," Salam pointed out in an interview. "He deals brutally with his own people."

Some foreign diplomats question the approach, saying it raises expectations among families. "Of course, we hope for a happy ending," said a Western diplomat based in Kuwait. "But after this length of time, one can't be very optimistic."

On the other hand, Salam says the government has no choice but to try to keep family morale high. "Let me put it this way: I have no evidence they are dead," he said. "I have to be optimistic."

Although few in number, the missing Kuwaitis have blood ties with most of the extended families in this country. Of 1.6 million people here, only about a third are Kuwaiti citizens. And they were the targets of Hussein's soldiers. Almost every family has a brother or a father, a cousin or an uncle among the missing, who range in age from 16 to 82.

"It's really terrible for these families," said Dr. Jasem M. Hajia, a psychiatrist who has counseled almost 1,000 children suffering from postwar trauma. "The psyche of these people is really traumatized because they don't know what's going on.

"All their family decisions are on hold," he said. "Their emotions are exposed. They feel guilty for even wanting to be happy. They are angry at the United States for not killing Saddam. They are angry at Saddam. They are angry at everyone."

When Iraq massed troops near the Kuwaiti border last month, many families feared Hussein might use his captives as "human shields" to protect his troops. With the world's attention again focused on Kuwait, many families saw this as their last chance to pressure the Iraqi leader.

"This is really our last hope," said Amina Asfoor, Ahmad's mother. "Saddam is always lying. He will not release anybody without pressure. Before anybody leaves Kuwait, something must be done." Hussein's regime has said nothing about the missing Kuwaitis.

At a meeting of the POW committee, the extent of the heartbreak was clear. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers spoke angrily about Hussein. Four women fainted. Several mothers screamed at journalists present: "Hit Saddam! The U.S. must hit Saddam! You must do something!"

Homood Shemri grabbed a reporter's arm. "Please talk to my mother," the Kuwaiti engineer said. "She is very upset. She cries 24 hours a day."

The Shemri family story was achingly familiar. Khaled Hassain, Homood's younger brother, was arrested when the Iraqis invaded. He would be 22 now.

"This is painful for all the family," Homood said. His mother, Hanida, sobbed softly: "Please, please, I need my son."

Most family members carried photos of their missing loved ones. Amina Safoor had her son's picture put on buttons, and his sisters, ages 10 and 20, wore them.

Amina Safoor's husband, captured with her son but released, has had to take early retirement from his job in the government ministry of social affairs because of recurring illness caused, she said, by his detention and the unknown fate of his son.

Like many of the families, the Safoors have heard from men formerly held in Iraqi jails that their son has been seen. "I feel he is alive," she said.

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