Black and white photojournalism by award winning photographer David Lee Longstreath
tales from the trail
Hole in the fence part 2
Almost no light filtered through the hallways of the Kuwait International Hotel as I made my way to a seventh-floor suite the night of Feb. 27, 1991. It was the day that Iraq surrendered.
I could see by flashlight that the door to our rooms had been kicked open, the base around the heavy frame most likely splintered by Iraqi soldiers when they burglarized the hotel.
Saddam Hussein had invaded his neighbor because Kuwait had money and after 10 years of fighting a war against Iran he was broke. The story goes that he asked for help and the Kuwaitis turned him down. So he decided just to take the country. The U.S. stood by and watched as the invasion began on Aug 2, 1990.
It took only about a month of coordinated airstrikes to put the vaunted Iraqi army on its knees. And it only took General Norman Swartzcroft about four days to defeat the Iraqis in an end around through the desert that surprised everyone including Saddam.
After all of that, I made my way to Kuwait City as part of a Saudi Arabian Ministry of Information Press pool. The Americans had already filled all of theirs in an attempt to control the narrative.
Over dinner one night earlier in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, an American naval captain told me that the public affairs mission during the Vietnam War had gone wrong for the U.S. He said that that wasn't going to happen again.
Spots in the Allied press pools went to those reporters and photographers friendly to the American military. Journalists were issued credentials by the Saudi government. If you lost your credentials or had them jerked by the U.S. military or Saudis you were screwed. Those credentials gave you free movement through just about all of the military checkpoints. You also had access to all of the military press conferences and were eligible for a slot in one of the highly sought after press pools.
Since I had arrived late to the party -- I had broken my elbow six weeks earlier -- the Saudi press pool was my outlet. When the pool arrived in Kuwait City during the middle of Iraq's retreat, I saw a chance to go off on my own and took it.
After my break from the pool, I soon managed to get a car and driver. My driver, as it turned out, was a well to do Kuwaiti, who was out and about with his son when we met.
He spoke some English and immediately took me to local police headquarters. He escorted me past guards and then introduced me to whom I took to be the commander.
Being the polite host, the commander offered me thick expresso-style black coffee and sugar cookies. In the background, I could hear men screaming, the kind that comes from men being tortured.
I was allowed to photograph some of the Iraqi prisoners. The commander even offered to execute a couple of them for photos. The day was getting to be surreal.
I politely declined, returned to his office, and sat down to fill out caption bags for my film on a comfortable leather couch. I woke up hours later with drool running down my face. It was dark outside and another driver and another Buick Le Sabre were offered to take me to a hotel where there were other "Americans."
As we drove, barrels filled with burning trash marked almost every intersection and heavily armed Kuwaitis, their faces covered, stood guard. My driver stopped at each checkpoint and offered a conversation. All around were the haunting sounds of automatic weapons fire but it was unclear if the shots came during gun fights or celebrations.
When we arrived at the Kuwait International Hotel, it seemed as if there were no guards or employees on duty. Everything was dark. There was no electricity. At a toll booth for the hotel's parking garage, a Filipino pulled a set of keys from a wooden box and handed them to me.
"We love you George Bush," she said.
I took the keys and then began looking for the room, which turned out to be a large suite on the seventh floor.
As I climbed the unlit stairs to the suite I ran into Paris AP photographer Laurent Rebours. "Holy Shit" I shouted and then we hugged each other as if we were long-lost brothers.
Laurent had a gaggle of French agency photographers tagging along with him. Once the introductions and handshakes were finished, we headed straight for the hotel's kitchen to see what we could scrounge. All we found were metal grates that we later used as grills while cooking with sterno.
We ran freely throughout Kuwait City over the next few days as we chased the story. Each day you would notice fresh bodies in the streets. Most were those of Iraqi soldiers who had failed to get out of town in time. A single bullet to the back of the head was usually the cause of death.
By our second day in Kuwait City, AP photographers Scott Applewhite and Don Mell arrived with much needed equipment. The gear included a heavy satellite dish, a portable generator and all of the stuff necessary to process film and transmit it to AP Photos in New York. Each piece of that equipment had to be lugged up seven flights of stairs to the suite we had commandeered.
NBC News was across the hall and other media outlets were nearby. It took all day to lug our stuff upstairs. The generator was our only source of electricity. Outside, oil well fires burned, the sky was black and the air smelled of sulfur.
Brian Horton became our photo editor and I ended up processing most of the film. The AP being a cooperative was keen to keep good relations with its members newspapers. Around 10 big-market newspapers had made it to Kuwait but none of them brought any film processing equipment or color negative chemicals.
Horton kept the members mostly happy thanks to our equipment but when they learned that they would only get two rolls of film each, a near mutiny ensue. They shouted and threatened to call New York to complain. Horton looked them in the eye and said: "not on our phone."
I'm positive that Brian took some angry phone calls from our editors in New York. But in the end, it was a lack of fresh water that killed our operations. Without it, washing the chemicals from the film was impossible.
Camping from hell was what Horton called our experiences in Kuwait City. Journalists and US soldiers wandered through the the halls of the hotel all day and night. It was next to impossible to keep the stragglers out of our space.
However, at least on one occasion not having a front door to our suite paid off. But that's a story for another time.
Meanwhile, across the hall wafted the unmistakable smell of fresh coffee and eggs and bacon. NBC had forgotten to bring a satellite dish but they had a cook and a buffet line for their staffers while we dined on MRE's.
Things were about to change, though. I was being sent back to Dharan. I would drive Horton out and stay in Dharan to staff our Saudi office. I had in all spent about three weeks in Kuwait and Kuwait City. Officially the war was over. It was now all about mop-up photos of a destroyed city and a war that lasted only a short while. I had always envisioned riding aboard a tank into Bagdad with US forces. It was not meant to be.
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Tales from the Trail
David Lee Longstreath is a retired wire service photographer with more than 40 years experience on assignments around the world. He currently lives in upcountry Thailand.