Black and white photojournalism by award winning photographer David Lee Longstreath
tales from the trail
He wore a lime green baseball cap.
He carried a submachine gun.
"Come with me," he said. "I have something to show you."
Four days earlier, I was standing in the lobby of the Dharan International hotel in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, with about 15 other journalists. We were all waiting to board a bus that would take us to a Saudi C130 flight to Kajafi, Saudi Arabia, on Kuwait's border. I was now part of a non-US press pool. I had no idea of what to expect. We flew to Kajafi and landed in a violent thunderstorm. It was the usual hours of boredom followed by one minute of terror. We landed safely, everyone on board cheered.
We gathered on the tarmac and waited for our ride into the conflict zone. Thunderstorms mixed with smoke darkened the skies in all directions. The Saudis had found a shuttle bus similar to the American airport ones that carry passengers to rental car agencies. It seemed weird, a last-minute plan. Our Saudi minders were very nervous.
I thought perhaps they were worried because the fighting was still going on, or they were concerned that this international pool of journalists would be captured or killed. Once on the bus, I looked around at the group and noticed that most were outfitted with ill-fitting kevlar helmets and flack vests. I was wearing a borrowed helmet and flack vest from the U.S. Army. For what seemed like hours, we sat and waited. Then, we headed for Kuwait City amidst a flurry of shouting and hand-waving by our Saudi minders.
In the early part of the trip, we stopped to film destroyed bunkers and tanks. We were never allowed to get very far from the bus. The closer we got to Kuwait City, the more smoke and confusion greeted us. There was so much smoke it darkened the sky. It looked as though it was midnight. All around, you could see people with AK 47's dancing and shooting in the air. When they saw the pool, they ran and hugged us. A Kuwaiti woman I photographed was so excited she screamed in my face, "George Bush, I love you."
Once we arrived in downtown Kuwait City the pool was allowed to get off the bus to do interviews and take photographs. The Saudis were being strict about anyone's movements. There was still a war going on.
I took off the first chance I saw, saying I had to pee, but before going, I gave a writer colleague what film I had shot. Passing the bag through a window, he asked me, "where are you going?'
"Not back," I said.
I walked across the street to the lobby of the burned-out Sheraton Hotel. "Hello, my friend, we love you," the hotel manager shouted in English as I walked in.
"Are there any taxis?" I asked. "No," he replied, "but I can get you a car and driver."
Later that night, my driver dropped me off at the Kuwait International Hotel. Walking through the parking lot, I found a young Filipino maid passing out room keys.
What once was a lavish and exotic hotel now looked like a trash heap. Inside, I discovered there was no light or electricity. I found myself alone in the dark with nothing to eat and half a bottle of water. Outside, Kuwait was celebrating the withdrawal of the Iraqi Army.
I armed myself with a Swiss Army knife, barricaded the door to the room, and laid down on a king-size bed. There were no covers. Exhausted, I soon fell asleep to the sounds of automatic weapons fire.
The next day several other AP photographers arrived, and my task was to put together a darkroom of sorts in one of the bathrooms. With the help of a portable generator, the others had brought, the darkroom was soon up and running, and the makings of a real working office began to take shape. We sent photos back to the main AP office in New York within hours.
I kept my cameras loaded and had ten unexposed color-negative film rolls in my bag. I also had a couple of power bars. Fresh drinking water, though, was hard to come by. There was no electricity or running water in Kuwait City. No restaurants. No gas stations. Almost all regular businesses had been burned, bombed, or looted. Soon, other journalists wandered in with rumors of mass graves of Kuwaiti dead. There were plenty of unsubstantiated horror stories.
So when Azis walked in wearing western clothes and a lime green hat, I did not question his offer.
His English was good. His manner was direct. The commands he gave the fellow Kuwaitis accompanying him spoke of s senior officer. Soon we arrived at a police station. It looked very new.
As we walked toward the entrance, an older woman in traditional dress approached. Aziz immediately waved her off. It was clear she was desperate for information.
For now, she would have to wait.
The Iraqi Army had done a thorough job of stealing anything of value in the station. Wires dangled from countertops where telephone systems had once been. All the furniture seemed missing. There were no fire extinguishers or other safety equipment.
The screams were coming from the back of the jail. It was now clear that captured Iraqi Army soldiers were being tortured and beaten.
When it all fell apart for the invading Iraqi Army, the retreat back to Bagdad was anything but orderly. In the mass chaos and confusion, at least 10,000 Iraqi soldiers, mostly low-ranking enlisted men, were left behind on the streets of Kuwait City.
I was now looking at ten that missed the ride home to Baghdad.
After taking photographs of the prisoners, Azis announced that "we will now shoot them for you."
"Wait…Wait, No," I shouted.
It took me 10 minutes to explain to Azis that I should not be a part of an execution. I told him that shooting prisoners of war was an international crime. I wanted no part of it.
On the way back to the car, the older woman we had seen earlier approached Azis again.
She was searching for her husband, a medical doctor from Palestine. At first, Azis and the others told her that they did not know of him or his whereabouts.
Crying, the woman handed over an ID card. Both Azis and another Kuwaiti in traditional dress looked at it.
Handing the card back, Azis said, "We killed him yesterday." The woman broke down and began to wail.
His crime, according to Azis, was that he had helped the Iraqis torture resistance fighters.
Moments later, I was guided back to an SUV. Alone I was driven back to the hotel. I never saw the man in the lime green cap again.
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.