Excerpts from The Lid is Lifted

I had always thought anger was a destructive emotion. But it can turn natural cowardliness into bravery and give you the guts to do things you could not otherwise do. First, however, you have to learn the knack of focusing your anger.

The Big Fella pressed his left forearm hard across my chest and pinned me to the wall. I saw his right hand coming from behind his back. It held a very large bowie knife. He let me see it, and then brought it up under my chin. 

Then I tried to clamp the metal cup into the underside of the espresso machine. I could not get it to seat properly. Even my elbows were shaking. I could not get the effen thing to click into place. I dropped the metal cup. The coffee spilled again. I gave up on the fucken espresso.

Shards of glass crunched under my feet. Every second car had been broken into, windows smashed, doors sagging, radios and stereos gone. A few had wheels missing and some were up on blocks.

They were a real ragbag army, trousers too short, jackets too large, sleeves barely reaching mid-arm – some in camouflage, some in plain green, some wearing a bit of both. Sad and pathetic, I thought.

But nobody was buying or selling. It was grab-what-you-can-time. The looters, Arabs and third world nationals, were having an ugly angry ball.

Several soldiers were loading Iraqi-plated camions under the watchful eyes of their officers and a few fat Baathi businessmen.

The businessmen had tally-sheets in their hands. They were ticking them off and chatting to the officers, while civilians were scrambling to grab what was not on the lists of the official looters. The cupidity was staggering in its intensity. 

‘It was the same in Al-Rai,’ Big T creased his brows. ‘The same all over. But why?’

I looked at the small groups of soldiers standing around, watching, doing nothing,

‘Perhaps when the lid is lifted, when no one is around to stop it, no cops, no threat of retribution, everyone starts stealing.’

‘Sure, that’s obvious. But why? We all know the difference between wrong and right. Muslims, Christians or whatever we are, it doesn’t matter a shit. We don’t need policemen to make us behave.’

‘Perhaps we do.’

But I knew I wasn’t going to hold onto the garottes. I lacked the balletic ability to be sure of my target and I was pretty certain that I did not have the moral balls to kill someone. And I knew bloody well that I would be in deep shit if the soldiers ever searched the flat and found the garottes.

The soldiers got really angry. One of them grabbed the Filipino by the shoulders from behind and made him kneel down on the ground. The officer went around him and pointed his pistol into the nape of the man’s neck. He held it there, his arm out straight.

We were all frozen, staring.

There are two basic kinds of military gas, he said, mustard gas and nerve gas. The Iraqis have both types. Mustard gas is heavy, designed to fall into trenches, so it is usually exploded in the air over the army below. Nerve gas is lighter and blows around much more, so the bombs are designed to explode at ground level.

The gist of the order was summarized in English subtitles at the bottom of the screen: All Westerners of Aggressor Nations in Kuwait are to report to hotels. This is for their own safety.

‘Of course, m-m-m-my apartment n-n-n-number here. How else would they k-k-k-know where to find me. We can’t b-b-become thieves like the Iraqis.’

‘Suppose an Iraqi officer who reads goddamn English finds the note?’ Mike asked quietly. His flat was immediately opposite Jake’s.

We all stared at Jake.

There was a tall yellow mobile crane on the forecourt in front of the Naif Palace. The arm of the crane hung out over the footpath. A man was hanging from the crane, his body swinging slowly high in the air.

A short time later another half a dozen soldiers came up Hilali Street. They stopped and stared at the prisoners, guns levelled. They started screaming. The men struggled to their feet. The soldiers yelled in their faces and punched them a bit, and the men were scared, cringing and bunching together. The soldiers punched them into line, screaming at them, to form a rough column. Then they marched the civilians down Hilali Street, at gunpoint, towards Fahd Al-Salem, out of our sight.

A few minutes later we heard shooting from lower down the street – short metallic rattles, assault rifles firing in rapid bursts. The firing ceased abruptly.

Tuk and I stood stupefied, looking down at the street that was blocked full of deserted cars.

Dtai lae-ow, Tuk muttered, ‘dead already.’ I could only nod numbly.

‘Now final item,’ Anthony coughed gently. ‘Just a piece of overblown rhetoric from Baghdad, I’m sure.’ He paused.

‘Saddam Hussein has threatened that, should anyone interfere, he will turn Kuwait into a graveyard.’

The front of the truck was turned into the kerb and its rear jutted out into the roadway. Four girls are being forced up into the truck at gunpoint. Three of the girls looked as if they were Filipinas. The fourth, very tall, may have been an Arab. They were well dressed, as if they were hotel receptionists or shop assistants in a boutique. The girls were crying.

‘ … Soldier try fuck her but no get in. She virgin and scared as hell. He no can make it. He get very angry and beat her about. But he still no can make it. He take empty soda bottle from crate in corner and shove it between her legs up. He made her bleed.’

Just before I put them away I looked again at the photos of the girl being forced to give a blow job at gunpoint and at the frightened girl being raped on the couch.

I looked out across the City. It was dark under the white smoke drifting lazily in the air. I felt something spark in my gut, deep down. My hands trembled slightly. I didn’t know if it was fear or anger or some weird mixture of both.

In his right hand he was carrying a drawn sword, a very long flat blade shaped like a straight sabre, a work-a-day weapon quite unlike the ornate ceremonial swords common in Kuwait.

The big soldier was in a rage. As they strode back and forth, he was swishing the sword around high up in the air then bringing it down suddenly with a violent chopping motion. We noticed that the other soldiers had backed off to the far ends of the street, keeping out of his way.

Everything moveable had disappeared, even the small machines with which these shops plied their trade. In front of one shop a large hoist and tackle lay on its side in the oily crud, perhaps because it had proved too big and awkward to get onto the flat-bed of a truck.

At the same time I was impressed and strangely excited. I noticed that Wichan was quite perturbed. Dam picked up the garotte and repeated his balletic performance. The top came off the sweeper pole.

Ngai tee sut, he said. ‘Easy the most.’

Dam offered me the garotte. He wanted to teach me how to use it. I declined.

The guy went on to explain that the system listens for key words. If a key word is used in a conversation, the recording is flagged for playback by the security services, but if no key words are used, the recording is over-written by the next conversation.

‘We could always go to the hotels. It might be simpler.’

‘Goddamn! And volunteer for Belsen? Take a bag down to the station and catch the first train for the gas works? Shit. No way, man. No goddamn way at all.’

‘Iraq has announced,’ the anchor continued straight-faced, ‘that it will detain citizens of aggressor nations and use them as human shields in key military and civil installations.’

‘The American’s name is Mike …,’ Jake was continuing blithely when Mike grabbed the phone.

‘Chrissake, man, after all what was said about nationalities and names. Why don’t you just call the mother-fuckers up and tell them where we all live? You goddamn asshole, son of a bitch.’

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