The ‘Tomboy’ who took on Takrit Heroes and heartbreak: Now it’s personal

When Iraq invaded Kuwait on the morning of August 2nd, 1990, Asrar Al-Qabandi was as outraged as anyone else. With an utter contempt for the Iraqis, and no intention of leaving Kuwait, she immediately canvassed friends and contacts to see what needed to be done. Over the next three months, she would become one of the pillars of the Kuwaiti Resistance, and later meet a savage and untimely death.
Born in September 1959, the sixth of Mohammed and Rouqaih Al-Qabandi’s ten children, Asrar, whose name means “Secrets” in Arabic, was a woman a generation ahead of her time. Always the most rebellious of her siblings, she inherited a fiery independent streak from her late mother, and her father’s ability to get on well with everyone. A childhood tomboy in a society which prefers its females demure, she eschewed traditional attire for jeans, and both charmed and exasperated everyone with her headstrong ways.

Educated at secondary school in Kuwait, and in the US under the care of her brother-in-law Jassim, she earned a B.A. from Ames Community College in Colorado, and a Masters degree in Computer Science from the University of Northern Colorado. Asrar fell in love with nature and the outdoor life, relishing hiking in the countryside, and snow skiing. One of her favourite photographs from those years was sitting under a Christmas tree with an American host family.
Returning from the US in 1985 as a qualified computer expert, she landed a classified data processing position with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and built an eclectic circle of international friends. Always the most lively member of the group, their abiding impression is of her lighting up any room as she bounced in, with a shrieking, loud laugh, and ready wit.

Asrar in her mid-20s was typical of many young Kuwaiti women of her generation, raised traditionally, but Western-educated. Yet when most of her contemporaries were settled in marriage, Asrar had no time for wedlock. She was consumed with a vision of Kuwait as the caring, gentle place which its wealth allowed it to be. When everyone else was busy trying to make money, Asrar was constantly spending it to help people.
A pint-sized powerhouse of energy and initiative, stoutly built at a shade over five feet tall, she directed her energies into her own childrens’ nursery in Surra, later moving to Rawda before finding her real niche. At the time, her elder sister, Iqbal, was working in the Government School for Handicapped Children. Both sisters were concerned that the school could not take severely handicapped children, so Asrar started taking them into her Rawda nursery.
It soon became apparent that the handicapped children needed their own separate specialist care. In late 1987, Asrar formed the Kuwait Special Education Society with her friend Hind Al-Bahar, an epidemiologist at the Kuwait University, Faculty of Medicine, physiotherapist Mrs Archie Hinchcliffe, the wife of the then British Ambassador, and Mrs Lulwa Alghanim.

Together, they established the private Khalifa School, the only institution in Kuwait for autistic and Down’s Syndrome children, in a disused house provided by Mrs Alghanim on the Gulf Road, at Al-Bida. Asrar ploughed her ministry salary and funds from the Rawda nursery into the Khalifa School and elsewhere — even borrowing heavily from her family, running charity fundraisers, and selling her car to finance the school.
Wearing her dark hair pulled back practically in a bun or pony-tail, and sporting large spectacles, she exuded drive and confidence. Asrar never just went anywhere. She rushed. Life was too short for all she had to do. She was absolutely convinced that her way of doing things was right. With a fiery temper and sharp tongue, she had no time for fools, shirkers or churls, and spread her message vocally. Whether it was women’s rights, care of the sick or handicapped, or democracy, her favourite hours were spent holding endless discussions and sipping beverages with friends in the family’s beach chalet.
Despite her love for her Kuwaiti homeland, she had a taste for the exotic, having visited Iceland and Nepal. Her family’s summer trips to Kashmir had enamoured her with India, to the extent that friends say she wanted to retire there.

At the time of the invasion, Asrar was managing the Khalifa School. Her friend, Hind Al-Bahar moved into the seafront house, overlooking Iraqi troops digging in against the anticipated Allied amphibious counterattack. The two young women started plotting the soldiers’ positions to send out to Allied forces in Saudi Arabia. When it became apparent that the US Marines would be a long time coming, they turned to helping people survive the Occupation.
Her first mission was to find a secure haven for Sheikh Ali Saleh, Sheikh Sabah Nasser and his wife Sheikha Hussa. Sheikh Ali had crossed back into Kuwait from Saudi Arabia through Iraqi lines on August 4th, and retrieved a satellite telephone system from the Ministry of Communications to re-establish contact with the Kuwait government-in-exile in Taif, after all international telecommunications were cut. The system, which allowed fax, telephone and telex communications, was held in Jabriya, near the PLO headquarters, opposite the Iraqi-occupied police station. They needed somewhere more secure.

On the fourth day of the occupation, Asrar and Hind visited the Mishref home of Ahmad Khajah, a KNPC oil executive, and husband of one of Asrar’s American friends. He arranged for the temporary use of the nearby house of Mrs Abbasa Behbehani as a base. By the end of the first week, daily communications had been re-established with Taif, and with the Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington, DC.
Asrar’s next task was to get fifteen Al-Sabah children out of the country. Some of their parents were away on leave on business at the time of the invasion, leaving the children in care of their governesses. Other Al-Sabah parents would stay in Kuwait, but needed to get the children out. They were prime targets for the Iraqis, who could hold them hostage for their parents’ cooperation at a time when the Iraqis were still trying to form a puppet government.
Asrar arranged for the youngsters, their nannies and an Al-Sabah woman to go out across the desert to Saudi Arabia on August 12th in a GMC four-wheel drive with a guide, together with an American friend, Katherine Baker, German dentist Claus Spitzer from the Mowasat Hospital, an Arab friend, Dina Kalouti, and Baker’s two dogs.

Setting in
At the time, the most obvious Resistance activity was nighttime hit-and-run attacks on isolated Iraqi troops and roadblocks. These immensely courageous but amateurish operations left the Iraqis in no doubt that they were unwelcome, but soon took an unacceptable toll in Kuwaiti lives.
Asrar’s group decided from the beginning that their role lay in keeping alive Kuwaitis and Westerners being hunted by the Iraqis, and mobilising Western public support. The Resistance could never hope to defeat the huge Iraqi war machine militarily, but it would soon demonstrate a courage, ingenuity and resilience which surprised even many Kuwaitis.
Over the next few weeks, the basis of a meaningful Resistance, run entirely from inside Kuwait, but loosely coordinated with the Kuwaiti government-in-exile was established. Several members of the Al-Sabah family besides Sheikh Sabah Nasser and Sheikh Ali Salem had remained in or returned to Kuwait to fight, including Sheikh Athbi Fahd Al-Ahmad, the son of the Amir’s brother who had been killed at Dasman Palace on the first morning.

Together with National Guard Major General Khalid Boodai, Kuwait Air Force Major General Mohammed Bader, Police Brigadier Yousef Al-Mishari, and a number of officers who had escaped capture, including Police Colonel Mahmoud Dossari, these people built a loose network of every type of Kuwaiti, male and female, civilian and military, middle-class and aristocrat, without divisions across religious or political lines, to harass the Iraqis, and maintain the welfare of Kuwaitis and expatriates under occupation. The government-in-exile later arranged millions of Iraqi dinars to be smuggled into Kuwait, which Asrar and other Resistance people distributed.
Asrar’s group soon teamed up with Dr Hashem Behbehani, a distinguished Political Science lecturer at Kuwait University. He moved out to his cousin’s house, and Asrar took over his Mishref residence as a more permanent base for their operations. By this time, the Khalifa School house at Al-Bida was too dangerous, and was eventually taken over by the Iraqis as part of their beach defences, destroying the school.
Asrar worked mainly with Sheikh Sabah Nasser, his wife, Sheikha Hussa, Sheikh Ali Salem, Salah Al-Rayes, the brother of the then Kuwait Ambassador to the UK, her friend, Mrs Hind Al-Bahar, Dr Hashem Behbehani, and young Sheikh Mishal Yousef. Ahmad Khajah’s nephew Nazeeh, then a systems engineer at the Al-Ahli Bank, joined the group after his American wife, Jo Marie, was evacuated on September 9th.

However, she was in frequent contact with several Resistance groups, including Major General Boodai’s, Colonel Dossari’s, and the team of KOC executives in Ahmadi, including her cousin Ali, who later used another satellite system directly under the Iraqi’s nose to direct Allied air strikes on Iraqi positions, and the pumping manifolds which were pouring oil into the Gulf.
Asrar seemed to be everywhere, with an unshakeable belief that Kuwait would be liberated, but with a great impatience for this to happen. Like most other people in the country at the time, she could hardly understand why the Allies in Saudi Arabia did not simply drive into Kuwait. Everyone expected the Iraqis to turn and flee at the first sign of an Allied soldier.
Her motto, and that of the Resistance as a whole became “Allah, Al-Watan, Al-Amir” (God, The Nation, The Amir). Her colleagues have a video of her taunting the Iraqis by spray-painting this on a wall.
Asrar’s activities included forging driving licences for Kuwaitis, Americans and Britons in hiding from the Iraqis to identify them as safe nationalities, forging car registration books, supporting Kuwaitis and Westerners in her immediate area, setting up safe houses, and assisting the Bahrain Ambassador to issue passports to Kuwaitis who were particularly vulnerable to the Iraqis.

On one occasion, using her dark skin to advantage, she smuggled vital data on computer disks out of a ministry building, disguised in a sari as an Indian. When orders came from Taif for the Resistance to cease mililtary operations in urban Kuwait, as the Iraqi reprisals were killing too many Kuwaitis, she and Nazeeh Khajah scouted targets in Basra for car-bomb attacks on Iraq itself by the armed Resistance.
Asrar’s Achilles’ heel was that she felt the Iraqis were too stupid to catch her. She was so contemptuous of them that she seemed almost oblivious to the risks she was taking. Her one concession to security was to assume the false identity of Sarah Mubarak, named after her paternal grandfather, and arrange a cover story with her father that she had left home two years previously.
She was also incensed by Kuwaiti men who had left occupied Kuwait without good excuse. Recognising that the government, senior military people, and women and children had no choice but to flee, she once promised her colleagues: “If I survive this, I’m going to stand at the Saudi border on Liberation Day with a box of abayas, and hand one to every man who left without good reason!”

On Dr Behbehani’s advice, Asrar organised telephone interviews with American, British and French TV networks to keep Kuwait in the public focus using the satellite telephone. The first calls to ITN News in the UK were made in the third week of August followed in September by the American networks, particularly CNN, CBS, the ABC, and Ted Koppell’s Nightline, after the situation in Kuwait fell from the headlines.
One group of four Americans hiding in Mishref, Don Leatham, his stepfather, Gene Hughes, Joe Lammerding, Fritz Cameron, and a Briton John Bridger, were particularly fortunate to be in the care of Asrar and her colleagues. She first contacted them on September 12th, 1990, asking if they would like to talk to the American ABC anchor, Barbara Walters. The Americans had to provide their social security numbers to verify to ABC that it was not a hoax. Asrar then connected them to the US.

Each of the men spoke to Walters for about fifteen minutes, telling her of the plight of Westerners in Kuwait, the brutality of the occupation, and how Kuwaitis were fighting and dying for their country. They then used the same channel to speak with their families.
The Resistance had an ulterior motive in this. It was a remarkable piece of propaganda, and drove home to the American public the suffering of the Kuwaitis and their own nationals under the occupation. It brought the Kuwaitis into Western living rooms as resourceful individuals prepared to fight and die for their country, and sustaining Americans and British being hunted by Saddam. Don, a Vietnam veteran, returned the favour by showing other members of the Resistance how to make bombs.

Less than a week later, when members of the committee of the Kuwait Red Crescent Society were arrested by the Iraqis, Asrar got the news out to the West within hours, allowing the ICRC in Geneva to pressure Baghdad for their release, even before the Iraqis in the capital were aware of the arrests.
Earlier in the crisis, when the leftist American activist Jesse Jackson visited Kuwait on August 30th and September 1st, at Saddam’s invitation, Asrar’s group had approached his entourage, and reported on the visit before they had even left.
Asrar spoke daily to the Crown Prince and Prime Minister, Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah, and her boss, Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed in Taif on the satellite system, but refused to speak to the Defence or Interior Ministers, blaming them for not mobilising Kuwaiti forces in time to blunt the Iraqi invasion.
She also telephoned and faxed her elder brother Adnan, who was working with the Kuwaiti government in Taif, providing surprisingly comprehensive and accurate information on conditions in Kuwait and passing messages between separated families. Adnan’s file of faxes from those days is a fascinating diary of the fears and problems people had to cope with under occupation.

To Saudi Arabia, and back
In late October, Asrar left Kuwait for Saudi Arabia through the Nuwaiseb border post, which the Iraqis had opened in mid-September in an effort to depopulate Kuwait of Kuwaitis after a reign of terror by Iraqi governor Ali Hassan Al-Majid, the supervisor of Saddam’s March 1988 gassing of the Halabja Kurds.
She stayed overnight at Khafji with her brother Bassam. The plan at the time was for her to travel to Taif, and then to the US to testify before Congress. With her American education and accent, go-getter attitude, and the credibility of undercover satellite interviews on network TV, she would be one of Kuwait’s star witnesses. The American public, many of whom were against military action to free Kuwait, could relate to her.
However, from the hotel balcony in Khafji, Asrar could see the lights of Al-Zoor twinkling just across the border. She missed Kuwait, and decided to return. At the time, she suspected that the Iraqis knew both her real name and her false identity. They had been asking for a “Sarah” at the ubiquitous roadblocks, but her contempt for them was undiminished. Her brother Bassam pleaded with her not to go. She had done more than her fair share already. She would not hear of it. It was the last time he saw her.

Asrar found a lift back into Kuwait on a pick-up which was smuggling money concealed in the bodywork of the vehicle. These funds were used to sustain Kuwaitis who were denied ration cards by the Iraqis, and Westerners in hiding, and to bribe captured Kuwaitis out of Iraqi custody. The driver knew the desert, and travelled fast and light, outwitting the Iraqi defensive line along the border. Within hours Asrar’s brother Adnan in Taif got a call from her saying: “Guess where I am?” He thought she was in Riyadh or even in the US. She laughed saying: “No, back in Kuwait”
Links to Westerners in hiding
Asrar’s main link to the Westerners in Kuwait at the time was a Lebanese lady, Mrs Lucia Topalian, and one of the British wardens, Dr Stuart Dick. Together, they arranged the distribution of tens of thousands of Iraqi dinars to Westerners in hiding through, Australians, Canadians, Danes, Irishmen and New Zealanders who were free to move around.

The allocation was ID200 per man, but this had to be split into two instalments of ID 5 0 and ID 150 as initially there was not enough to go around. It was little in terms of real money, but it reminded the beleaguered Westerners that they were not forgotten by the Kuwaitis at a time when they were getting precious little practical support from their own governments.
Apart from the Americans and Briton in Mishref, Asrar directly supported a number of other British and German citizens in hiding, even moving some in the back of a water tanker with Nazeeh Khajah when the Iraqi net was drawing too close.
Asrar’s luck finally ran out in the first week of November. Brigadier Yousef Al-Mishari had been captured recently, together with several other Resistance people. Asrar, now certain that her false identity of Sarah Mubarak had been compromised, visited her uncle Abdullah to get the identification papers of his daughter, who was about her age.

It was the last time her uncle saw her alive. She was arrested at an Iraqi roadblock opposite the Communications Centre in Mishref, around lunchtime on November 4th 1990, just after leaving the Khajah house in a borrowed white Mercedes 420SEL. It took two weeks for her colleagues to locate her. All attempts to buy her out of Iraqi custody failed. The Mukhabarat had apparently learned the true extent of her activities, including the satellite telephone, through an informer, telephone taps, and by torturing the information out of a captured colleague.
That night, just as curfew fell at 11:00 pm, twenty Mukhabarat men raided her family home, arresting her elderly father Mohammed, her uncle Abdullah, and brother Ghassan. They left the women and children, telling Asrar’s elder sister, Iqbal, to stay there. Iqbal had no intention of doing so, and moved them all out at first light to different houses.

Asrar’s father was questioned in front of his daughter, but he stuck to the cover story of not having seen her for two years. The Iraqis then played back a tape of a telephone conversation between them. He knew then that they knew almost everything, and that she was likely to die. Her uncle and brother were questioned separately, but knew almost nothing.
At one stage, the Iraqis beat Asrar in her father’s presence, throwing her between two large men. She rode the blows, going limp, to avoid further punishment. When they threatened to rape her in front of him, she jumped up, spitting at them, yelling they were not men enough to do so. Fortunately, she had kept most of her activities secret from her father. He knew very little, and the Iraqis eventually tired of their game.
The three men were finally bribed out of Iraqi custody on December 29th. When the senior Iraqis discovered they were gone, they sent a squad around to the family home to recapture them, but they had gone into hiding.

Details of Asrar’s fate in the 71 days she was held is uncertain, but she was chained to a desk for at least the first 17 days in the Mukhabarat headquarters at the Public Authority for Agricultural Affairs and Fisheries compound on the southwest corner of the Fifth Ring Road and Ghazali Street, and not even allowed to use the toilet.
The Iraqis were convinced she had a satellite telephone, and had been contacting CNN and the ABC in the US. When she denied this, they apparently showed her faxes sent to her through another captured satellite system. They had been hunting her for weeks, using all the resources at their disposal. She was beaten and interrogated, but did not give her colleagues away.

In the third week of her captivity, Asrar was moved into a room with three other girls, where she was held until at least December 28th. The number of girls increased to nine, and then back down to three as some were released. They were allowed to use the toilet, and sleep on the floor with thin blankets. The beatings reduced when the Iraqis asked the women to cook for them, and wash their clothes. During this time, they could hear the horrifying screams of Kuwaiti men being tortured in adjoining rooms every night after midnight. This was the Iraqis’ favourite time, after they had been drinking earlier in the evening.
That winter was the coldest and wettest in many years. Many of the prisoners had been captured in their summer clothes. After some time, the Iraqis grew to respect the fiery young woman. She used this to talk them into letting her get warm clothing for some of the prisoners by providing electronics to the Iraqis from one of her abandoned safe-houses.

Asrar’s fate during the last two weeks of her short life is uncertain. One story is that she was taken to Baghdad for a trial, sentenced to death, and then brought back to Kuwait. This is unlikely. What is certain is that she was murdered on January 13th or 14 th, shortly before the expiry of the UN deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait.
She was shot with four bullets to the chest, and one in the head. Her head was then sliced in two with an axe, from the right hand side. The Iraqis dumped her on the rain-soaked pavement outside her family’s abandoned home, still dressed in the jeans and shirt she had been captured in. Her face was unrecognisable, totally destroyed. Only her left eye remained. Her right eye and part of her brain were missing. Her hands had been tied in front of her with plastic tubing. In her pocket was a folded page with hand-written Quranic verses, stained with her blood, and her trademark spectacles.

At the time, there was no one at home. Her father, Mohammed and her uncle Najeeb were advised by neighbours early on the morning of January 14th that “something had been dumped outside the house.” They knew immediately that it was Asrar. They recovered the body, brought it to a relative’s house, photographed it for evidence, and had three Kuwaiti doctors perform an autopsy. She had been severely beaten before being murdered, but not raped. She was then brought to the Mubarak Al-Kabeer Hospital in preparation for burial.
As a final insult to the family, the Iraqis required that a death certificate be obtained from the local police station before allowing burial. The cause of death was listed as “gunshots in the chest and head,” and the place as a “hospital” instead of a torture centre. Asrar was buried by her grieving father and uncles on the dark and gloomy afternoon of January 15th, only hours before the UN deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal.
Asrar has not been forgotten by her family, friends and colleagues. In a tribute to her commitment to helping those in need, still even at the cost of her own life, the Kuwait Special Education Foundation is now the Asrar Al-Qabandi Foundation, with a rebuilt Khalifa School operating in Salwa.

This story was first published by the Arab Times on Jan 13, 1994 and is now bing republished in the run-up to the Liberation Day.

The secret war of Asrar Al-Qabandi

On the eve of the UN deadline for Iraqi withdrawal, a young Kuwaiti woman was executed by the Iraqi Mukhabarat in Kuwait, and her mutilated body dumped outside her family home in the quiet suburb of Dahya Abdullah Al-Salem. She was Asrar Al-Qabandi. Her name, perpetuated in several Arabic books by the eminent Kuwaiti author, Nouriya Al-Sadani, is now legendary as one of Kuwait’s foremost Resistance figures. A truly remarkable woman. She aided not only Kuwaitis but also a number of expats for which she faced the threat of death by hanging. Among them was Don Leatham, an American Vietnam veteran in hiding who in turn taught the Resistance how to make bombs.

Heroes & heartbreak : Now it’s personal

Arab Times
Written within the pages of an American’s diary during the Iraq invasion of Kuwait were the following words: 12 Sept 90-Day 42 – Wednesday. “We all thought that the ‘Powers To Be’ would be into Kuwait very soon. Shows how naive we were actually to believe that the world would care.” Donald Leatham would four months later find that the world did in fact care very much.
The invasion of Kuwait began Aug 2, 1990. The Gulf War would last for seven horrendous months – until the country was liberated on Feb 26, 1991 by Allied forces. Donald joined the Kuwait Resistance to help bring about the end of a brutal period in the history of a once peaceful Arab land.
Donald had come to Kuwait in August of 1980 and was resident until his death from cancer on June 24, 1994. He “hid out” during the Iraqis occupation from Aug 2. 1990 until the first week of December when he was evacuated. During those four months he kept a diary (“Occupation Diary” published in 1992) noting his involvement in the “Kuwait Resistance” including holding classes in the art of building bombs.

Each day this man sat at his computer entering his feelings and frustrations under the code “Diary” — love and respect for the Kuwaitis who protected and provided, fear of being taken by Iraqis as a ‘human shield,’ disappointment that the US and its allies were slow to come to Kuwait’s rescue, concern about his father’s health, concern for the safety of Asrar and his heartbreak after hearing of her tortuous death, and not knowing his family had gotten out safely.
Donald was the eldest of seven children with five sisters and one brother. He enlisted in the United States Air Force right out of high school spending the next 20 years in the military. During this time he managed a university degree through years of night courses, married and started his family of three sons and two daughters. He survived two tours of duty in Vietnam which he never really recovered from emotionally.

His experience with the Kuwaiti Resistance and all that it entailed actually helped him resolve the issue of Vietnam, his widow Maria told the Arab Times. “When he returned from Vietnam he had nightmares again and again which he couldn’t resolve. After his experience during the Gulf War, Don said that finally there was a reason for Vietnam. It had given him the technical knowledge he needed to help the Kuwait Resistance.
On retirement from the military Don was offered employment with Mosler Company in Kuwait which he accepted. Don, Maria and their two youngest children moved into a villa in Mishref. The kids later graduated from high school in Kuwait. When the Iraqis occupied Kuwait the kids were already in the US and Don and Maria became hostages in hiding and were released at different times.
After the liberation of Kuwait, Don returned on Oct 14, 1991. Maria joined him the following February. The contract under which he was employed fell to Kay and Associates where he worked until his last few days of life.

Iraqi invasion
When the Iraqis invaded Kuwait on Aug 2, 1990 the Leathams were enjoying the first visit of Donald’s parents who had arrived just five days before. Don’s children were grown and now lived in the US. However, his mother and Maria would be evacuated with hostage women and children on Sept 8, 1990. Don and his father remained in hiding.
Sharing the villa were five men (and five cats) after the women and children had left. Maria explained that people kept coming to them as they were forced out of their homes by Iraqi troops taking over villas for gun placements. “We had four bedrooms and welcomed those in need — including the cats,” she said.

Occupation diary
Donald told Maria that “the diary began as a means of dealing with his emotions and later became a tribute to the Kuwaiti people. He wanted to return to Kuwait to help rebuild the country that he dearly loved.”
He had written in the preface of his published diary that his wife Maria and mother, “dressed in abayas” drove the back roads to the official hostage meeting place “the old Safeway store on the Sixth Ring Road.” They left the car and were driven by bus to the airport. Eventually they were flown to Amman, Jordan and “then home to freedom.” It was several weeks before he heard they had reached home and safety.
The Leathams had rented an apartment in Mishref located just beyond the vacant area behind the Kuwait Fair Grounds. Their second floor apartment allowed them an exceptional view of the Sixth Ring Road enabling them to watch troop movements through binoculars. “We double-checked with a friend living in the Holiday Inn, then reported to the American Embassy in Kuwait,” explained Maria.

One night during her turn on night watch she “noticed an over-sized truck-trailer hauling a huge, strange looking object which I thought might be a bomb. The next morning I drew a picture for Donald of what I had seen. He said it was a Scud missile. We reported the incident to the American Embassy. We found out later it was the first sighting of a Scud in Kuwait.”
Donald noted early in his diary that even before Maria left they “had contact with the Kuwait Resistance, had plenty of supplies, a lot of physical exercise equipment, and a huge library to read. In addition we were even able to get out on the roof for sun — if we were very careful.”
A few days after the women left, on the morning of Sept 12, the men were contacted by Asrar Qabandi who asked if Donald would agree to talk by phone to Barbara Walters. He didn’t know this lady was the famous US television show hostess and interviewer with ABC’s “20/20.” Don, having lived in Kuwait for 11 years “had no idea that she was one of the most influential newscasters in the United Sates.”

He had to give his Social Security number for identification before the phone interview. Others had refused. Donald didn’t hesitate to comply as he welcomed the opportunity to tell the world what was going on.
This would be only the beginning of his many contacts with important people in the US who would eventually help liberate Kuwait. He sent a letter to President Bush through the underground. Asrar stopped by again this time “with a camera crew” to film Donald and his elderly father “for a film they planned to smuggle out and try to show on the free world TV.” The film was later shown to worldwide audiences.
Donald’s father needed medicine for “a mild heart condition” for which he had only a 2-1/2 months supply. Later the Kuwaitis would bring his prescription medicine along with food and the latest information. The Kuwaitis were risking their lives. The Iraqis had taken over the villa next door.
Continually, there were notations that Maria hadn’t been in contact with Donald. He was afraid for her well-being and yet angry that “she was too busy” to get in touch. Actually, Maria was trying desperately to get a message to him. She was doing her part by giving interviews to television, radio and newspapers — carrying the message of the atrocities being perpetrated by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

“Donald was sending messages and they were getting through. Before I left Kuwait, he had said that I was to publish everything that he sent ‘so the world would not forget Kuwait.’ Everything was published as he wished. He finally made a deal in one message that he would release the information only if his wife could talk with him over the phone. The wish was granted — I heard his voice in the middle of the night — it was wonderful.”
Passing on various technical information to the Kuwait Resistance became one of the most important aspects of Don’s existence. In return, the Kuwaitis protected and cared for the Leathams risking their own lives “for which we shall ever be indebted” assured Maria.
She said, “the landlord had two wives. His second wife lived in the ground floor apartment and there were no children. During the war she left the key with us and moved in with relatives. Her husband stayed with his first wife since they also had children to care for. Donald was able to utilize their apartment for his classes in bomb-making and other technical matters.”

Donald never relayed particulars to Maria saying, “what you don’t know you can’t relate to others.” It was protection for the Kuwait Resistance and for Maria as well.
Early on, young Kuwait Resistance members blew-up truckloads of Iraqi troops as “suicide bombers” related Maria. “Donald told them they were loosing their young people needlessly and offered to give them ideas of how they could accomplish the task without risking their own lives. Later they used these tactics and were successful.”
One rather humorous though important incident, was the time a Kuwait Resistance member asked Donald if he wanted to be “a New Zealander or an Aussie.” Maria said, “We had great fun deciding which he should be. The decision was serious however as there were Iraqi check points throughout Kuwait. If he was to work with them he would need another ID. Donald gave them two photos. Ten days later he received his absolutely official New Zealand ID which saved his life many times during those four months.”
With Maria and his mother finally safe, Donald concentrated on various other problems. The Resistance was having trouble rescuing people who had been arrested by the Iraqis. Some of the would-be rescuers had been wounded or killed in the process.

Donald told them they “should have been watching old John Wayne movies. Go in during the afternoon when the Iraqis are sleeping and keep the get-a-way car out of sight.” He found out later that they used this method and were successful in several rescues. They took the Iraqis by surprise — got their people out of jail and literally walked away unscathed. The bomb building was coming along fine. They were able to scrounge for local resources such as crude oil, fertilizer, gasoline and other ingredients which when mixed were quite lethal. Eventually a few enemy vehicles met their demise.
A major concern for Donald was the fact his father seemed to be showing some stress as the months passed. Again and again he expected the elderly to be released only to be disappointed. His father would receive a message over Voice of America from his wife, now safe in the States, and his spirits would rally.
Hearing that the Allied troops were coming together for the eventual liberation of Kuwait made life more bearable. However, the men were still in hiding and the Iraqi atrocities continued. The Resistance brought corpses of tortured victims so Donald could relate the incident in his next message — horrors that he would never forget.
Finally, the news came that he and his father could leave with the next hostage release. This was good news though hard to believe. The Iraqis had offered the release of all hostages before, only to capture the unsuspecting and take them to Iraq as human shields. They could only hope this was an authentic release.

Final entries
Dec 9, 1990 — Day 130 — Sunday: “Well the ladies came by to get food and will pick up the cats later. Despite wanting to maintain a low profile, the whole neighbourhood came to see us off. God bless them all, and keep them safe.”
Donald and his father left for the airport at 8:30 am “and had no real trouble. Had to stop about a half mile from the airport and take a taxi the rest of the way — had to pay KD10 apiece for the half mile trip into the terminal, which was really trashed. Finally boarded some beat-up old buses for a one hour trip to Al-Salem base. Finally crammed onto an old 727, with our knees to our chests, and flew to Baghdad with lots of media coverage.”
They met up with “a lot of people who had been caught and held in Baghdad and other places as human shields.” They joined together for the flight out and headed for Frankfurt. “It wasn’t London but, to us it mattered very little as long as we were headed to freedom.”
Donald finally resolved his discontent with President Bush and commended his final actions which brought the Gulf War to an end. “The only other American that I would like to mention is General Norman Schwartzkopff. Talk about the right man in the right place, and at the right time!”
Donald and Maria both felt they had been held, not only as physical hostages. There was the threat of being emotional hostages as well. They refused to accept that possibility.
Donald wrote that “there had been 186 of us who had remained in hiding in Kuwait and the (Iraqis) weren’t too happy with us. We were finally able to walk out with our heads held high. We had not surrendered, and to us, that meant a very great deal. Honour had been served, both by us, and by the Kuwaiti Resistance.”

Back in the USA
When Maria first arrived in the US she was debriefed by the FBI. “It wasn’t a very pleasant experience. After I finished answering all their questions they made me feel like I had made-up the whole thing, that I wasn’t telling the truth. I suppose it was their job to give the impression they didn’t believe me,” she said.
Donald was also debriefed when he arrived in the US and his comments were much the same. When the two finally got through all the media hype, they headed by car to Don’s sister’s in Idaho. “One night while enroute we stayed at a small motel in Price, Utah. There was a knock on the door. It was the FBI advising us not to leave the state without stopping at their office in Salt Lake City. We still don’t know how they found us. It was very unsettling.”

Donald was out of a job. They had lost everything in Kuwait to the Iraqis. They wanted to return to help rebuild the country after the war and to thank the Kuwaitis who had done so much to help them, Don returned to Kuwait with Kay and Associates, in October 1991 and Maria joined him in February 1992.
He had the opportunity, shortly before he passed away, to present his published diary to General Schwartzkopff, who had returned to Kuwait to see the country being rebuilt. One of Donald’s last wishes was to meet the man he so admired. His Kuwaiti friends saw that his wish was granted.
Memorial services were held in both Kuwait and in the US for Donald Leatham. His ashes were interned with military honours in Santa Fe, New Mexico on July 5, 1994.

Donald never told Maria who exactly were involved in the Kuwaiti Resistance using only “code names.” However, after the war was over and he was back in the US, he told her about Asrar’s horrible death “and he cried.” He talked about the many “Kuwaitis who had been so brave” throughout his time in hiding “perhaps braver then I may have been if the situation had been reversed,” he noted.

By: John Martin Levins & ArabTimes

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