Exiles Trickle in on First Day of Organized Return With AM-Gulf Rdp, Bjt
KUWAIT CITY (AP) _ Returning Kuwaitis kissed the ground and hugged their loved ones Saturday as the government began repopulating the ravaged country. But hundreds of others applied to leave.
Eleven Kuwaiti Airways flights shuttled into the capital’s charred international airport from Egypt, Oman, Bahrain and other Arab nations that hosted much of the Kuwaiti population during the Iraqi occupation.
The government is paying for the flights during a one-month period in which Kuwaitis are being urged to return and help rebuild their country.
″This is the happiest moment of my life,″ cried Walid Jaafer, 42, as he embraced the wife, four children and a brother he had not seen in more than eight months.
Jaafer was working as a civil engineer for the Kuwait Oil Co. and most of his family was vacationing in Cairo when the Iraqis invaded Aug. 2.
″My brother is coming home to an empty house. The Iraqis took everything,″ Jaafer said. ″I think he will be shocked when he sees Kuwait. Anybody would.″
For many, the punched-in hangar and the blackened, blown-out control tower were the first signs of the devastation they would find.
About 3,000 people were on the flights, a Kuwaiti Air official said on condition of anonymity, and others drove up through Saudi Arabia.
Kuwaiti officials could not immediately say how many people returned on the first official day of the repopulation plan.
Up to 10,000 Kuwaiti exiles per day are being allowed to return home under the plan that assigns each exile specific return dates.
Next month the government will stop paying monthly allowances to families that averaged about $1,700.
But while the government tries to coax Kuwaitis back, thousands of others continue to leave the sooty, rubble-strewn country that still bears the deep scars of war.
During Iraqi occupation, more than 400,000 Kuwaitis were in exile and an estimated 200,000 remained at home.
After the war, several thousand police, medical personnel, utility workers and people with other essential skills were allowed back into the battered country.
Since then, however, about 120,000 Kuwaitis have obtained permits to leave Kuwait, said a Kuwait Interior Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A police official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said 400-500 Kuwaitis alone filled out applications for departure permits on Saturday. ″That’s about average,″ he said.
In the Kuwaiti exile commmunity in Bahrain, residents have said the population actually has grown. Kuwait City, in contrast, appears even more deserted than in the days after the war.
Many Kuwaitis who left had endured Iraqi occupation and said they wanted a vacation. But many exiles have said they would delay their return home as long as the country continues to experience problems.
Kuwait’s main business, oil production, is at a standstill because of Iraqi sabotage. About 500 oil well fires set by the Iraqis have covered much of the country with a noxious, oily haze. Most stores and restaurants remain closed and thousands of homes were damaged and looted of appliances.
Kuwaitis also typically take vacations from the desert heat. But many had hoped their countrymen would stay or come back to take part in work largely being undertaken by foreigners.
Many of the Kuwaitis who came back Saturday said they were home to stay.
″If people don’t come back we can’t rebuild our country,″ said Abdul Aziz Mansour, 33, who flew from Cairo with 12 members of his family.
He was among 401 people aboard Kuwait Air Flight 5804, a Boeing 747 that taxied onto a desolate tarmac next to a charred hangar.
The exiles, some wearing ″Free Kuwait″ T-shirts, scrambled down the stairs and at least two people gratefully kissed the blazing tarmac.
Abdul Rasal, 44, was aboard a flight from Muscat, Oman. The art education teacher had left his family back in Oman, where they had been in exile for nine months.
He said he wanted to find his elderly parents and inspect the family home.
″I have not heard or seen anything about my parents or my home,″ he said. ″I’m very worried.″