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Bidoun of Kuwait Seek Rights

January 13, 1998

SULAIBIYA, Kuwait (AP) _ When Iraqi tanks thundered over the border before dawn seven years ago and gunfire echoed across Kuwait’s desert, Abu Ali had one thought: to grab his rifle and report for duty.

He stayed at his barracks, ready to die, until his commander told him and other soldiers in the Kuwaiti army to flee and fend for themselves.

Born in Kuwait and a soldier for 12 years, Abu Ali felt the pain of Iraq’s 1990 conquest and the jubilation that came with liberation. But as a ``bidoun,″ he cannot call himself a Kuwaiti.

Abu Ali is one of at least 120,000 bidoun _ taken from the Arabic ``bidoun jinsiya,″ or ``without citizenship″ _ in Kuwait. Many were born in the country, but are rendered stateless by Kuwait’s stringent requirements for citizenship.

Making matters worse, the government now bars bidoun from working, attending state-run schools, receiving government health care and even obtaining a driver’s license.

``They have put us under siege,″ said Abu Ali, who would give only his nickname out of fear of being harassed.

Their plight worsens with each passing year, leaving a generation without education and work and a crucial segment of the population embittered and restive.

``It’s like a snowball,″ said Masoumah al-Mubarak, a professor at Kuwait University. ``In the beginning, no one would notice them. In the end, no one will know what to do with them.″

Most bidoun have lived in Kuwait all their lives, some for generations. For decades, they were treated as citizens and promised citizenship. But beginning in 1985, the government made them illegal residents, depriving them of rights that even foreigners enjoy in one of the world’s richest countries.

Citizenship is reserved only for those who can prove they or their ancestors settled in Kuwait before 1920 _ a time when nomads roamed the vast desert, oblivious to borders that meant little more than a lonely outpost or a mark on a map.

Many bidoun insist their families have lived in Kuwait since 1920. Others say that by virtue of their birth in the country, they deserve at least the rights given to foreigners.

But some are believed to be citizens of other countries who have destroyed their papers in hopes of receiving Kuwaiti citizenship.

The government, which rarely comments on the issue, imposed its policy to force those with other citizenship to declare their nationality. The tough stance, however, hits all bidoun.

Their plight defines Sulaibiya, a town landscaped with dreariness about 15 miles east of Kuwait City.

Squat houses constructed of cinder blocks, the building bricks of refugee camps across the Middle East, line trash-strewn streets. Barefoot children play soccer in sandy lots.

They are scenes made all the more remarkable by their proximity to the colonnaded villas and Mercedes of the rich in Kuwait City.

``There’s no future here. They treat us like animals,″ said Abdallah, a 19-year-old bidoun milling about a sun-drenched street corner.

Abdallah, who like others refused to give his full name, was born in Kuwait, as were his five brothers and five sisters. None have citizenship because their father is Saudi Arabian.

It’s a similar story with the other young men standing nearby. Abdel-Aziz, 18, said his parents were born in Kuwait, but his grandparents immigrated from Iraq or Syria _ he’s not sure which.

``I don’t study, I don’t work. Every time I go to find work, they say, `You don’t have citizenship’,″ Abdel-Aziz said. ``So I wake up and I go to sleep, nothing else. That’s my program.″

Many bidoun served in Kuwait’s army and police force, and even today in Sulaibiya, some have managed to keep their jobs through connections.

The irony of protecting a country to which you do not belong is not lost on the young men.

``My father defends the land of Kuwait. He was born here; he loves Kuwait. He was married here and his children were born here, but he’s not a Kuwaiti,″ said Salem, 18.

The birth rate among the bidoun is among the highest in Kuwait, and already three-fifths are under the age of 15. The demographics alarm many lawmakers in Kuwait’s parliament, a forum for lively discussion but which has relatively little power.

``People look to Kuwait to have a clean reputation and this is a black spot on that reputation,″ said Adnan Abdul Samad, a lawmaker and outspoken critic of the government’s policy toward bidoun.

But Abu Ali, the former soldier, fears little will change.

``I expect nothing,″ he said. ``They’ll keep the restrictions, they’ll keep making problems and they’ll keep making life miserable for us.″

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