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Wednesday, April 16

Victims of first war with Saddam get measure of relief

By Chuck Raasch | GNS

WASHINGTON - As the war in Iraq winds down, civilian captives of the first American conflict with Iraq 12 years ago have had to confront old nightmares. But Saddam Hussein's former government is also paying for their suffering.

Over the last month, about $93 million has been paid to 180 forced ``human shields'' and other Americans who were captured or went into hiding after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The money comes from $1.7 billion in Saddam's funds that were frozen in American bank accounts during the first Persian Gulf War. Another 180 Americans have a similar federal lawsuit pending that could amount to similar payouts, according to their Washington lawyer, Daniel Wolf.

The victims, ranging from children to teachers to veteran oil-field workers, sued in federal court here. After years of legal and political wrangling they began receiving checks as a new war erupted in Iraq.

``I think the combination of obtaining justice and seeing Saddam's downfall is helping many who have been haunted by the ordeal for the past 12 years to achieve closure, or some degree of closure,'' Wolf said.

Taleb Subh

For some, like 27-year-old Taleb Subh of Iowa, the nightmarish memories persist. But the American Dream persists, too.

``I confront things in my life,'' said Subh, referring to how he has dealt with the post-traumatic stress of his ordeal in Kuwait City over 12 years ago. ``I can tell my story. That was really difficult to do. But if I can help make one difference for one person out there, I want to do that.''

He said he is ready to move on, to build a good life for himself, his wife, Jessica, and his son Caleb, 8.

Subh was born in eastern Iowa and was 14 years old when he traveled on his own to visit relatives in Kuwait City in 1990. He was there when the Iraqis invaded on Aug. 2. As the nephew of a man who worked for the Kuwaiti royal family, he was of special interest to the Iraqis as a potential human shield. All Westerners were being hunted. Some who were caught were being sent to live in squalor next to military or industrial locations that were likely allied bombing targets.

To avert that fate for Subh, relatives spent five weeks sneaking him from hiding place to hiding place in Kuwait City. Once, he witnessed a Kuwaiti man being executed. Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints held rifles to his head and shouted at him in Arabic, which he does not speak.

He escaped five weeks later after a harrowing 16-hour trip to Baghdad. U.S. Marines assigned to the U.S. embassy escorted him out of a Baghdad hotel and onto a plane for Jordan.

It was a long way from Iowa.

Now his $670,000 settlement is tucked into a trust fund, and he runs a busy landscaping service in Le Claire, Iowa. Inspired by the heroism of Sept. 11, he has joined the local volunteer fire department. And he's happy Saddam is finally gone - not for himself but for the ordinary Iraqis he holds no ill will toward.

``I'm very happy for the people of Iraq that they can finally feel some sense of freedom,'' Subh said. ``That they are able to finally have an opinion. Since this tyrant and this regime have been removed, they will finally get the sense of the possibilities they have.''

Jack Frazier

For others, like Jack Frazier, a former iron worker, the payments will help cover extensive medical costs the court blamed on the conditions while in Iraqi detention. Frazier, 65, received $1.75 million - the highest single award.

Frazier, a diabetic now confined to a wheelchair, went blind in his right eye and suffered organ damage after he was left without his diabetes medicine while he and 55 other Americans were held captive by armed Iraqi soldiers in the U.S. ambassador's residence in Baghdad.

His wife, Colleen, an indefatigable thorn in the Iraqis' side while her husband was being detained for more than two months, tried vainly to get medicine smuggled in. Colleen Frazier said her husband is ``a shell'' of the powerful, 6-foot, 5-inch iron man he once was. She thinks that on top of the problems brought on by diabetes while in captivity, her husband was exposed to Iraqi chemical agents when he went back after the war to help clean up the oil fields set ablaze by Saddam's retreating forces.

Jack Frazier is still in a legal battle with Bechtel, his former employer, for $108,000 in worker's compensation claims stemming from his long career with the multinational building company.

``His medical bills have just eaten us up, so this (the payment) will give us some relief,'' Colleen Frazier said. But her husband now spends his days in a wheelchair, one of the youngest people living in his Lake Havasu City nursing home.

``Both of us have always been in great support of President Bush's efforts to do this,'' she said of the war in Iraq. ``People don't realize what an evil wicked man Saddam is. ...He is like Hitler.''

Dennis and Mary Ann Mosher

Dennis and Mary Ann Mosher, who now live in Bellingham, Wash., hid out in a suburb of Kuwait City for 130 days. The most harrowing was the day that Iraqi soldiers went through their housing complex and rounded up neighbors. Somehow, the Moshers escaped capture.

Seeing Saddam's government fall ``in some ways has some closure for us,'' said Dennis Mosher, 55. The Moshers will not disclose their settlement with Iraq, saying only it is about average for the 180 recipients.

``My wife and I will both say the same thing: we saw the best and the worst of both Arabs and Westerners during the time we were hiding out,'' he said, adding that he saw some Westerners hoard food or deny shelter to others.

``I am not against the Iraqi people, let me clarify that,'' said Mosher, who is preparing to leave for an oil company consulting job in Ecuador. ``One of the people who took care of my wife and me (and) helped us get food was an Iraqi woman. But I do feel they got rid of a bad guy. Saddam was definitely a bad guy.''

Mary Ann Mosher, a health care worker, still takes medication for anxiety attacks. She will not drive on busy highways for fear she will be overcome with anxiety.

``I have fear of danger,'' she said.

The lawsuit victory - aided by legislation passed in Congress last year allowing the payments from the frozen assets - was a long time coming.

The State Department initially opposed paying the victims out of frozen Iraqi assets. Most of those funds will be used for Iraq's postwar reconstruction.

Wolf said the litigants knew his clients were in an ``uphill'' battle, given that what they were doing was unprecedented. But they were bound together by shared experiences.

``I think they would all describe the experience as a kind of living hell,'' said Wolf, who meticulously documented the experiences. ``Most of the hostages lived in a state of severe privation. ...Almost everyone lost a great deal of weight, most were stricken with dysentery and other debilitating ailments.''

Some victims, like C.J. Kolb of San Francisco, or the Rev. Virgil Graham of Richmond, Va., are reluctant to talk about their experiences now. Graham, his wife, Laurie, and two sons will collect more than $2 million. Kolb will receive $945,000.

Both men did not grant interviews for this story, but their court testimony described harrowing experiences.

C.J. Kolb

Kolb, then 29, was teaching English at the American Cultural Center in Baghdad in 1990. He was engaged to an Iraqi woman. After Iraq invaded Kuwait, Kolb went into hiding, but 26 days later was taken into custody and placed as a human shield at the Doha Oil Refinery. Kolb was sexually assaulted there by a guard, according to legal documents filed in the case. He and other captives were later driven to a shack near an underground complex north of Baghdad, where they ate meals of rice and bread while imprisoned in a vermin-infested shed. He finally was released Dec. 19, 1990.

Kolb lost 25 pounds during the ordeal, and never saw his fiancee again.

Rev. Virgil Graham

Born in Tennessee, Graham and his family had just arrived in Kuwait as pastor of the National Evangelical Church. They had come from Liberia, West Africa, where they had been missionaries.

The family was kept hostage in the American Embassy for more than a month. Graham's wife was fondled by guards, according to legal documents filed in the case. About five weeks after their detention, she and her sons were allowed to leave. Graham was among those forced to stay.

Without water or toilets, the captives dug a makeshift well and tapped into an underground sewer line, and lived off rice and tuna. On Dec. 9 they were allowed to go home - but only after Saddam's soldiers assembled them and dozens of other captives in a closed Iraqi aircraft hanger, leaving them to fear they were about to be gassed.