Trek Over, But Fears Remain

Posted: September 16, 1990

VINELAND, N.J. — The children are far from danger now, but they cry out in their sleep. They have nightmares of bloodshed.

In bed at their grandmother's home in Vineland, Magdalena al-Mughrabi's sons awaken to visions of war-torn Kuwait:

Soldiers. Gunshots. Fire. A forbidding desert strewn with corpses. A harrowing, thwarted bid to escape.

These are the children's memories of the country where they lived for more than a year - the last month in turmoil, trapped against their will.

"My sons wake up screaming," said Mughrabi, an American who married a Kuwaiti engineer and was living in Salwa when the Iraqis invaded. "They remember. And they cry."

Mughrabi and her children - Noaff, 7; Dawoud, 2, and Fawaz, 1 - were among the Americans permitted to leave Kuwait on Sept. 7. Last week, they arrived in Vineland, where they are staying with Mughrabi's mother, Maria Seda.

Mughrabi's husband, Suleiman, remains in Kuwait.

"I fear for his safety," she said in an interview yesterday. "Everything is just chaos over there. There is shooting, fire, cars just smashed on the road. You see dead bodies in the streets. It's just terrible."

In Salwa, the first sign of the invasion came as helicopters descended on the city just after dawn.

"I woke up because it was so loud, and all I saw was helicopters coming in and in and in," Mughrabi recalled. "And then I saw the Iraqi flag, and I started to cry and cry."

That day she donned the traditional, black-robed garb of an Arab woman and hid her U.S. identification. She called the U.S. Embassy, which could offer little help.

Within hours of the Iraqi troops' arrival, Kuwaiti soldiers banged on the door of her home. They were tired and hungry and needed to rest. The family had no choice but to shelter them, she said.

She was terrified that their presence would put her family at risk, but gave them food and helped them burn their uniforms.

"I quickly notified the embassy," said Mughrabi, 26, a dark-haired woman, her brown eyes lined in kohl. "They told me, 'Get out of that house now. You are in danger.' But we couldn't leave right away."

Eventually, the family went to stay with relatives in another city. Outside, there was bombing and gunfire.

"I was devastated, frightened for my life and my children's," she said. ''I broke into pieces a few times. I thought, 'This isn't my country, and I'm going to die here.' "

There seemed little hope that they would be permitted to leave. After three weeks, Mughrabi and her husband hired a guide to help them flee.

Risking arrest in the forbidden hours during curfew, they packed the children into their Mercedes and joined a convoy of escapees at 4:30 a.m. They lost their way when one of the cars got stuck in the sand and the lead car did not wait.

"The desert was really rugged, but it was like a highway," Mughrabi recalled. "Cars were everywhere. There were people dead in some cars."

Later that day, the family crossed a dune and arrived at a fenced area filled with soldiers. They thought that they had reached Saudi Arabia. But the soldiers were Iraqis.

"They told us to turn back," Mughrabi said. They told the men, " 'The only reason we won't kill you now is you're with women and children.' "

The frightened family made its way back across the desert. "I cried for days after that," she said.

The days that followed were filled with uncertainty - listening to broadcasts from the British Broadcasting Corp. and Voice of America, and puzzling over conflicting reports about whether and when Americans would be allowed to leave. Mughrabi called the U.S. Embassy daily.

Word finally came that she and the children could go. Her husband would have to stay behind. The couple have been married eight years, since he was a student at Cumberland County College and she, at 18, threw a snowball at him to catch his attention. But they agreed that leaving was best for the children.

Taking just one or two changes of clothes, Mughrabi and the children boarded a bus in Furwaniya and headed for the airport in Kuwait City. They took an Iraqi jetliner to Baghdad, then flew on to Jordan. They stopped in West Germany, then headed to Charleston, S.C. As the plane descended, the flight crew sang "God Bless America," and Mughrabi wept.

A few days later, she arrived at her family's home in Vineland, where an American flag waved outside and the front door was decorated with a yellow ribbon. More tears.

Tears of sadness and of joy.

"It's bittersweet," she said. "I want to feel that everything's going to be OK. But I can't. I wake up crying. I see the dead bodies. You never stop thinking about something like that. It stays with you."

Anyone wishing to contribute clothes or money to the Mughrabi family may do so in care of Vineland Councilman Jose LaBoy, 717 Elmer St., Vineland, N.J. 08360.

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