We were in a tent beside the barrier controlling access to the demilitarised zone on Kuwait's northern border with Iraq. The captain, a member of the border security force, had regretfully declined to allow us through, but tempered his refusal by inviting us to tea. Sitting cross-legged on either side of him were two men in traditional Arab robes and headdress, market gardeners who grow vegetables in the zone.
Outside, camels grazed on the flush of green produced by the desert's winter rains. The Iraqi town of Safwan, where General Norman Schwarzkopf signed the ceasefire in the Gulf war seven years ago, could be seen just over a mile away. Soon afterwards the demilitarised zone was established under United Nations control, and since then there has been no commerce with Safwan or Basra, the nearest Iraqi city.
This has been good for enterprising men such as the captain's companions, who tapped an underground water supply near the border and went into market gardening to supply Kuwait with the vegetables that used to come from Iraq. "Soon we may grow all our own food," boasted the older of the two, waiting for his words to be translated into English. He wore thick spectacles and a grey goatee beard which would have given him an air of distinction even if his age had not caused everyone to defer to him.
Both he and his younger, black-bearded colleague, however, were disturbed by the news the captain had just given them: as soon as this week they too might not be permitted into the demilitarised zone, because the road which had seen so much death in 1991 could be about to see more. It was this that prompted them to ask about Saddam Hussein's intentions. For what it was worth, I told them, Lord Gilbert, Britain's minister of defence procurement, had said in Kuwait on Friday that the chances of an invasion from Iraq were very small - so small that he saw no need to advise Britons in Kuwait to take any precautions. They digested this thoughtfully.
Lord Gilbert's confidence was not contradicted on the journey to the border. Apart from a collection of tanks several miles short of Abdali, there were few signs of preparations to counter an imminent attack. The main defences, stretching away on either side of the control point, were sand walls and a ditch deep enough to swallow a tank. "They run all the way from here to the Saudi border," said one of the captain's men. Sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor of the tent, with a hole dug in the centre for a fire to warm themselves during the chill nights, he and his fellow soldiers would undoubtedly be the first to face any renewed Iraqi hostilities.
Pungent cardamom tea was served first in tiny cups, accompanied by sticky dates to sweeten the taste. Later the chai arrived - tea leaves and sugar are boiled up together with the water, then strained out for later, often repeated, use. This was passed around with dry rusks.
After everyone had waggled their cups to signify that they had had enough, and tipped out the dregs in the sand, it was time to leave. The barrier was lifted for the two market gardeners, still pondering the threat to their prosperity from the world's latest campaign to bring President Saddam under control. The captain seemed less concerned. "That Saddam! He is a madman!" he shouted cheerfully as we parted company.Reuse content