Silence shrouds the quick and the dead: The fate of missing Kuwaitis imprisoned by Iraq at the start of the Gulf crisis remains unexplained, Robert Fisk writes from Kuwait City

THEY SAW Samira on 1 August 1991, working alongside other female Kuwaiti prisoners of war in Baghdad. She had asked them to tell her mother she was still alive, that she was a cleaner in the Saadi hospital, living in the al- Qadimiya prison, ruled over by Uday Hussein, son of the President.

That was all she told the two Egyptians who saw her, a message they faithfully delivered to the authorities in Kuwait. Samira, aged 29, appears an attractive woman, with bright brown hair and sparkling eyes, in the snapshot from her file. She had been seen only once before, on 15 March 1991, when her message had been the same; for the past 17 months, there has been only silence.

Silence is what greets you when you enter the gymnasium-size hall in which the Kuwaiti 'National Committee for Missing Persons and PoW Affairs' has installed itself in the suburb of Sabaha Salman; silence and hundreds of photographs. Some are studio portraits of young men in robes, others of grinning students in black gowns nursing American college degrees. Around the walls, there are officers in police uniforms, soldiers and doctors, children and women in scarves, re-photographed snapshots and cutaways of Kuwaitis at parties and weddings and anniversaries, smiling with all the wealthy, carefree confidence of pre-invasion Kuwait. No one wishes to divide these pictures into the quick and the dead.

The horrors of Bosnia, the slaughter and mass rape of Muslims in the old Yugoslavia, have long surpassed the sufferings of Kuwait under Iraqi occupation. And Kuwait's own acts of 'ethnic cleansing' - the expulsion of 360,000 Palestinians from their homes after the liberation of Kuwait - has squandered the international sympathy that might have been forthcoming for the families of those hundreds of Kuwaitis who were seized by the Iraqis and transported to prisons in Basra and Baghdad, Nasiriyah and al-Samawah after 2 August 1990. In his autobiography, General Norman Schwarzkopf admits that the return of Kuwaiti civilian prisoners from Iraq was the one ceasefire condition which Saddam Hussein's generals refused to discuss.

Officially, there are around 850 'missing' Kuwaitis, although Ali Khuraibet, who compiles the PoW files for the government-funded missing persons bureau, sadly acknowledges that at least a hundred are probably dead. 'People died of ill-treatment and despair when they were imprisoned in Iraq,' he says. 'They were taken from their homes here and tortured and later died. We have witnesses who were freed from the Iraqi prisons - many by the revolutionaries in southern Iraq at the end of the war - and they gave us the names of those Kuwaitis whom they knew had died in prison. Our figures also include perhaps 100 civilians . . . who found themselves in Iraq at the liberation but were not allowed to return home.'

In retrospect, Gen Schwarzkopf's account of these civilians is a story of painfully weak diplomacy on the part of the victorious allies. 'We settled for his (an Iraqi general's) assurance that anyone who had come (sic) to Iraq since the invasion of Kuwait would be free to approach the Red Cross and leave if he wanted,' Gen Schwarzkopf wrote in his account of the February 1991 ceasefire negotiations. In fact, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has received not a single communication from Kuwaitis, either in Baghdad or in their sub-office in Basra.

Dr Khuraibet's deepest concern, however, is for the 650 or so civilians - about 30 of them women - who are known to have been arrested in Kuwait and who were later seen in prisons inside Iraq. Many of the Kuwaitis taken hostage in the last days of Iraqi rule saw these civilians in their jails shortly before they were freed, returning to Kuwait with first-hand evidence that the missing men and women were alive. But since February 1991, nothing has been heard of them. There have been no hand-written messages, no access to their prisons for the Red Cross and only the occasional, months-old evidence - like that of the two men who saw Samira in the Baghdad hospital - that Kuwaitis remain alive in Iraqi hands.

Western humanitarian organisations suspect darkly that many or most of the missing Kuwaitis were murdered by their captors shortly after the war ended and buried in unmarked graves in Iraq. Dr Khuraibet will not accept such explanations. 'It's true we don't have much direct eyewitness evidence but we hear from friends in Jordan who visit Iraq. They say to us: 'The Iraqis are still holding your detainees; they are alive.' We have a map of detention centres in Iraq in which we believe our people are being held.'

But what use are these missing Kuwaitis to Saddam Hussein? 'I'm sure Saddam still finds some advantage in holding these people,' Dr Khuraibet says. 'Remember that after his ceasefire with Iran, he released more than 2,000 Iranian PoWs whom Iran thought were dead. He may well be holding our people in exactly the same way.

'Rashid Idriss, the special envoy to the Arab League, hinted that the Iraqis wanted something in return for our prisoners but we do not know what it is. Saddam took foreign hostages after he invaded Kuwait - he understood the benefits of holding innocent people prisoner.'