the gulf war
homeoral historywar storiesweaponsmapsdiscussion

voices in the storm: the road to basra

listen to the road to basra
And now "Voices in the Storm,' the third of our special series of Flashbacks to mark the fifth anniversary of the Gulf War.
Guy Smith presents the story of what happened during one of the most controversial chapters in the war... "The Road to Basra."



[Music]


Actuality
George Bush
'Just two hours ago, allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait.' Three, two, one.
[sounds of firing and bombs and people screaming]

Gen Schwarzkopf
'Now, I'm going to show you a picture of the luckiest man in Iraq.'

Woman
'Why? We are human, like you. Why? [chanting, singing]

Soldiers
'One, two, three, four, United States marine corps, Hurrah, hurrah...'

George Bush
'Tonight, a battle has been joined.'

Narrator
The Gulf War was fought on prime-time television, but the cameras saw little of the fighting. For the most part the media was kept well away from the action and fed a bland diet of official briefings and restrictive photo-opportunities. And so the enduring image was of a high tech war fought at arms length with laser guided accuracy. The human stories often went unreported. This is the story of what happened at the end of the war on the main road north from Kuwait to the Iraqi city of Basra told by those who were there - on both sides.

[Bombing]


Narrator
It's three nights into the Ground War. Out in the desert the Iraqi army is being routed as the American led coalition forces advance at full tilt. In Kuwait City word spreads among the occupying soldiers that the fighting is getting closer. It was a night Jehan Rajab, an English teacher who has lived in Kuwait for many years, will never forget.

Jehan Rajab
The sky, can only be described as a throbbing red, which I suppose came from the already burning oil wells. There was a tremendous bombardment and it went on continuously, and everything was shaking and shivering and then sort of around us there was this scuffling and shuffling and soldiers seemed to be moving in a panic. They'd rush here and rush there. The closest thing I could of at that point, was the poem, The Pied Piper of Hamlin, the bit where all the rats were grumbling and muttering and that the, the tremendous sort of hubble and bubble, silver, that carried on as the rats left.

[Music]


[Bombing, traffic leaving Kuwait City]


Narrator
Among the hordes of fleeing Iraqi soldiers was a young man called Sadar. He came from a village in the north of Iraq and like all the other young men there, had been conscripted into the army before the war began. He didn't even know what the war was about, didn't much care and wasn't even sure exactly where he was. He just wanted to go home.



Sardar [Speaks in .....]

There was just no way we could get hold of a car. They'd all been taken. There wasn't any petrol and anyway our moment was worthless. All I had was a carton of cigarettes and I showed that to a man who was driving a small car. and as soon as he saw the cigarettes, he pulled over and stopped because, he just couldn't get hold of any. He asked me where I was trying to get to and I pleaded with him to take me to Basra.

[Airbase apron, screeching jets]


Narrator
At an American airbase in Saudi Arabia a top priority call came through to the commander, General David 'Bull' Baker. On the line from the Air Force command headquarters in Riyadh was the chief of the strategic bombing campaign.

General 'Bull' Baker
He told me that we had an emergency situation developing in Kuwait City. In fact that the, the enemy there were retreating and escaping from the city. and he told me, it was imperative that any, at any cost to stop them. He said, do whatever means you need to take and stop these, these people from leaving. We have to stop them. I told him that I'd need, we would stop, stop them, and I grabbed two pilots, Joe Seidl and Merrick Kraus, and convinced them, and I'm sure that I did, that they needed to put some hate in their heart and go out and stop those son's of bitches from getting out of Kuwait

Kraus
Joe and I paused for a second, said, "Yes, Sir," and then rushed out to our airplane. We had a relatively aggressive attitude about what we had to do. And, whatever this retreat was, it was an armed retreat.


[Jets take off - mix to interior cockpit atmosphere]


As we dove out of the clouds, the picture was absolutely astounding. There were thousands of headlights heading on every road that, that led north out of Kuwait City.


[Pilots talking]

Seidl
It's almost like, um, hitting the jackpot. I mean there are vehicles all over the place. It is a very lucrative target. I mean, we can actually go out here and just kind of almost, I don't want to sound sarcastic or whatever, but we could actually out and really do some damage. Because I mean, there are thousands and thousands of vehicles out there and they're all heading north, and you know, they're probably all bad guys. Or they are all bad guys. And we can really put hurt on 'em.


[Air to air talk back and breathing]


Now we drop our 3 bombs and it;s a perfect delivery. The bombs impact in a string right across the highway with the center] bomb impacting on a, inbetween two trucks as a matter of fact, causing both if the trucks to burst into flame.

Narrator
Far below the American pilots, among the fleeing crowds of Iraqi soldiers on that highway form Kuwait to the Iraqi city of Basra, was the conscript Sardar.

Sardar [Talks in ...]
Soon after we left Kuwait city an air raid started. As we were driving along, we could see two big lorries, Iraqi military lorries that had just been hit. They'd been bombed by a plane. They were just totally destroyed. It was chaotic. We drove very fast in between the two burning lorries. You see, we couldn't drive round them because there wasn't enough space on the road, so we put our foot down and drove straight through without stopping. I saw with my own two eyes, there were two people trapped in the cab of one of the lorries and there were flames all around them. As we drove past, my feelings were, well, I didn't know what to think. I just wanted to get away from that terrible scene. I felt sorry for those men, who were trapped, of course. but all I could care about was myself. I just wanted to get out of there alive.

Kraus
There was now a traffic jam beginning and I could see cars pulled off to the side of the road. Some headlights on, some headlights off. A lot of gunfire was coming from that area, but it was random, it, it was in all directions. So I picked a spot in front of us that looked like it had the highest concentration of that traffic jam, and where the shooting was, and we dropped three bombs on that. After that, I came up very hard because the shooting erupted in front of us, even before the bombs exploded. Once the bombs exploded, again, other lights went out, other headlights went out, for miles in every direction.

Seidl
And then to our disbelief, all of a sudden the headlights come back on. I still remember, Merrick chuckling and going, I don't believe it, they turned their headlights back on. And I looked out from the targeting pod, you know, to glance out the canopy, and sure enough all the headlights were blazing on the road again. Why, (chuckles) I don't know.


Actuality
[Pilots talking]

Sardar [Talks in ....]
Further on there were a lot of people lying injured on the ground. they were trying to crawl toward us, but we had no ]space for them because there were already four or five of us in the car. We just didn't have any room. I remember one man in particular, he mustered all his strength and he slapped the side of the car as we went by and there was blood smeared on the window. But we just couldn't stop, we had to keep going.

Narrator
By now the machine gun fire aimed back at the American plane was becoming more intense.

Seidl
I remember talking to Merrick and saying, "Hey, it's getting pretty hot down here, we need to get out of here." And he goes, "Yea, we've got one more pass and then we're out".


[Pilots talking]

Kraus
We came in on that last pass and I dropped the bombs and went straight ahead, out towards the water, trying to get as much speed as I could.


Actuality
[Shooting and planes flying]

Narrator
Back at their base in Saudi Arabia, the pilots were de-briefed on their mission by their commander General David 'Bull' Baker.

General 'Bull' Baker
It was an amazing debrief. We had quite an audience and we were actually debriefing it in the intelligence tent. Lieutenant ... behind me had made a comment, "God, that's murder". And he said that loud enough to well, he was standing right behind me. Most of the people turned around when he said that, because he said it in a pretty loud voice. I told them that, that's not murder, that's war and all the horrors that go with it. And that was our job that night. We, we in the military and these guys over there fighting that war, was ,their job was to end that war and then win the war. And they did that that night. That wasn't murder, that was war, just to give him a little taste of reality.

Narrator
On the highway, the driver of Sardar's car managed to find a way through the chaotic traffic and make it across the border into Iraq. Sardar eventually found his way home, but the driver of the car wasn't so lucky.

Sadar [Speaking in ....]
If the driver could have taken us all the way to Baghdad, we would have been very grateful, but we were stopped at a police checkpoint. The men, they were from Mukhabarat, the internal security agency, asked the driver what he was doing with these soldiers in his car. You see, they suspected we must have paid him for the lift. He tried to talk his way out, but they weren't having it. They took him out of the car and led him away. They knew he must be carrying money, and they told us to clear off. I can only guess what happened to him.

[Music]


Narrator
The morning after the air strike on the road to Basra, a unit of British soldiers arrived at the scene. Among them Captain Sebastian Willis Fleming.

Willis Fleming
As we, basically, pulled over the top of the ridge, in front of us, was the highway. I felt there was an imense sense of evil there. And when I detested being there. And for three days that we actually sat on the highway, I hated it. And it enveloped me more and more and more, just through what you saw. We'd seen dead bodies before, but it wasn't as vivid or graphic as, actually arriving there, um, and seeing parts of bodies, parts of vehicles, all smouldering and burning. But it, it was suffocating by the end of it. Because there was a lot of carnage, and just the volume of vehicles that were there that were burnt out. The craters, the ordinance lying around, was massive.

[Music]


Narrator
Among the debris which littered the highway were the spoils of war - looted from shops and home of Kuwait.

Willis Fleming
The smell of burning oil and rubber and things were very pungent. Funnily enough for me the thing that I found most distressing, I would say, was the smell of cheap perfume. And just the, the smell, this sweet sickly smell was something that, that gave me a bad feeling in, in, that I wasn't expecting that. Um, had it been. I was ready for the, for the smell if war, but I wasn't ready for the smell of kind of everyday life and, and normality, of which, you know, this was. And it had a kind of mocking sense about it.

[Music]


Narrator
After the war was over, journalists were able to roam the battlefield at will. their photographs and eye witness reports of the carnage on the road to Barsa soon made it one of the most controversial chapters of the war, with strong views on both sides of the debate. Joe Seidl, the American pilot whose mission started it all, is clear about where he stands.

Seidl
When I saw the pictures, as far as feelings, I was impressed with the damage that had been done. Um, I realize that we were the first crew to go in and hit that road and, you know, cause the traffic jam to be bottled up for the rest of the aircraft to go in and cause a lot of the destruction. As far as that, I felt a sense of accomplishment and having achieved the objectives of our mission. I didn't feel any tremendous, um, guilt or anything like that. I, I felt more a sense of accomplishment of having done that mission. Obviously seeing pictures of charred bodies, you know, hanging out the side of trucks is not a pretty picture, but, you know, that's the result of war.

Narrator
Jehan Rajab, the English teacher who watched the Iraqis flee from Kuwait City, finds it more difficult to see what happened that night as 'The Results of War.' The morning after, as she wandered down a street which was scattered with stolen possessions, the human story camera through.

Jehan Rajah
When I went out early the next morning, I saw quit a lot of looted goods, lying outside on the road. Obviously waiting for a lorry to come by and pick them and their goods and put them into the lorry. It's, it's rather amazing how something like that can actually tell you the story of what happened. They'd obviously been thrown down and the people, who had these things had run - as fast as they could. Leaving behind rolled up mattress, a piece of material, stolen material, for the wife. A toy for the child. And I have to admit that I felt a moment of great pain, not sympathy, but pain, for people, if you,like, who had been put into this terrible position of doing what they did, some of which was dreadful, but you couldn't help feeling sorry and pained at what happened.

[Music]


home · oral history · war stories · weapons · maps · chronology
tapes & transcripts 
FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

The Rise of ISISOctober 28th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS