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Bridges, borders and scenes from Kuwait

By Kevin Sites

CNN's Kevin Sites
CNN's Kevin Sites

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•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
•  Weapons: 3D Models

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait (CNN) -- U.S. Marine Sgt. Jesse Jokinen is wearing his helmet and full body armor. But instead of an M-16 rifle, he carries a level. Instead of a hand grenade hanging from his vest, there's a retractable tape measure. Jokinen is with the 8th Engineers Battalion.

Some U.S. commanders say if there's war with Iraq, there's a good chance that Iraqi forces will blow up bridges, dams and anything else that could slow down an American assault. It will be this battalion's job to make sure tanks, trucks and troops can move on their path. That means building bridges, and fast.

So today, in the desert an hour outside of Kuwait City, Jokinen's active duty Alpha Company engineers will compete against Michigan reservists from Bravo Company for practice -- and a little press coverage. They will try to be the first to assemble a medium-girder bridge across a 90-foot-wide pit in the sand.

There are 450 journalists looking for something to do in Kuwait, where days are filled with hummus and humdrum. This is not only a legitimate story, it's manna from heaven. From a TV reporter's perspective, all the elements are there: An extreme environment, colorful personalities and competition. It might as well be an episode of "Survivor."

I will shoot Alpha Company, and my partner, Bill Skinner, will shoot Bravo Company, as the Marines use almost nothing but thick crowbars and their bare hands to turn 49,000 pounds of metal into something you can drive a truck across. When their work is done, we will assemble our own bridge of videotape, chronicling this drama that precedes the main one we've come to witness.

'This donkey is speaking our language'

Kuwait has about 2.2 million residents, but only 35 percent of the population are Kuwaitis. The majority are "guest workers" from nations like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. They clean houses, raise children, run retail shops and even help administer the government. But it is rare for them to be given citizenship.

CNN's head driver in Kuwait is a well-dressed man from southern India named Younus. He is a great example of how far a guest worker will go to succeed here. Smart and savvy, Younus speaks six languages and knows Kuwait better than most natives. He has been here for 15 years. He's the eldest son in his family, so for him, coming to Kuwait was predetermined.

"We have a saying in India," he tells me, "that the oldest son must die." Sacrifice his life for the rest of the family, that is.

Another CNN driver, Mushtaq, is on the same path. He is younger than Younus and has been here only nine years, but he knows what it takes to make it in Kuwait.

He makes sure I know he's not just a driver. He tells me that he studied computers before coming here to work. He wears hip, yellow-tinted sunglasses with small square frames, and his favorite movie is James Dean's last one, "Giant." He says the film shows how you can have all the money in the world and still not be happy. He has a fiancÚ back in India whom he only sees once a year.

As he drives me to a hardware store to buy a tarp and some batteries, he tells me that he has killed his anger for the indignities he often suffers.

"They think of us as animals," he says to me. "When they call me over, they say, 'hamar, [donkey] come here.' But I speak Arabic so well, it surprises even them," he says with a laugh. "They look at me and whisper to each other; 'Hey, this donkey is speaking our language. How can this be?'"

It tastes like chicken

Today is the 42nd anniversary of Kuwait's independence from Great Britain. The Ministry of the Interior has hired four buses to drive journalists three hours to the highly fortified border with Iraq.

It has not been a particularly good week in the Kuwaiti desert. Yesterday, Interior officials arrested three Kuwaitis they say were plotting to attack U.S. troops here. And this morning, at 1 a.m., an American Black Hawk helicopter crashed in the desert, killing the crew of four.

At the northern border, 500 yards away, beyond three layers of razor wire and an electrified fence with enough voltage to knock a man down, lies the Iraqi town of Umm Qasr. A series of whitewashed concrete structures, it does not seem particularly threatening. One journalist asks Colonel Nabeel Faraj, the commander of the border police, if they have trouble with people sneaking across. Yes, he tells us: Alcohol smugglers, refugees, even Iraqi spies seem to make it into Kuwait, despite the 165 miles of fence.

Farther south, we are driven to a man-made oasis. If it weren't for the semi-trucks parked nearby, it might be a page out of the Arabian Nights. In a traditional war dance, Kuwaiti men, wearing flowing robes crisscrossed with pistol holsters, bang drums and wave swords, chanting in Arabic, "We will be victorious." It is a colorful picture. The media swarm.

A bit later, we are taken inside a tent the size of NBA basketball court. The desert floor is covered with colorful, handmade rugs. To both the left and the right, at least 100 silver serving trays hold a feast of meat, chicken, rice and vegetables. Other tables are piled high with fruits, flan, tarts, custard and chocolate mousse.

In the center of the tent, chefs are carving up the main dish. It is the size of a small cow or a giant hog, but of course, pork would not be served here. The color is that of dark meat turkey, but this is clearly a larger animal. There is the remnant of a long neck and the stump of a tail. It is, we are told, roasted camel.

Later, a colleague asks us what it was like. I had the punch line ready. "It tasted like chicken," I say.

"But," Skinner adds, "a kind of greasy, duck-like chicken."

"So it tasted like duck?" asks our colleague.

"Yeah," I add, "but it didn't walk like one."

Temporary immunity

In the bridge-building competition, Jokinen has coaxed his company to a commanding lead. Although some of the individual pieces weigh as much as 600 pounds, the Marines muscle them into their tongue-and-groove slots, sliding in giant connecting pins and locking them together with metal clips.

It is an impressive display of speed, precision and engineering. Marines swarm like ants, lifting, hauling, banging and slamming. Then, one hour and 59 minutes into the competition, the Alpha Company hops aboard its five-ton truck and drives across the chasm. The Marines are proud and sweaty, and rightly so. They have won a temporary immunity in this round of "Survivor."

The next time might not be so decisive.

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