Trickle of war refugees in Jordan poses surprise WAR IN THE GULF

January 22, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

AMMAN, Jordan -- At the desert outpost of Ruweished, a mystery is unfolding along the Iraqi border of Jordan.

Hundreds of empty Red Cross tents flap gently in the breeze. Relief workers stand around with little to do. An anticipated traffic jam of westbound buses and taxis is instead an orderly trickle.

Where are the refugees of war?

The question has become a growing source of puzzlement for United Nations officials, who say that only about 2,100 refugees have come into Jordan since the country reopened its border with Iraq on Friday. Sunday's total of 314 was the lowest daily tally yet, and as of midafternoon yesterday, fewer than 100 had come across, officials said.

"The flow has really gone to practically nothing," Hans Einhaus, the U.N.'s refugee emergency coordinator for Jordan, said yesterday.

Relief workers and U.N. officials have developed theory after theory to explain the numbers, after expecting the first wave of up to 750,000 foreign nationals to pour out of Iraq once the bombing raids began early last Thursday, Baghdad time.

One school of thought holds that most people are waiting for a lull in the fighting. Once the lull occurs, according to this theory, the trickle will become a deluge to rival the one last August, when hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Kuwait in the weeks after the Iraqi invasion.

The onslaught overwhelmed U.N. relief efforts and the Jordanian economy. Both say they learned a lesson in preparedness, and this time the U.N. already has set up tent cities in four locations -- at the border, just east of Amman, just south of Amman, and at the port city of Aqaba -- while the Jordanian government has wrangled a pledge of at least $60 million from the U.N. to pay the costs of care and transportation.

A Jordanian official suggested that refugees simply haven't had time to make the 300-mile trip from Baghdad since the fighting began.

But persons arriving at Ruweished on Saturday said they had left the Iraqi capital only the day before, and they described the roads as being in good condition.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation, and the saddest, is that many people wanting to leave simply can't afford the trip.

"They say that petrol has become very expensive and difficult to get," Mr. Einhaus said. "And taxi fares have become exorbitant." By yesterday, some taxis were charging up to $11,000 for the journey.

Others suggest privately that a more sinister factor may be at work. "There is the possibility that the Iraqis are discouraging people from coming," one official said.

Some of the arrivals say they have seen captured pilots being escorted away by authorities. One saw an American; one, a Frenchman; one, an Italian.

An Iraqi taxi driver who reached the border reported Friday that military officials had commandeered his cab the day before to whisk away a captured U.S. pilot.

Others among the Saturday arrivals also reported seeing plane wreckage along the way. Several said they saw many planes being shot down during bombing raids. "The planes were dropping like birds," said one man. "I saw many, many planes fall to the ground," a woman said.

The same group also reported seeing little damage from the bombing, and said life was close to normal in Baghdad.

Descriptions offered by some of the Sunday arrivals were not as cheery. "The children were crying all the time -- I thought they would die of fear," Amina Kayed, a Palestinian woman, told Reuters. "The raids were ferocious. Any minute we were feeling the house was going to fall on us. We were reciting prayers from the Koran all the time."

Because of such conditions, U.N. officials say thousands of people may already be trying to leave but cannot.

The Vietnamese government reported that 3,000 of its nationals are trapped in the Baghdad area. Among them are possibly some who had witnessed two decades ago the destructive power of a B-52 bomber.

Approximately 8,000 Egyptians have also been frustrated in their attempts to leave Iraq, one official said, with tens of thousands more who may try to leave later. Only about 700 have come across the border since Friday.

Still seen among the vehicles leaving Iraq is the occasional car that has made its way up from Kuwait. Kuwaiti cars arriving nowadays have something on their bumpers that may someday be a collector's item: Iraqi license plates, stamped with the lettering designated for the province of Kuwait.

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