Refugees escape Iraq, but not images of bombs, bodies WAR IN THE GULF

January 30, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

RUWEISHED, Jordan -- The bombed truck by the side of the road is what Abdessalam Zuhdey would most like to forget. It was crumpled and blackened, like a charred wad of tin foil, and he made the mistake of looking inside.

Sitting in the cab were two burned, twisted shapes barely recognizable as human.

For Baljit Singhverdi, a civil engineer from India, there is still the image of 20 jets sweeping through the skies over Basra, Iraq, followed by the sight of buildings blowing to bits in a dazzle of light and smoke.

And for Abdur Rahin Mohammed, a bellhop from Sudan, there is an unshakable moment of irony. He had spent three nights in a row sheltered from the bombs of Baghdad, emerging to find his home flattened.

But he saw nothing of death until he reached the quiet border of Jordan, where a chilled huddle of refugees camped without shelter as they waited to leave Iraq. There, cradled in the arms of an Egyptian woman, he saw a silent infant, dead of exposure.

Such were the tales of wartime heard yesterday from refugees crossing into Jordan. The border reopened Monday, following a still-unexplained, six-day shutdown by Iraqi authorities.

Shivering, weary and wrapped in borrowed blankets, their accounts covered a broad front of conflict, ranging from the port city of Basra to the entrenched fortifications of Kuwait City, and fromthe center of Baghdad to the far western reaches of Iraq's desert plains.

Mr. Zuhdey, a Palestinian architect who has lived in Kuwait for 20 years, said the Iraqi soldiers there were deeply entrenched and well-fortified by anti-aircraft weapons.

He also cited the demeanor of the troops, which he said reflected the experience they gained during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran.

"They don't give a damn about anything," Mr. Zuhdey said. "Between bombing raids they are playing football."

Damage in the city, he said, appeared to be limited "to the military locations."

Others arriving from Kuwait also described strong fortifications and said that truckloads of food, though infrequent, were still reaching the soldiers.

In Basra, where Mr. Singhverdi and dozens of Indian friends worked for an Iraqi construction firm, the sometimes frightening raids that would come at any time of day seemed to be confined mostly to military and manufacturing targets, though he and his friends had heard there had been about 30 civilian casualties.

Among the targets destroyed were a suspension bridge and a sugar factory, he said.

Mr. Singhverdi did not seem unsettled to learn that he would probably spend the next four or five nights in a cold, drafty tent. Compared to what he had seen in the past 12 days, he said, it was not much to get excited about.

During the 180-mile approach to the border, for instance, he saw further bombing raids and destruction. The bus that carried his group across western Iraq stopped and pulled to the shoulder several times to wait out the attacks, he said.

They watched as an ammunition depot or factory "was plastered, right in front of us," he said. They also saw a cement factory blown up.

His account was one of many yesterday that pointed to increased allied bombing raids along the most popular route for refugees -- the only road to Iraq's only open border.

It is along this stretch of highway that Mr. Zuhdey saw the charred bodies. He said he stopped his car four times for air raids during the last 180 miles. "I would get out and lay down by the side of the road," he said. "I could not breathe for the last 300 kilometers."

Mahmoud Hassan, a Jordanian who crossed back into his home country yesterday, was one of 24 men he said were injured

slightly when their bus swerved off the road during an air attack. Mr. Hassan had cuts on his hands and chest.

Mustafa Mamoud of Sudan said three of his countrymen were injured when bomb fragments struck the truck that took them to the border.

And Peter Fierz, who is running the Red Cross camp about 20 miles inside Jordan, said that he heard the explosions from a bombing attack Monday.

Apart from the bombs, refugees also reported severe shortages of food along the route, not only in Baghdad but also in outlying areas.

In Baghdad, "There is no food, no water, no electricity," said Bakit Sinin Kambal of Sudan. "We see airplanes every night."

A Jordanian said that in Baghdad there was no more bread and that those who want it must make it with the scarce supply of flour.

He said that many people fled to the countryside only to find limited food there as well.

For all the dangers and privations of traveling through Iraq, the refugees didn't fare much better when they reached the end of the line. A backlog of 5,000 refugees had built up after the Iraqis closed the border Jan. 22.

Many of the Sudanese refugees in the group already had been waiting a day when that happened, so they ended up spending seven nights in the cold after their bus dropped them off.

"We slept outside," Mr. Mohammed said. "We just prepared some cartons and blankets, and 12 of us warmed ourselves together."

Border authorities never told them why no one could enter Jordan, he said. "They said only they had clear instructions. No one was to leave."

Of the first 2,000 people to cross into Jordan, border officials said, perhaps half were Jordanians who drove straight home.

Of the 1,000 who spent Monday night at the border tent camp, 779 were Sudanese, Mr. Fierz said. Seventy-eight others were Indians, and the rest were divided mostly among six other nationalities. But only five were Egyptians.

For most of the several hundred Egyptians stuck on the Iraqi side of the border, the misery of waiting through cold and rain continued yesterday. At least 500 Egyptians, and possibly twice that amount, remained on the Iraqi side, Mr. Fierz said.

Of all the nations represented among the refugees, Egypt is the only one supplying troops to allied forces opposing Iraq.

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