Jordan's truckers risk life on desert run WAR IN THE GULF

February 09, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

RUWEISHED, Jordan -- For anyone planning to haul 10,000 gallons of oil across the Iraqi desert at night, Mahmoud Zeidan has some driving tips that could save your life:

Always turn off your headlights, but keep a sharp eye out for bomb craters. If you're drowsy, keep going. If you're injured, don't wait for a doctor. And if for some reason you must stop, never ever touch the little yellow canisters attached to the tiny parachutes that sometimes land by the side of the road, because they explode.

For Mr. Zeidan and the other oil truckers of Jordan who must travel into Iraq, war has drastically changed the rules of the road. What was once a lonely profession is now crowded with the dangerous company of bombers, missiles and, the drivers say, anti-personnel mines.

So far, eight have been killed by allied air attacks. About 20 have been injured. At least 36 trucks have been destroyed. And the drivers' daily struggle for survival has become symbolic of a dispute that is tearing apart relations between Jordan and the United States.

For Jordan, the deaths have not only generated public outrage, but also signify a threat to cut off the nation's only source of oil since last October. Gasoline is already rationed, and Jordan's economy is on the brink of collapse.

For the United States, the truck drivers have become the bystanders who keep getting in the way as allied planes attempt to sever Iraqi military supply lines and destroy Scud missile launchers. Besides, the United States argues, Jordan shouldn't be getting its oil from Iraq to begin with if it wants to uphold the United Nations economic sanctions.

The truck drivers talk little of such policy questions. Their lives are simple. Everything from shaving to cooking is done by the side of the road, with battered propane stoves serving as cooking ranges, tea warmers and hot water heaters.

Such stops generally become communal gatherings among small groups of trucks, and lately the talk is of the dangers of war.

Mr. Zeidan, 41, said he has seen attacks "on a daily basis on every single trip" since bombing began on the road Jan. 25.

"It is hard on our nerves going there and coming back," he said. "There are no mechanics, no doctors, no ambulances. Even if a man is hurt slightly, he could die out there without help. One man JTC bled to death waiting. The people that were hit and killed remained out on the road for two days before an ambulance reached them. Anything that moves is a target."

For all his troubles, Mr. Zeidan makes about 110 dinars a month of base salary -- about $165 -- plus another 25 dinars for every round trip, about 300 miles. The trip used to take two days. Lately it takes at least three. His pay supports himself, his wife and nine children.

The night before, Mr. Zeidan said, had been particularly harrowing. "There were four trucks traveling together. We all had our headlights turned off, and none of us were hit by the attack. There is heavy resistance in that area, and planes cannot come down very low. You did not see the bombs, just the flashes, and the anti-aircraft fire."

The trucks did not make it without mishap, though. "I saw one drive into a bomb crater. . . . I was too nervous to stop. I did not even stop to sleep anywhere in the middle of the night."

Among one of the first groups of truck drivers to come under attack was Omar Suleiman, 31, a Sudanese national who lives in Amman. Two jets came shortly after breakfast on the sunny morning of Jan. 26, he remembered. His truck and seven others were parked on the shoulder, preparing to head back onto the highway.

The first jet circled in for a look; then the second screamed low to drop its bombs. The first plane wheeled around and strafed the road with its machine guns. Five of the trucks were destroyed, and two of the drivers were killed, he said.

Fayez Awad, 30, from the town of Karek, was driving with a group of trucks menaced by three separate attacks two nights ago. "It wasn't targeted at anything," he said of the bombing that came at 11 p.m., 1 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. "They were hitting all over the place."

During the first two raids, he said, "you heard them but you didn't seem them." But by 3:30 the planes, encountering no anti-aircraft fire, "were flying very low, and were visible. They were dropping something that lit up the area for two kilometers."

Mr. Awad and three other truckers traveling together also spoke of a new hazard in recent days. They said that a yellow canister about the size of a soft drink can has been dropping to the pavement and the plains attached to parachutes and that Iraqi soldiers have warned them not to go near the devices.

The devices, also described by four other truck drivers in two other groups, would seem to be anti-personnel explosives that are sometimes dropped along with bombs intended to break up jet runways.

Fluttering to the ground attached to parachutes, they land after the other explosives have already done their work and remain in place as mines to discourage repairs.

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