From Jordan, Iraqis stream back home to fight

Defying expectations, refugee camps sit idle

War In Iraq

April 01, 2003|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AMMAN, Jordan - The men came scrambling through the streets, clutching kerosene lanterns, bedrolls, a few days of food. They reached the bus, heaved their baggage into the underbelly and clambered aboard as if it were the last ride out of town.

There was a tailor who had worked all night at a pants factory; a lone woman who stared out the window from the depths of her black veil; a cook who after days of argument managed to wrangle his passport from his boss' grip. The Iraqis were bound for home.

"I've been waiting for this moment," said Usam Zead, a skinny 21-year-old who had come to Jordan from Samawa, Iraq, to work at a string of day jobs.

This isn't what the world had anticipated. Before the war began, governments and human rights groups erected refugee camps along Iraq's borders, but so far the tents are deserted. Instead, the human tides have been running the other way, particularly from Jordan into Iraq. Jordanian border authorities estimate that more than 5,000 people have crossed, and buses are rolling east out of Amman every day, heavy with men making the long trek to a battle zone.

The bus that left Amman on Sunday would run the five hours to the Iraqi border; then the passengers were on their own. They had no notion of what awaited them on the other side - whether they might be bombed or stopped by foreign soldiers, or whether they could find a back road into Baghdad, 300 miles from the border.

A U.S. journalist who came out of Baghdad on Sunday said at least 100 bombed-out cars littered the road from the Iraqi capital, U.S. helicopters hovered overhead and Australian special forces had stopped his car. Yesterday, U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said special forces are "denying freedom of movement throughout the western desert" and have turned back some of the people streaming in.

But these men were determined to try. Their road to Baghdad started here, in the ramshackle corners of the Jordanian capital, where thousands of Iraqi migrants take beds in group houses and work for money to send home.

"When you're at war and you're ready to fight, it means death," Zead said. His two brothers are Iraqi soldiers; he himself once served in the army. "You have to accept the word death, and say, `I'm dying.'"

As the bus idled on the street, soft music poured from a television dangling from the ceiling. Somber Palestinian children stared down from the screen like small ghosts. "Welcome back," they sang, "welcome back to the land." Well-wishers crammed the aisle, clinging to hands for final farewells.

"I am not frightened," Zead said, but his hands trembled. "I'm not a man if I don't defend my country."

It sounds like suicide, but their motives are not so simple. To a man, they all said, "I want to fight for Iraq." When questioned, however, some admitted they were headed not to battle, but for home, frantic to see their families.

They were spurred on by religious duty, or driven, at least in part, by a feverish peer pressure: They said they were ashamed to stay in Jordan while their homeland was under attack.

"If chance brings death to my family, and I am not there," said Ehssan abu Ihkame, 29,"I couldn't live."

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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