Plans for Big Transit Camp Left in Dust : Refugees: The misplaced effort to create a desert evacuation center illustrates Jordan's struggle to deal with at least 100,000 Asians.


Last Thursday afternoon, construction of a huge transit camp here to house 35,000 Asian refugees from Kuwait, originally planned for a weekend opening, was far behind schedule but moving along nicely. Bulldozers had carved geometric lanes and squares through the rocky desert, water pipe waited to be laid, sweating Red Cross officials had erected 168 tents and hundreds more were ready for assembly.

Sunday afternoon under a baking sun, the campsite was once again an empty and anonymous patch of desert, totally still. Nothing moved there, nothing lived. Spirals of dust danced in bulldozer scars that were the only legacy of man and his works.

Twenty-five miles away, aid workers were re-erecting the same tents and re-laying the same water lines Sunday on another patch of desolation so bleak that it has no name. Everything should be ready for the refugees next Saturday, relief specialists promise.

The Camp That Never Was is dramatic testimony of the difficulties that stalk attempts by the Jordanian government and international relief agencies to care for the thousands of Asian refugees who have fled into Jordan after the collapse of Kuwait's economy under Iraqi occupation.

Workers from poor Asian countries have lost their jobs, and in many cases, their property and savings. They are clamoring to go home to countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines, but their numbers overwhelm an air- and sea-lift that is short of money, ships and planes.

Numbers are imprecise, but with new arrivals steadily piling up, there are now at least 100,000 Asians awaiting passage home. Some are in well-run camps, but at least half have been dumped in makeshift desert centers in desperate conditions. Aid is pathetically slow in reaching them.

The Camp That Never Was had been designed to take a big bite out of the crisis by creating a well-planned and well-supplied transit center about 80 miles from Amman.

Victim of wholesale confusion and lack of coordination between private and international relief agencies and the inexperienced and overwhelmed Jordanian government, the Azraq camp died aborning.

"We had to move it, there was no choice," said Roland Sidler, a Geneva-based relief coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Red Cross campsite had been chosen near a water-pumping station along the Baghdad-Amman highway precisely because of the easy access to water.

"We got the green light from the government, but then were told that the report from the Water Ministry was late, and when it came in, they had to change their minds," Sidler said. "Am I happy about this? No, I am not. We had people work hard, hard, hard, on this, and then we had to throw it all away."

Both the Jordanian Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Water Supply had second thoughts, according to Bassam Hadid, a Jordanian-American who will administer the camp for the Jordanian Red Crescent once it is completed at its new location.

The original site, according to Hadid, who said he once worked as an administrator at the Kaiser Medical Center in Sacramento, was atop an aquifer 25 feet beneath the surface that provides the Jordanian capital's drinking water.

The two ministries ruled that the camp risked polluting the city's entire water supply, overriding objections from international experts who said chemical toilets would erase any threat.

So it was that Hadid and young Jordanian volunteers were erecting tents and laying pipe Sunday at a new site about 25 miles closer to Amman.

Hidden from the highway and watched over from a hilltop by Jordanian police in a jeep with a machine-gun mount, the desolation and isolation of the new wasteland site beggars description. As they worked Sunday, Jordanian volunteers debated whether the new nowhere site had a name and decided it didn't.

The campsite is antithesis of the Hollywood desert of tawny sand and undulating dunes; instead it is a shadeless, devil-scorched tract of black desert, thickly carpeted in hot, ankle-threatening stones that shelter night-prowling snakes and scorpions.

At No Name Camp, about 800 tents provided by the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies sagged ominously in a hot desert wind Sunday that was harbinger of coming winter sandstorms. Separated from them by half-mile of emptiness--a bureaucratic imperative apparently--about as many tents from the International Committee of the Red Cross marched off into the wilderness. A third encampment is also planned.

"In all, we are preparing for up to 53,000 people," said Hadid. The idea is to bus refugees here from makeshift camps near the border with Iraqi.

"There will be water, electricity, food and a state-of-the-art, turn-key clinic from Germany," Hadid said.

Perhaps. But there are no illusions about the impact that the first sight of No Name Camp will have on depressed and exhausted refugees, peoples gainfully employed and well-fed in Kuwait who have blindly stumbled from the frying pan to the fire in their odyssey home.

To prepare them, the refugees should get a hot meal before being transferred to No Name, and pep talks stressing that the camp is simply a way station while repatriation is arranged, said Kjell Madsen, a league organizer. "This, I admit, will be important to keep up morale and avoid panic," Madsen said.

Volunteer director Hadid, who returned from California four years ago to take charge of his family's farms and real estate holdings, says No Name Camp will fulfill its purpose.

"We are Bedouins, and there is a saying among us: 'We are servants of our guests and neighbors.' We will give these people the best that we have," Hadid said bravely.

Then he paused.

"Tell the world we need help," he added softly.

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