Refugees on Perilous Odyssey Fly Home to Love, Uncertainty : Asians: Thousands survive squalid conditions and red tape in the Mideast. But they face dim prospects in their homelands.


Homeward bound, Mohammed Abdul Majid Dewan arrived in Amman on Tuesday laden with mixed emotions and not much else at the end of the first leg of a dangerous, exhausting and bittersweet odyssey through the convulsed Middle East.

"I have no gifts for my family, but I am thinking they will understand," Dewan, 24, said in the dusty bus carrying him from a refugee camp to the airport and a long flight home to love and uncertainty in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Dewan's worldly possessions fit nicely on the lap of the stonewashed jeans he has worn for two weeks: one black plastic briefcase, and inside it, one dark-green Bangladeshi passport, one bedsheet and some snapshots of friends from Kuwait.

"These people are thinking that they are happy to go home to Bangladesh, but they are not thinking right," Dewan said, gesturing toward his countrymen in the bus behind him. "There is no vacancy in Bangladesh. No work."

An expanding international airlift is repatriating thousands of Asians like Dewan from Jordan every day now. On Tuesday, eight flights arranged by the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental agency based in Geneva, flew 2,186 Asians home to Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In addition, the Indian government has organized about a dozen flights a day for its citizens.

The airlift, which began a week ago, is expected to carry 31,500 passengers to Asia by Sept. 20 on 107 chartered flights. The international agency has appealed for $47 million to pay for enough flights to repatriate all refugees whose governments are too poor to help them. By the end of last week it had raised $30 million, including a $7.5-million contribution from the United States.

The airlift is a race: New refugees have been arriving in Jordan faster than planes can carry them home, and they are stacking up in refugee camps.

By Tuesday, according to agency official Regina Boucault, there were about 70,000 Asians awaiting transportation, mostly Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans but also Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and Thais.

Like many of his countrymen in Kuwait, Dewan was a driver earning a couple of hundred dollars a month, a princely sum by the standards of his family in Dhaka. His relatives run a shoe store.

The story of Dewan's flight and the anxious, red-taped wait for repatriation reflects the pathos that hundreds of thousands of Asian workers have endured since the bottom fell out of their world on Aug. 2, when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait.

"In Kuwait, it was good," Dewan said. "I could go to the park, to the beach. I like to sing with my friends. . . . The sound of the shooting woke me up, but the Kuwait man I worked for said, 'No problem, no problem.' But there was big problem."

Two days after the invasion the Kuwaiti packed his wife and six daughters in the family's three cars and drove to Saudi Arabia, leaving behind Dewan and a Sri Lankan maid. Iraqi troops threatened them repeatedly, Dewan said, saying they would be tortured and killed if they did not leave.

Eventually, Dewan and five friends set out for Jordan in his beat-up car. They arrived earlier than most and were among the lucky ones, avoiding internment in makeshift desert camps.

For 16 days, Dewan lived in a camp on the outskirts of Amman. Food was basic, sanitation primitive and the waiting painful. But by the standards of Jordan, later on, the camp rated five stars.

"We eat rice three times a day in Bangladesh, and there is plenty of water," he said. "Here, no rice at all. I couldn't wash myself, or my clothes, my only clothes."

At 7 a.m. Tuesday the call came for Dewan. He would be on that day's flight.

Then the trouble began. Three aircraft were scheduled to leave by noon, carrying 890 Bangladeshis home. But by 10 a.m., Bangladeshi diplomats had produced only 200 passports. With the expensive, tough-to-find planes idling on the tarmac, the international agency officials persuaded the diplomats to let another 690 refugees embark without passports.

How to decide who would go? First come, first served, officials decided, but anxious Jordanian police at the camp balked, fearing violence. How then to get the people moving?

"Not my problem," the police commander said.

"It's everybody's problem," snapped Rafael Robillard, a young and resourceful agency coordinator from Argentina.

After tense discussion in a swirl of languages, the word went out through the camp. In addition to those like Dewan with passports, those who had arrived in the camp on Aug. 26, 27 and 28 would also go.

Lines formed quickly, and gray-and-red Amman city buses borrowed for the occasion rolled out behind a police escort.

"I guess I am happy to go home," Dewan said as the airport came into view. "My family doesn't know if I died. But Kuwaiti money is very good. . . . My friends, they say when the trouble ends they go back to Kuwait and the good jobs. Me, I think I will try Japan."

Dewan's bus pulled up in front of the open jaws of an AN-124, a Soviet transport jet in U.N. livery.

"About eight hours to Dhaka," said Capt. Alexander Tkatchenko, commander of the giant transport's 20-member, Kiev-based Ukrainian crew.

On the return flight, the plane will carry up to 100 tons of U.N. World Food Program rice for the refugees still waiting in Jordan.

Slowly the refugees filed in and sat down cross-legged on foam mattresses spread on the metal deck of the cavernous plane.

"Mostly they talk and sleep," said Sergei Dunaev, a 33-year-old aviation engineer who travels with the crew as a trouble-shooter. "When we arrive, they get out smiling a good deal quicker than (when) they get on."

Finally, three hours late, the jet lifted off into a cloudless sky with 480 Bangladeshis on board.

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