Allies Bombing Them, Refugees Say : War victims: Finally, Iraq allows the first Egyptians to cross the border into Jordan.
Allied warplanes bombed and strafed civilian and military targets between Baghdad and the Jordanian border, severing the main refugee trail out of the Iraqi war zone and leaving at least five people dead in the last two days, eyewitnesses reported Wednesday.
Hundreds of Egyptian refugees straggled across the border, meanwhile, after nearly 10 days of neglect and physical abuse by Iraqi border guards at the frozen desert crossing.
The air attacks were cited in a formal protest by the Jordanian government and supported by interviews conducted by The Times with more than a dozen eyewitnesses at the border, who assert that the allies have deliberately targeted oil tankers, buses and refugee convoys.
Jordan’s King Hussein went to hospitals in Amman on Wednesday to visit Jordanians injured in the air attacks. In a stern protest, the king’s foreign minister, Taher Masri, told Parliament that the allied bombers and fighter jets were targeting the civilian oil-tanker convoys that use the highway as Jordan’s only lifeline to Iraqi oil.
At least four Jordanians and one Egyptian have been killed in the raids during the past two days, Masri said.
“It was obvious the cars were cars of the evacuees (refugees) and the Jordanian trucks were oil tankers--not military vehicles--that were driving on an international highway during daytime,” Masri declared, adding that Jordan has filed formal protests with four of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members with embassies in Amman.
“These brutal planes knew exactly what they were doing.”
At a media briefing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Air Force Brig. Gen. Buster Glosson was asked about the reports and he replied that the allied air forces are “striking only military targets.”
But, Glosson continued, “having said that, the Iraqi government insists on storing Scuds (missiles) in culverts and other things along the highway. And . . . when we see those type of vehicles go into those facilities, we bomb them. We make every attempt to minimize any possibility of civilian casualties.”
The commander of allied forces in the Gulf, Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, broke in to add: “We have never said that there won’t be any civilian casualties. What we have said is, the difference between us and the Iraqis is we are not deliberately targeting civilians, and that’s the difference. There are going to be casualties. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when you have a war.”
More than a dozen refugees and taxi drivers, some with anti-Iraq sentiments, who arrived from Baghdad and Kuwait at the Jordanian border post of Ruweished on Wednesday asserted that allied air raids are now targeting virtually every vehicle that moves west across the desert highway. The Baghdad-Ruweished highway also connects armories in Baghdad with mobile Scud missile sites that are attacking Israel from Iraq’s extreme western frontier.
The allied raids have littered the road with casualties, burning trucks and bomb craters nearly 20 feet deep, and left only a handful of Jordanian “road warrior” taxi drivers who are willing to carry those few refugees daring and wealthy enough to make the journey.
“You’re killing us! You’re shooting us everywhere we move!” shouted Abdul Ahmad, one of the cabbies, to a reporter when he reached the Ruweished border crossing Wednesday. “Whenever they see a car or truck, the planes dive out of the sky and chase us. They don’t care who we are or what we are. They just shoot.”
“We can see the planes when they dive on us, and they are dropping bombs all over us,” added Samir Saadaldin Nimr, another Jordanian taxi driver who said he has made the trip between Baghdad and Ruweished 30 times since the war started, but never before under such intense fire as in the past two days.
“There were 10 oil trucks burning last night and six cars destroyed. The road is full of craters, some six meters deep. I have to drive off the road, or what’s left of it, and into the desert to get through. The road is very, very bad now and there’s no gas to be found anywhere in Iraq. So I think only very few will be coming out now.”
Nimr’s passengers on Wednesday were Jordanians who had lived in Baghdad for more than a decade and who could afford his per-person fare of 300 Iraqi dinars (about $900 at the official rate), which Nimr must charge to make a small profit.
But the thousands of Egyptian laborers whom the Iraqis finally allowed to begin fleeing across the Iraqi border Wednesday clearly could not pay the freight. What is more, most of those Egyptian refugees had been forced to sit in the freezing cold and rain with little food and water at Iraq’s isolated border post of Trebeil for more than a week. With their country at war with Iraq, the Baghdad regime had made them wait the longest.
The Egyptians are likely to be the last human wave to cross into Jordan for a long time, according to international aid and refugee officials.
In addition to reports of at least one Egyptian death from the allied strafing runs, the refugees gave several credible accounts of deaths of another sort. They said at least five detained Egyptians froze or starved to death overnight Tuesday while the Iraqis permitted refugees from all other nations to depart. Several said that they had been beaten by Iraqi border guards and that the guards fired machine guns into the air several times to keep order in the refugee ranks.
“They let everyone else go and they fired on the Egyptians,” said Mousaad, an Egyptian who was still too afraid to give his last name when he finally reached Red Cross Transit Camp T1-28 in the no man’s land between Iraq and Jordan early Wednesday.
“An Iraqi soldier hit one woman with a water hose,” added another refugee standing beside Mousaad who refused to give even his first name. “She had come crying to the guard, saying, ‘My child is dying. Let us go from here.’ And the guard just hit her.”
Aiman, a third refugee, then joined in, pointing to a gash in his forehead.
“I asked for some water and they hit me here with the butt of a machine gun,” he said. “I was stuck there at Trebeil for 10 days, freezing, with a tiny piece of bread a day. They threw it to us like this--like dogs.”
The border had been closed to all refugee traffic for six days until international pressure reopened it Monday morning. Iraq has offered no official explanation for why the Egyptians were held until last. But most foreign aid workers and refugee officials concluded that it was because Egypt has joined in the multinational force trying to drive Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from occupied Kuwait.
More than a million Egyptian workers were still in Iraq when Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2. Even during the five-month stalemate that led up to the Gulf War, tens of thousands of Egyptians did not join the refugee exodus of last August and September, telling reporters that they were staying behind in Iraq because they did not expect the political crisis to become a military conflict.
Then, suddenly, the Egyptians found themselves behind enemy lines, desperately searching for transportation out of a war zone, enduring hundreds of allied air raids on Baghdad, Najaf and Basra in Iraq, and in Kuwait.
“We don’t hate Saddam that much,” said one of Mousaad’s friends, who also asked that his name not be used. “We hate the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people hate the Egyptians. They hate everybody. They even hate Saddam.”
But even as they poured out the venom that had built up during more than a week without shelter in the freezing desert of Trebeil, there were poignant scenes that illustrated the deep divisions that the Gulf War already has driven into the Arab world.
“Shut up! Don’t talk like that,” a Jordanian official working at the refugee camp screamed in Arabic when he overheard the accounts that Mousaad and his friends were giving two foreign journalists.
“You ate off Iraq. You lived off Iraq. You made your fortune off Iraq. You hid the money everywhere. You hid it in your shirt, in your shoes.
“And you are an Arab. Be proud of your Arab blood. Everybody who talks like this, you will see, you’ll come to me at the border. You’re not out of this yet!”
The men nearly came to blows before others intervened, many shaking their heads in apparent shame. But the tension was understandable. Although Jordan’s King Hussein so far has walked a tightrope of neutrality in the war on Iraq, the overwhelming majority of his people see themselves as allies of the Iraqi leader, and his 17 million people as fellow Arabs.
The Jordanians--who, like the Iraqis, have long resented the Egyptians’ ability to seize business opportunities in their countries--see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a traitor to the Arab cause for throwing his support behind the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq.
Jamal, a young man now returning to his native Cairo after 10 years of working in a perfume shop in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, was blistered and frostbitten when The Times approached him inside the transit camp.
“The Iraqis treated us very badly,” Jamal said. “For the first days, we had no food. They were only giving it to the Jordanians and Palestinians. So we went on strike and refused to obey them.”
“The Iraqi government wants the Egyptian people to be dead in Trebeil,” Khaled Osman, a friend of Jamal’s, interrupted, nearly in tears. “It was so cold and food only came for the Jordanians and Palestinians. I saw five die last night alone--three children and two adults, all Egyptians. The Iraqis want us all dead.”
Just then, another Egyptian who identified himself as Barakat, jumped in, shouting for his countrymen to stop speaking about Trebeil. He stuck out his tongue and raised his fists. They tore at each other, until Jamal and his friends eventually were pushed aside.
“No, No. Everything is good,” he told the journalists. “We earned a lot of money from Iraq. They are good to us. God willing, we’ll go back to Iraq. God willing, Iraq will win soon. We want America, Britain, Italy and all others from the West to get out of the Arab lands. And you know, the Americans bombed a car that had 12 people in it. All 12 are dead. I know. I saw it.”