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Refugees From Iraq Describe Hellish Scenes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The massive allied bombardment of the Iraqi city of Basra has demolished every communications center in that strategic southern city, all major oil refineries, most government buildings, some civilian neighborhoods and hundreds of ammunition depots and food warehouses, according to eyewitnesses.

The result: a hellish nightmare of fires and smoke so dense that the witnesses say the sun hasn’t been clearly visible for several days at a time.

In the besieged capital of Baghdad, witnesses say, air strikes continue to hit military targets, often for the second and third time, smashing key installations, destroying warehouses full of everything from medicine to the machinery of war--but also leveling some entire city blocks in civilian neighborhoods.

The result: bomb craters the size of football fields and an untold number of casualties.

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Throughout war-torn Iraq, there is little water to drink, no civilian communications, intermittent power only from portable generators and a transportation network that has been chopped to bits by air attacks on bridges, highways and virtually every airfield. For drinking, residents are collecting rainwater from ponds and bomb craters and filtering it through shreds of cloth.

These are the images of the human and structural damage inflicted by the most massive aerial bombardment of a nation since the U.S. carpet-bombing raids on North Vietnam more than two decades ago. They are based on interviews with dozens of impartial eyewitnesses who have fled to Jordan from Basra, Baghdad and Kuwait during the last week.

These accounts, backed by hours of videotape footage carried from Baghdad to Amman, confirm Iraqi claims that the allied bombing has taken a heavy toll on civilian neighborhoods in Iraq’s major towns and cities.

But equally, the witnesses confirm what Iraq’s government censors refuse to show or permit to be reported by the two dozen Western journalists remaining in Baghdad: that virtually every key military site in and around the Iraqi capital has been leveled.

Iraq has claimed fewer than 350 civilian dead and 400 injured. There is no credible number available but, with the allies putting the number of aerial missions at more than 44,000, even some allied speculation has put the toll higher.

In the videotapes are dozens of images of civilian casualties: limbs protruding from piles of residential rubble, dolls strewn atop twisted furniture in what clearly were once homes; bloodied civilians with shrapnel wounds being rushed into hospital emergency rooms; blanket-covered corpses on sidewalks; crumpled swing sets in battered playgrounds.

What the videotapes and eyewitnesses cannot specify is how all the casualties that these images suggest were caused: by allied ordnance, or “smart” weapons knocked off-target by Iraqi antiaircraft fire, or even shrapnel from that fire. Allied military spokesmen say repeatedly that they do not target civilian structures, but they also say they do not doubt that there have been civilian casualties.

Typical of the eyewitness accounts of the devastation of Basra, the main supply and command center for an estimated Iraqi 220,000 ground troops in occupied Kuwait, is that of Anil Kumar Bansal, an Indian civil engineer who fled the war-ravaged city four days ago.

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Before he left, Bansal recalled, allied forces bombed the city for more than a week, the raids coming every 15 minutes, around the clock.

“I have seen so many bombs dropping with my own eyes,” he said. “Stones and smoke were going up like the blasting of a volcano. They have totally demolished communications centers, all refineries, all important buildings. They’re now attacking mainly sheds, big warehouse sheds, some with food grains, some ammunition. Ammunition, I know, because continuously for two hours after the bombs, small explosions are going on.

“Now, Basra is fully under clouds of smoke. Since the last three or four days, we have not seen sunshine, no sunshine there, only clouds of smoke and, all around, refineries are on fire.”

Bansal and other Asian refugees fleeing the embattled city, among them more than 150 contract workers from the North Indian state of Punjab who were living in a construction camp in Basra, said they saw extensive bombing of civilian as well as military areas of the city.

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“I have seen with my eyes at least 25 dead bodies,” Bansal said. “After bombing, they were moving this debris with shovels. . . . . While (doing so), they see dead bodies--some legs, some heads. They remove those things.”

The witnesses say, however, that there are warehouses situated in heavily populated residential districts and note that the Iraqis have not separated military and civilian warehouses. And most of them expressed the judgment that allied air power cannot destroy Iraq’s military supply lines without cutting supplies to civilians as well.

Asked how long the residents of Basra can hold out against such bombardment, Bansal concluded: "(The) maximum they can withstand it is for three or four days, because whatever foodstuffs they are having, it will be finished in three to four days.

“Almost 50% of people inside Basra city have run away for safer places,” he said.

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Others, he added, had come to him begging for food.

“Many young people came and asked for one small bit of of bread. They were totally hungry for the last two days--no food, no water, nothing. People are drinking this worst water they have ever drunk. They’re collecting rainwater from ponds and filtering it with cloth.”

Mukesh Kumar, 26, who left Basra independently of Bansal and arrived a day earlier at the Jordanian border, also reported that the “water supply and electricity are closed, finished.”

“They’re bombing in the city, every night and every day. The situation is very bad. The main targets are the refinery and communications, but there’s too much damage,” Kumar said. “It is very frightening. The roads and highways are also destroyed. Bridges are gone. It’s time to go.”

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Other Indians who left Basra during the past week echoed those words.

A. K. Nayak, a native of New Delhi who was working on construction of a “palace” for Saddam Hussein on the banks of Basra’s Shaat al Arab waterway for the past year, said he left because there was no food to be found in the city.

Nayak said his group of 27 Indian builders had hid in basements, living in “complete terror” for days under the massive bombardments and missile assaults.

“The situation is very bad. The war is very bad in Basra,” he said. “The bombing never stops. You can see nothing outside. Only clouds, dust from the bombs, and fire everywhere. It is inside city, outside city, everywhere. It is no place to live. It is a place only to die.”

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Still, despite all this, witnesses say the Iraqis in Basra continue to be steadfast, at least on the surface.

“Whatever it is, they’ll bear it,” he said. “They always say just two words--'Fine’ and ‘No problem.’ ”

Similarly, in Baghdad, which has been hit far less massively than Basra, most civilians appear to be coping with the almost unimaginable hardships. As they often did before this war, many Iraqis are recounting with pride how they survived eight years of death and shortages during their country’s 1980-88 war with Iran.

“We had a long experience in our war with Persia, and every person is not afraid from bombing,” said one unidentified doctor in a videotape recorded in Baghdad on Friday. “We say to Bush, we are here. And, if you want to take Kuwait, kill us.”

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Clearly, though, the level of destruction is worlds beyond anything Baghdad experienced during the Iran-Iraq War, which touched the Iraqi cities only during occasional long-range missile exchanges between Tehran and Baghdad.

Murali Dharan, an engineer from southern India who had worked for Iraq’s Ministry of Planning for the past year, said he decided to leave for home when the air raids knocked out every means of civilian survival.

“No food,” he said of conditions in Baghdad. “No power, no gas, no taxi, no shop, no telephone, no nothing.

“This is my first and last time to live in the Arabic Gulf. Time to go home.”

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The growing evidence of civilian destruction also is taking its toll on the political level throughout the region, Jordan’s Crown Prince Hassan warned Sunday. Each day that the bombardment continues, America’s image and that of its allies is declining throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, he said.

“There’s a picture of the United States sadly reducing a Third World country, in the name of what? In the name of restoration of Kuwait?” the prince said during an interview Sunday with CBS-TV in Amman.

“It is only natural,” he added, “that after two weeks of massive bombardment of Iraq, bombardment that even the United States would find difficulty in sustaining, the people’s emotions are very clearly expressed not only in Jordan but throughout the Arab world and Islamic world.”


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