As a convoy of U.S. trucks and tanks rumbled by, a thin, disheveled boy stood in a cloud of dust, lifting his hand again and again to his mouth. He wanted food.
On a rubble-strewn side street, Habib Jabber Shafwan, 25, picks rhubarb-like weeds from under a rusting barbed-wire fence. He pointed to a large, muddy brown puddle.
“Yesterday, a woman died from drinking this water,” he said.
Here, in American-held territory just inside Iraq, 2,000 Iraqi civilians are caught in a no-man’s-land of hunger and pain.
On one side is Kuwait, which refuses to let them enter, even to go to a squalid Red Crescent refugee camp a mile down the road. On the other is their own country, racked by civil war, public hangings and executions and reported outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.
U.S. troops who man nearby checkpoints have distributed liter bottles of water, and one tank crew tossed MREs, their foil-wrapped rations, to a crowd of shouting children running alongside. But residents say they are hungry, thirsty and angry.
“Life is miserable,” said Saud Shemeri, 25, a Safwan resident. “Children and babies, no food, no water. Why? Why? Tell Boosh. Saddam (Hussein) is in Baghdad, not Safwan. B.S. Boosh!”
His companion showed a handful of thumbnail-sized, apple-like fruits he had collected for food. “Disputes are between governments,” he said. “We have nothing to do with it.”
On a nearby side street, Mohammed Qazem, 40, came out from his brick house to plead for help. Gunfire rattled in the distance.
“We need medicine, benzine, gasoline, water and food,” he said. “We don’t know where to go with our sick.”
A neighbor, Mohsen Obeid, quickly ran up. “We just want water,” he said. “Please tell the Red Cross.”
At the U.S. checkpoint a mile farther north, Army Col. Robert Westholm said he is sympathetic but has no authority or supplies to give more than emergency care to Iraqi civilians.
“We’re military,” he said, a U.S. flag snapping in the cold wind behind him. “We’re not in the business of mass humanitarian assistance.”
In the distance, U.S. demolition teams exploded bunker after bunker of captured Iraqi arms and munitions, sending fireworks and an occasional vehicle high into the gloomy, gray skies.
A Kuwaiti soldier serving with the U.S. Army said he has no sympathy, however, for Palestinians and North Africans who have been dumped at the border by Kuwaiti troops in recent days. Many said they had been beaten or tortured.
“To tell you the truth, I hope they kick them all out,” said Abdul Aziz Mokhaizeem, 33, a Special Operations officer who lives in El Paso, Tex.
“Forty years, the Palestinians are living in Kuwait,” he said. “They are treated well. They get free medical, free dental, free school. As soon as the Iraqis come, they turn on Kuwait.”
A mist of black grit, from at least 55 nearby Kuwaiti oil wells torched by retreating Iraqi troops, covers cars and faces with a grimy, oil-spotted film. Puddles have a black, oily sheen.
Headlights are required at noon, and the sun gleams with an eerie greenish tint, like another planet’s moon. The night sky is a grisly orange, the oil wells burning like blowtorches on the horizon.
Unexploded cluster bomblets, which look like brown softballs or yellow soup cans, litter the roadside and dusty farmers’ fields.
Some are marked off with triangles of white tape for later pickup and destruction, but three boys kicked a soccer ball only 10 feet from an unmarked, unexploded bomblet one day last week.
U.S. troops called a helicopter Wednesday to airlift a 16-year-old boy who had tossed rocks at one bomblet until it exploded. His groin and belly were peppered with shrapnel.
Villagers say three children were killed four days before, and their mother lost a leg, when the family stepped on a mine. A tomato farmer lost a hand in another explosion, they said.
Each day, refugees from Iraq arrive with horror stories. Five hundred dead in the holy city of Karbala. Corpses hanging from lampposts and tank cannon barrels in Basra. Bodies on the road, shooting in the streets, death in the air.
On Tuesday, a white Toyota Landcruiser pulled up and an Iraqi colonel stepped out smartly. His purple beret was rakish, his boots polished. He had a letter for the local U.S. commander, he said.
“Everything OK in Basra,” he told a reporter in halting English. “No fighting.”
Moments later, the Iraqi pulled a U.S. soldier aside and said he didn’t need an interpreter, thank you very much. He had studied in the United States and spoke English fluently. A U.S. escort soon took him and his letter away.