AL-RUWEISHID, Jordan March 24 —
The beige tents sit in rows on the cold, wind-swept plain. A
giant bubble houses a Japanese health clinic. Water tanks protrude
from the black gravel. This refugee camp is ready to receive
thousands of fleeing Iraqis.
But so far, there isn't a single one.
Refugee officials say poverty, fear, ignorance and possibly
intimidation are keeping people home, in contrast with the 1991 Gulf
War, when some 1.8 million Iraqis fled the country.
"I think everyone's breathing a sigh of relief," said Chris Lom,
spokesman for the Geneva-based International Organization for
Migration. "On the basis of the last Gulf War, I think everyone's
Aid officials planned for 600,000 people to flee the country in
the initial stages of war with about half going to Iran and the rest
to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria.
But five days into the conflict, the only reported refugees are
14 people two families who fled coalition bombing of Mosul in
northern Iraq and headed northwest into Syria on Sunday.
At many border crossings, more traffic is entering Iraq than
leaving. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Iraqis have returned from
Jordan in recent days, saying they want to help their country repel
the invading army.
"Iraqis are not afraid. Nobody wants to leave their country,
their homes," said Makki Qubaysi, a 32-year-old Iraqi driver
crossing into Syria.
He said he was heading right back home.
But while no refugee crisis has materialized, officials caution
that the war is still in its early stages.
During the 1991 Gulf War, about 50,000 Iraqis fled the country,
most to relatives in neighboring countries. But shortly after the
war, when Saddam Hussein cracked down on rebellions in the south and
north, some 1.8 million Iraqis streamed out.
Officials fear an exodus could develop as fighting
"We have to plan for people to run in every direction ... because
of chemical weapons, because of fear, because of lack of food," said
Peter Kessler, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for
He warned specifically about fierce fighting near the poor
southern Iraqi city of Basra.
"That place could become very desperate, very fast," he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned Monday of a
"humanitarian disaster" there, saying he was told by the
International Committee of the Red Cross that Basra's electricity
and water supplies were threatened.
The Red Cross and Basra authorities have tried to get clean water
to residents since the supply was cut Friday, ICRC spokesman Florian
Staehelin said, adding that pipelines were running at 40 percent
But why have so few people fled Iraq so far? The Bush
administration told refugee officials that part of its war strategy
would be to minimize the number of refugees.
Aid officials are skeptical. They say it is more likely that
people simply are hunkering down in their houses, hoping the
fighting will pass them by before their food runs out.
Poverty is a major factor. Since the last war, Iraqis have
struggled under U.N.-imposed sanctions that have made the
once-wealthy nation poor. People with few possessions fear that if
they leave, they will return to nothing at all.
"People don't have enough to take the risk," Kessler said. "If
there is pillaging, they might lose everything. People are wanting
to sit tight and wait out the war."
Many people also are unaware of the intensity of the battles
raging around them because the government controls the news media,
which gives few details of the fighting.
"Most people carry on as long as they can," said Lom, the
International Organization for Migration spokesman. "In war, you can
have a battle going on pretty close to you and you don't know about
it especially when you have a pro-government media."
Officials also are analyzing reports that neighborhood branches
of Iraq's ruling Baath Party have warned people that any abandoned
houses will be looted. The reports could not be confirmed.
A long war also could make it difficult for Iraqis to hold out in
their homes. Iraq distributed months of extra food rations in
anticipation of an invasion, but Iraq's U.N.-supervised food
rationing system was suspended when the fighting started.
Some people have been leaving Iraq. Syrian government officials,
speaking on condition of anonymity, say thousands of Iraqi Shiites
Muslims who crossed into Syria in the past month on pilgrimages plan
to remain there until the end of the war.
A source at the Jordan-Iraq border, 30 miles from this camp, said
one Iraqi family came across and was not reported.
"They had money," he said.
In addition, several hundred "third-country nationals" almost all
African fled Iraq. They are staying at another camp nearby, and
Lom's organization has plans to send most of them home. Officials do
not consider them refugees because they are not Iraqi.
Meanwhile, the refugee camp near Al-Ruweishid has supplies for
10,000 refugees in place, but it sits empty.
Workers surrounded by rocky desert on all sides strung up green
plastic to enclose showers and erected long rows of aluminum
bathroom stalls on Monday. Electricians hooked up floodlights to
illuminate the camp.
Tents flapped in the strong desert wind, sounding like a flock of
birds taking flight.
"They've got a lot of staff out there," Lom said, "with very
little to do."
EDITOR'S NOTE Niko Price is correspondent at large for The
|A Jordanian worker performs
Muslim evening prayers during a break from setting up tents at
a camp for possible refugees from Iraq, near the far eastern
Jordanian town of Al- Ruweishid, some 50 kilometers from the
Jordanian-Iraqi border, Saturday, March 22, 2003. This refugee
camp is ready to receive thousands of fleeing Iraqis because
of the US-led strike against Saddam Hussein's regime, but so
far, there isn't a single one. (AP Photo/Lefteris
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