St. Petersburg Times Online
Advertisement
Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Iraq

Forced reunions

Foreigners jam the roads out of Baghdad, and few have anything nice to say about the United States

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2003


AMMAN, Jordan -- It was shortly after 3 a.m. Tuesday, Baghdad time. As their taxi sped across the Iraqi desert, Amer Qsoos and his friends roused themselves from slumber to listen to the live broadcast on Radio Monte Carlo.

"Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours," President Bush was saying. "Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict commenced at a time of our choosing."

Now, at 10 a.m. Tuesday, the 14-hour cab ride was over and Qsoos was in a parking lot in Amman, waiting for his mother. He would be happy to see her, but he wanted to be back in Baghdad, at the university where he had been about to take final exams in his third year of dental school.

"I hope something will happen at the last moment but it's too much to hope for," said Qsoos, convinced that the start of war will mean the end of his education.

"Baghdad will be bombed because they want oil. They will destroy people, destroy students, destroy children, destroy old people just because they want oil."

With a U.S.-led war against Iraq expected to start any hour, hundreds of foreign diplomats, journalists and U.N. workers are leaving the country for neighboring Jordan. But the exodus also includes many Jordanians themselves, students like Qsoos and others returning to their own land with great reluctance.

All day Tuesday they came, some paying 10,000 Iraqi dinars -- about $5 -- to ride on aging buses, others up to $200 a head to travel in taxis. At least 150 arrived in the surprisingly plush coaches of Iraq's state-owned bus system, which has kept its daily Baghdad-Amman service on schedule even as war looms.

It was an eclectic group of arrivals. Women in long skirts and Muslim head scarves. Teenage girls in stone-washed jeans. Young men in black leather jackets and older men with fingers stained yellow from countless Winstons. From trunks and baggage holds came enormous bundles of bedding and suitcases of every size, color and vintage. And because Iraq has a lot of oil, there were 30-liter containers of cheap Iraqi diesel.

Not one of the travelers had anything bad to say about Iraq. Nor anything good to say about the United States.

"The Iraqi people are very friendly, extremely fine people," said one Jordanian woman, who called herself Um Mohammed, mother of Mohammed. Her family has lived in Baghdad for 10 years, deciding to leave Monday night only because of "the situation."

"My daughter," she said, nodding at a red-eyed teenager, "was crying and very sad. Why does the United States do this?"

Qsoos, 22, wonders too.

His grades were not good enough to get into dental school in Jordan, so he enrolled at Baghdad University, a vestige of those long-ago days when Iraq had a bright future and a thriving, well-educated middle class.

For $200 a month, Qsoos and a fellow Jordanian rented a room in a house in central Baghdad. They were impressed by the university: "In the last couple of years there was a big difference," Qsoos says. "New equipment was coming in."

At 10 a.m. every Friday, the Muslim holy day, Qsoos' mother would call to chat. But on Monday morning, she phoned because she was scared and wanted him to come home.

Qsoos balked. People were stockpiling rice and buying water pumps, but Baghdad otherwise seemed normal. Classes were continuing and he didn't want to miss his pharmacology exam.

"If you don't come back," said his mother, a doctor, "I'll send you some food and money. If you have to leave, cars will be so high in price you can't afford it."

At 4 p.m. Monday, minutes after it became clear there would be no diplomatic end to the Iraqi crisis, Qsoos' phone rang again. This time it was his father, an architect.

"You are coming home now," he ordered.

Qsoos tried to hire a car and driver, but foreign embassies had already snatched up every decent vehicle to evacuate their personnel. For three hours he hunted until he found Mohammed Yahya and his taxi, a 1988 Chevy Caprice. He wanted $260 for the 600-mile trip.

Qsoos got his roommate and two other students to split the cost and they finally set off at 8 p.m. The road from Baghdad to the Jordanian border is an eight-lane superhighway -- another legacy of Iraq's boom days -- and is it is normally deserted except for oil tankers.

This time it was so crowded the taxi spent three hours on the Iraqi side of the border, awaiting clearance to cross. It took another hour on the Jordanian side before they were again on their way.

At 10 a.m., they finally pulled into the parking lot of the Alafour Transportation Co., where taxis and buses from Baghdad disgorge their passengers. Qsoos called his mother; as he waited, he and the other students talked.

Two were sad because they have girlfriends still in Baghdad; Iraq is not permitting its citizens to leave unless they have relatives in Jordan or have an exceptional reason for going.

Qsoos, quiet and bespectacled, does not have a girlfriend. But there are many other Iraqis he will miss and worry about. The old couple -- both pushing 90 -- from whom he rents his room. The hundreds of Jordanian students attending college on scholarships from the Iraqi government: Iraq is not letting them leave either.

But Qsoos and the others are surprisingly tolerant of Hussein's regime.

"What do you mean he has killed thousands of his own people?" Qsoos demanded of a reporter. "Even if he did, he had good reason. Saddam is for the Arab world, and that is enough."

The American president may see himself as a liberator of Iraq; not so the Iraqi people.

"Iraq is an Arab Muslim state," Qsoos said. "It will lose its soul if the Americans come. There are guns in every house. Nobody will surrender."

Fifteen minutes later, his mother drove up. They hugged each other for several seconds, and both cried. But Qsoos couldn't get his mind off Iraq.

"Our connection with Baghdad is not just studying," he said. "It's a little bit spiritual. You feel like it's a second home. I can't imagine leaving and never coming back."

Yahya, the taxi driver, had no choice but to return. He has a wife and two young children, with a third on the way. After driving 12 hours, he smoked a few cigarettes, chatted with his fellow drivers, then got back in his orange-and-white taxi.

The road wouldn't be crowded. Except for 250,000 U.S. and British troops, not many people are going to Baghdad these days.

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.