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Winds tear at refugee effort in Jordan

Strong winds made savage with sand delay preparations for as many as 50,000 Iraqi refugees.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2003

NEAR THE JORDAN-IRAQ BORDER -- On the rocky patch of desert where thousands of Iraqi refugees soon will be housed, a strong wind blew Thursday.

How strong?

So strong it shredded the edges of a tent into a lacy white fringe.

So strong workers had to wear goggles to keep the sand out of their eyes.

So strong that 25-year-old Hosam Madin, one of the first refugees, was driven to prayer.

"Allah!" he cried in relief as a friend dragged him through a sandstorm and planted him in the protective shelter of a bus.

As the war intensifies, as many as 600,000 people are expected to leave Iraq in coming days. Some 50,000 of those may end up in Jordan, Iraq's neighbor to the west and a country that is no stranger to massive, politically troublesome influxes of refugees.

As Jordanians awoke to news that the U.S.-led war against Iraq finally had begun, workers near the border struggled to put up flimsy canvas tents in a wind blowing steadily at 40 mph. It was like trying to pitch a tent in a tropical storm only there was no rain -- just sand, sand and more sand.

At one refugee camp, crews started at 6 a.m. but had erected fewer than 30 of the 2,000 tents by early afternoon.

"Normally, it takes about 10 minutes but now it takes half an hour," said Ibrahim Saleh, supervising the job for the Hashemite Jordan Charity Organization.

"Mobilizing this site depends on the weather and the weather is very hard. Sometimes dusty, sometimes stormy, sometimes windy. As they say in Texas, if you don't like the weather, wait an hour."

At the second camp, a few miles away, work on another 1,100 tents was running a full day behind schedule because of the fierce wind.

"It's causing huge problems," said Laura Hutchings of the Jordanian Red Crescent.

About half of Jordan's 5-million people are descendants of Palestinians who fled in 1948 from what is now Israel. They regard Saddam Hussein as a hero for attacking the Jewish state in the first Gulf War; it was partly out of fear of antagonizing his Palestinian subjects that the late King Hussein refused to join the allied coalition against Iraq in 1991.

Jordan's neutrality damaged its relations with the United States and cost it millions of dollars in aid. In recent years, the two countries again have become close allies, and the U.S. military is quietly operating from Jordanian soil.

However, Jordan fears the war could destabilize the region, fan Islamic extremism and create another flood of Iraqi refugees like that in 1991. As many as 500,000 Iraqis still live in Jordan -- most of them desperately poor -- and the country doesn't want to be permanently stuck with any more.

Refugees who arrive this time will find themselves in the middle of nowhere. The refugee camps are about a three-hour drive from the Jordanian capital of Amman and a nine-hour drive from Baghdad. There is nothing in between but a few villages and 600 miles of desert.

The first camp, with enough tents for about 10,000 refugees, is for Iraqi citizens only. The plan is for them to stay there through the war, then go home.

The second camp, able to handle about 5,500 people, is for foreigners who have been living in Iraq but are in transit to their native countries. They will spend no more than a few nights in tents before being taken to the airport in Amman or sent to the Jordanian port of Aqaba, where they can catch a ship to Egypt.

Camp B, as the foreigner-only camp is dubbed, got its first refugees at 7 a.m. Thursday -- two busloads of Sudanese.

Many were college students whose worried parents had urged them to come home. As they got off the buses, chartered by their embassy in Baghdad, they found themselves in a raging sandstorm. Even worse, they discovered they were being treated as refugees rather than ordinary travelers.

"We have passports and we have visas and we have tickets," said Madin, who was about to graduate from Mosul University before war broke out. "I don't know why I have to stay here."

As he talked, Madin clutched a camp-issued blanket around his shoulders. It was so covered with sand it looked more orange than khaki-colored.

Even if the wind died down, a stay at Camp B would be an unappealing prospect. Temperatures at night drop into the 30s. The desert is covered with small, jagged rocks, which already are sawing their way through the plastic tarp that makes up the floor of the tents.

In mid-afternoon, a worker arrived with several plump, colorful pillows. But the wind yanked one out of his arms and sent it cartwheeling across the desert, like a tumbleweed in an old Western movie.

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at .

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