CAIRO — SUNBURNED, exhausted, and destitute, Egyptians wind their carts heaped with stuffed canvas bags and suitcases around the gate of Cairo's old airport. They are welcomed back by relatives waiting for loved ones or at least news of them. First come handshakes from those hanging over the steel gate. Then people run at the returnees with pictures of brothers, daughters, or fathers, desperate for information.
``We were hungry for two days since we'd been on the road,'' says Fayez Abd el Aziz, a shoemaker who was returning from Iraq after 13 years.
``We saw a truck go by with tomatoes and cucumbers, so we blocked them and said, `Look, we're hungry.''' The Jordanian police then fired their guns into the air, Mr. el Aziz said, to disperse the crowd.
As many as 15 people have reportedly died trying to flee Iraq and Kuwait.
Those who have returned say they spent days in the desert without food or water, waiting endlessly in the sweltering sun to cross the border from Iraq and Jordan, being stripped of their valuables in Iraq and hit with sticks and tear-gassed by Jordanian police.
Eighty-five thousand people, mainly Egyptian laborers, have returned home. Another 300,000 are expected, according to Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid.
Although there were differing reports, many new arrivals spoke of harsh treatment from either Iraqis, Jordanians, or Palestinians.
The Gulf crisis has placed Arab nations at odds with each other. Those supporting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait - Jordanians, Palestinians, and Yemenis - condemn those countries that denounce Iraq's actions, such as Egypt and the Gulf states.
Egypt is especially contemptible to those in the pro-Iraqi camp.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak led the creation of an Arab force to defend Saudi Arabia at the emergency Arab summit two and a half weeks ago in Cairo. Since then, Egypt has sent 5,000 troops to the Saudi border, the largest Arab deployment.
As more and more arrivals pass through the airport gates, relatives of those still missing continue to wait.
``For 20 days we've been waiting here like this, sleeping in the chairs, not going home,'' says Samia Ahmed, whose sister worked in a Kuwaiti hospital. ``We have not heard any news [of the sister] since the beginning of the crisis.''
The refugees fled to the Jordanian border via car, bus, or truck - their homes looted, their money stolen, and afraid of the random shooting between the Kuwaiti resistance and Iraqi soldiers. Some of the refugees even walked. Once over the border in Ruweishid, Jordan, those who were able to do so paid $25 to pack 100 at a time into cattle cars to travel 10 hours to the Jordanian port of Aqaba. There they waited three days or more for a ferry to take them to Nuweiba in Egypt.
Refugees also fled through Saudi Arabia. With Syria's borders now open, they will have another escape route.
In response to the chaos at the border, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the European Community sent aircraft to fly Egyptians home from Amman or Aqaba. More than 16,000 Egyptians have been flown to Cairo since the end of last week, officials said. Thousands more returned by ferry.
For most of the returnees, many of them penniless because of the deflated Kuwaiti dinar and loss of their savings and possessions, the future looks grim. Cairo has said it will not only find jobs for the new arrivals, but civil servants can return to their previous positions. Students attending university in Kuwait or Iraq can also reenroll in Egyptian schools.
Already universities have received 10,000 requests from arriving students, according to Cairo newspapers.
The Egyptian economy is already overburdened by a budget deficit of 189 percent of gross domestic product, 30 to 40 percent inflation, and 20 percent unemployment. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund is requesting major economic reforms from Egypt.
The return of more than 1 million workers from Iraq and 200,000 from Kuwait, amounting to a loss of more than $1 billion in foreign remittances, a key revenue source for Egypt, would put further pressure on the economy.