SAFWAN, IRAQ — AFTER some tense moments, the Egyptians on two buses near this bombed-out town on the Iraq-Kuwait broke into cheers of ``Hurray for the Red Cross!'' as their drivers turned back into Kuwait. Told that they would have to cross into Iraq, last-minute negotiations with Kuwaiti soldiers allowed them to stay in Kuwait, at least temporarily. Thus the group of 150 ``guest workers'' joined the growing number of refugees caught between countries with little indication of where they ultimately will go.
Several hundred Egyptians, Somalians, Sudanese, even Bedouin nomads now find themselves caught on the border, their numbers increasing daily as civil strife rises inside in Iraq. Kuwaiti authorities say that their hands are full rebuilding the country and that they cannot accommodate refugees.
``We want to go to Egypt, because they want kill us in Iraq,'' says Magdi el-Suffi, who has lived in Iraq for nine years, working at the Sheraton Hotel in Basra, the scene of recent fighting between supporters and opponents of President Saddam Hussein.
``We walk four days across the desert to escape fighting - in Kuwait six days, but they tell us we must go,'' says Mr. Magdi El-Suffi. ``But we cannot return to Iraq.''
The International Red Cross is assisting the men, women, and children in the unofficial camp, as are United States soldiers who control the border town of Safwan and an area several miles inside Iraq. Most buildings at the border crossing are gutted. The hulks of vehicles are strewn along the four-lane highway.
Red Cross arrives
The Red Cross arrived last week to assist in repatriating 1,200 Kuwaiti civilians seized by Iraq and returned under those agreements. Kuwaitis are the only people allowed to cross, though many of them complain that their own military has scrutinized them too closely, looking for possible ``infiltrators.''
``We were snatched off the street by the Iraqis, taken to this horrible concentration camp, and then were bought back only to be held up because many of us didn't have identity papers,'' says Sabah Jasr, a scientist at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. ``The Iraqis took our IDs, and we really expected better treatment arriving back home.''
Also facing an unknown future are Iraqi civilians who fled the fighting in Basra, but cannot enter Kuwait. One day last week a group of Iraqis gathered inside what used to be the customs post, clad in filthy black garments carrying only a few possessions.
``Saddam no, Bush good,'' they said in the only English most of them could muster when asked why they were leaving. Red Cross official Walter Stocker says his organization has stepped into the refugee problem by default.
``We have an uncertain situation here, between an occupying military power [the US] and a government that hasn't had time to reestablish itself,'' Mr. Stocker says, standing not far from the ever-expanding tent city.
US troops help out
With no one yet providing assistance in an official capacity, everyone from the Red Cross to the refugees praise US troops positioned here for helping out. Soldiers manning the last checkpoint inside Iraq have shared food and medical supplies with needy arrivals, most of whom trudge out of Iraq on foot with only the clothes on their backs.
``We're kind of sick of MREs and these people sure need something to eat,'' says Jeff Morin, an Army private first class, referring to the military's ``Meals Ready to Eat'' field rations.
``I can't go back Iraq. I can't go Kuwait - no food. I want my country, but I can't go Somalia,'' says Somalian Yusef Mohammad in broken English. He used to work at a now-bombed-out oil refinery near Basra. ``Where I go?'' Similar questions are being asked 80 miles to the south in Kuwait City by those who could be considered internal refugees: Iraqis who lived in Kuwait for decades, but who now fear for their lives.
Holders of Iraqi passports, strong opponents of Saddam, and entire families live in their small apartments desperately trying to leave Kuwait bound for countries like Canada and Australia.
Two men in one apartment, both of them civil engineers, showed their visitors papers from destination countries that had approved their immigration, a process interrupted by the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion.
``I have two brothers-in-law now in Australia and an uncle in Canada, and I am all set to go with my family,'' says one, who asked to be identified only as Paul. A devout Christian, Paul says he and most of his colleagues wanted to leave Kuwait even before last August because of growing intolerance toward Christians in Islamic Kuwait.