Refugees Flood Iraqi Borders

Soldiers and civilians flee fighting and join thousands along border with Kuwait

SIX mile-wide strip of Iraqi territory held by United States troops north of Kuwait's border post is becoming a zone of misery. This no-man's land sees a daily human traffic in the casualties of the Gulf war, people for whom no one seems to want to take responsibility.

Safwan was the former border post between Kuwait and Iraq before the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq last year. Today it lies blasted by allied bombing raids. A few miles up the road in Iraqi territory is a desert-style Checkpoint Charlie, the last military outpost for US troops.

The human traffic through Checkpoint Charlie is constant. There are Iraqi soldiers who want to come through, others claim they are lost and seeking their units. Many do not seem to know where they are or the final disposition of opposing forces. About 40 to 50 arrive each day, say US soldiers at the checkpoint.

Then there are the civilians fleeing the fighting in Basra and persecution by the Iraqi authorities. Refugees describe Basra as a city of corpses. Rebels hold the town's center, but Republican Guards surround it, bombarding rebel strongholds with artillery and helicopters normally used on the battlefield.

Mounting human traffic

The civilian traffic includes frightened Iraqi families, Egyptian workers, and Asians simply thrown out of Iraq. Egyptian refugees said nationals identified as belonging to coalition-force countries are being killed by Iraqi authorities. There are also groups of Arab civilians arriving from Kuwait, battered and bruised from the treatment they say they received in police stations and in detention centers run by the Kuwaiti Army.

The largest potential problem for the US military, however, seems to be the thousands of Iraqi civilians who live in the Safwan area and outlying villages. Villagers say the absence of an official cease-fire between coalition forces and Iraq has left them without administrative control and subsequently no food. No one, it seems, is responsible for their welfare.

All along the roadside of the occupied territory, children, and women gesture with their hands, pointing to their mouths. "Food, food," cries a seven-year-old boy along the road. Women and children can also be seen rummaging in the ruins of bombed out buildings for pieces of cardboard and corrugated iron to create makeshift shelters for the night.

"Please give us help. People are starving here, there is no water," pleads Saad Sharif, a local English school teacher in Safwan. Safwan area villages have no rice, tea, sugar, or medicines, he says. "We have only the rainwater to drink and there is nothing in the hospital."

The occupied area is also full of unexploded coalition bombs and Iraqi mines. Help is needed to clear them, says the schoolteacher.

"We have asked the American soldiers for food, but they tell us they are just soldiers and it is not their job," Mr. Sharif says. "They are doing their best though, they gave us water and some food this morning."

The first food handout by the US military was an organizational disaster, says Sharif, because people were so hungry they just grabbed the food and a riot broke out. The Army says it wants the villages to create a distribution system. US troops appear only now to be coping with the fact that they are occupying the area, and as occupiers, the Safwan villagers argue, they should be responsible for them.

"Our government cannot reach us here, and we cannot go into Basra for food because of the fighting," says Khalid, a former art teacher in Basra. "We are not being paid by our government. The Americans have stopped officials going to their offices. They are the occupiers. The Americans should now feed us."

There is also resentment among villagers about the presence of Kuwaiti troops. "We don't want them to enter this area. Why do they come? Just to make fun of our disgrace. This is very dangerous, there could be clashes," warns the art teacher.

Many villagers say they supported Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and still believe Kuwait is part of Iraq.

Refugee camps spring up

Safwan's problems are getting worse each day, they say, as more and more refugees and deportees arrive from Basra. Near the ruins of bombed out buildings, tanks, and Iraqi trucks, refugee camps are springing up.

Officials of Red Crescent close to the Safwan post say 1,000 civilians have already arrived with scores more pouring in daily. Abdul Hadi Khalid, a Red Crescent official, says there is not enough food to feed everyone arriving, and many are starved and exhausted. Some, he says, have walked five days. Along the road to the camp, scores of Egyptians arrive each hour carrying luggage on their heads, having walked the 20 miles from Basra.

Several hundred more of the refugees are stateless bedu who previously lived in Kuwait. Many worked for the Kuwaiti Army and police and were taken as prisoners to Iraq during the crisis. Their lack of citizenship has left them shut out of both Iraq and Kuwait. Kuwaiti officials believe many were Iraqi Army deserters or are civilians fleeing the fighting.

"We're feeding Iraqis now," says a Kuwaiti sergeant with an ironic laugh. Other arrivals are the former detainees of Kuwait's detention centers. Most are Palestinians, who say they have been tortured and beaten by Kuwaitis.

Alleged Kuwaiti torture

At the final US checkpoint, about six miles from Safwan, the traffic back and forth is constant. Many are Egyptian peasants, who say simply they are fleeing Saddam.

An Iraqi vegetable seller arrived last weekend in a civilian car with some friends. He had injuries he claimed to have received in a Kuwaiti Army detention centre. He also said he had been subjected to electric torture. He was examined by Red Cross officials at the checkpoint. A US colonel at this checkpoint says he relayed the Iraqi's statement to his superiors.

"The man said that he gave himself up to a Kuwaiti police station. He had come to sell his tomatoes in Kuwait and got caught by the war. The fact is that it is not right for any human being to receive such treatment," says Col. Pat Ridder.

So far, US military and local officials appear reluctant to respond to the growing number of reports of torture. Colonel Ridder says, however, "I have been a professional soldier for 20 years, and I have faith in my superiors and my government to decide what to do about it."

A Kuwaiti Army sergeant at the checkpoint commented that he didn't care about these Iraqis. Sergeant Walid has three cousins still held in Iraq and says allegations of torture by Kuwaiti Army from Palestinians and Iraqis were untrue.

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