The Wait in the Desert Sun

UPDATED 10/08/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/08/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

My story is simple." As he helps several other refugees clear rocks from the ground beneath their tent Bahauddin Ali, 24, an electrician born in Bangladesh, begins telling how he fled his home in Kuwait and came to live in a sprawling tent camp deep in the Jordanian desert. "I was an electrician with a good business." he says. "Now I have nothing—no home, no tools, no money, no job. The Iraqis took everything except my clothes." In addition, Ali lost a year's savings—about $2,000—when the bank he used shut its doors after Saddam Hussein's troops invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2. With most businesses padlocked and most civilians hiding in their homes, Ali had no more work. And so he left, making his slow way to this primitive camp. "But I'm luckier than some men." he says. "They were shot and killed because they would not give Iraqi soldiers their jewelry or shoes. I saw five people killed this way, and I saw more lying dead in the streets."

One of an estimated half-million or more non-Western refugees who have already streamed out of Kuwait and Iraq. Ali and a group of nine fellow Bangladeshis have just arrived at one of two Jordanian camps at Azraq, a stony wilderness two hours drive west of Iraq. Given the massive movement of humanity, which has prompted one of the greatest relief efforts since the devastating Ethiopian famine of 1985, Ali is glad he has traveled with friends. "We look out for each other, raise the spirits of the man who is sad, who has lost hope," he says. This is Ali's third camp in three weeks—the first was in Baghdad—and it will be his home for perhaps another week or two, until he is returned to Bangladesh on one of the many mercy flights arranged by various governments and relief agencies, including the Red Cross and its Middle Eastern counterpart, the Red Crescent.

Designed to hold 50,000 refugees, the two Azraq camps were quickly erected to shelter and process an expected flood of perhaps a million or more Asian and Arab refugees fleeing Kuwait. Most of these are penniless common laborers, forced to abandon their homes as well as their small savings. Because of enormous logistical problems—including food-shipment bottlenecks at Jordan's Red Sea port of Aqaba—the repatriation of refugees remains sporadic, with delays of up to three and four weeks.

Ali has no idea how long he will wait in the desert, or how long it will be until he sees his wife and two sons who are back home in Bangladesh. After helping his friends settle in, he stores his little bundle of shirts, pants, underwear and a rolled-up sponge mattress and blankets in a corner, then walks to a nearby clearing. "Maybe the worst is over," he says amiably, scanning the half-mile-long sweep of conical white tents shimmering in the late afternoon heat. "At least here they give us food—not like in the last camp, where people fought like animals for a tomato or a handful of water. No, here is better—not so many snakes and scorpions. Twice there I was given shots for snakebites."

After the Iraqi invasion, Ali hid from troops in his Kuwait City apartment for three weeks. Out of food, told by friends that his tiny workshop had been ransacked by the invading army, unable to withdraw his savings from the bank, he spent the equivalent of $60, most of the cash he had left, on a hot, crowded bus trip 350 miles northwest to Baghdad. There, he and other refugees—Egyptians, Filipinos, Sri Lankans. Indians and Bangladeshis—were detained in camps on the city's outskirts until they were allowed to purchase bus passage to the Jordanian border camps 300 miles to the west. "My friends paid my way," he says. "They paid with watches, radios, whatever they had. The Iraqis took it all. They even charged us for water."

A technical school graduate, Ali left his family in Bangladesh a year ago so that he could work as an electrician and save enough money to bring his family to Kuwait. There, he hoped to make a new start; that dream is shattered now. "I have not talked to my wife in months," he says. "She doesn't even know I am alive. But when I return, what will I tell her? I lost everything. And there is no work for me in Bangladesh. Iraq was wrong to invade. They pushed out the rich, but they hurt the poor too."

As the sun sets over Azraq, silhouetting scores of arriving buses, each of them jammed with more refugees. Ali joins his friends in the tent. A few men clutch pieces of bread to eat later, some have stretched out on their relief-agency blankets, and all talk grimly of their new, temporary home. "We complain." Ali says. "They give us bread, not rice, and we are rice eaters. There is no light at night, only the stars. There are not many toilets. And none of us knows when he'll go home. All we can do here is wait, sleep and think." Another man nudges Ali with ah elbow. "You forgot cards," he says. With a nod, Ali reaches into his bundle and retrieves a dog-eared deck of cards. "Let's play," he says with a chuckle—"before the light goes."

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