RUWEISHED, JORDAN, AUG. 29 -- They wait slumped over their bundles or sprawled in stupor in the shadeless bleakness of this desert border post -- head to lap, back to back, a human carpet and mosaic of races suffering in silence under a merciless sun.
They are a human tide of misery -- Bangladeshis, Indians, Sri Lankans, Indonesians, Filipinos, Sudanese and Egyptians -- all swept into Jordan in the flight from Kuwait, with 20,000 now camped between the Iraqi and Jordanian frontiers and hundreds of thousands to come.
While news accounts have focused on the plight of the much smaller number of Westerners trapped inside Kuwait and Iraq, these refugees waiting at the border -- most of them non-Western and non-white -- are the forgotten victims of the Persian Gulf crisis.
Their exodus is not likely to end any time soon. With 2 million foreign workers in Kuwait, it would take 200 days to bring them across the border at the rate of 10,000 a day that Jordan can process, a United Nations official here said.
Clutching their passports, handkerchiefs to their heads, they wander forlornly from control point to customs, from border official to passport control.
"No money, no food, tell my embassy, please write my name," is the pleading opening statement to many halting conversations with these refugees, who have been cut off from their livelihoods. They are stranded here four weeks after the Iraqi invasion as the world contemplates whether to aid them and considers the problems of airlifting them back to their countries.
"Am I not human? Am I not Moslem? What is this?" asked Adam Abdel Hamid in a voice quivering with desperation. An Indian who had worked as a tailor in Kuwait, Abdel Hamid is quickly joined by a group of Bangladeshis who ask the same kind of question -- shyly, politely, holding back, ashamed of their travel-soiled robes yet with fierce and penetrating black eyes.
Gaunt, dirty and emaciated, Abdel Hamid complains that he has hardly eaten for the last four days and has no money to buy bread at 1 Jordanian dinar a loaf, equivalent to about $1.54.
"It is so dry I cannot swallow it anyway," he said, looking with longing and deprivation as the U.S. ambassador to Amman walked around this massive settlement of migrants. "Nobody is here from the Indian embassy. We want to leave. When can we leave? But every day they say tomorrow," he fretted.
A Jordanian truck driver said he had 100 Indians camping on his long flatbed truck but could not get permission to drive them into Amman.
The journey to Ruweished was long and hot for these have-nots who toiled in the land of plenty, Kuwait, only to be driven off without their salaries or savings by the threat of a war that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein claims to wage in their name.
Men wrapped in sarongs and thin sheets wash their own clothes in a muddy swamp, while others stand in line to bathe in Ruweished's only public restroom.
Bored, expressionless faces peer from under army tents strung over hard asphalt pavement. They are lined with piles of luggage, the only form of mattress in a wasteland where there is no tree within 50 miles. Shriveled melon peels, dried-up bread crumbs and plastic bottles litter the sides of the streets. But even the flies have faded away in the 100-degree heat.
Turbaned Egyptians and Sudanese workers make tea in the shade of garbage trucks and cattle cars full of refugees gazing into the desert from quarters that appear far more habitable than the hard, rough ground on which their neighbors sleep.
One enterprising Indonesian boils plain rice over an improvised stove made of stone, a perforated tin can and some wood. Women and men drag their feet as they move about with towels over their heads to fend off the sun. One or two lucky ones strut around beneath umbrellas.
The two fruit juice vendors, tilting backward and forward with large brass canisters on their backs, had traveled four hours to do business among this new crowd. But they are largely ignored, and their festive, feathery attire, normally associated with bustling markets and colorful holidays, seems out of place in this wretched landscape.
Jalina Faha, a pregnant Filipina due to deliver next month, cried and dabbed her bloodshot and swollen eyes in silence as she waited in a van for her papers to be processed. "I am in shock, I am in shock," she muttered softly. "I don't believe we have left," she cried, burying her head in her hands.
"She is spotting and afraid to lose her first baby," said her companion, Tessie Natib, who is also pregnant. A third expectant Filipina sat in the back of the truck. "We are all scared. There are too many small children in the camp in Iraq. Very, very small," she said. The three women, who had worked as nurses in Kuwait, were being escorted by a Dutch doctor from the French organization Physicians Without Borders to the nearby hospital, where four women have already given birth on this long trek from Kuwait.
The density of the 6,000 people at Ruweished is stifling, but it will get worse. There are already 20,000 refugees in two camps in a desolate stretch of no man's land between Jordan and Iraq, as Jordanian authorities try to cope with an influx that has already filled Amman's mosques, monasteries, trade centers and open spaces. The 4,000 Bangladeshis among them are in the most perilous condition.
One physician here said that there were just two doctors on the Iraqi side of the border but that more were expected soon. The Jordanian government has also begun feeding the refugees on the Iraqi side, supplying them on Tuesday with bread, tomatoes and cucumbers. "The main problem remains shelter and food," the physician said.
In the air-conditioned office of Jordanian border officials, the message to Amman was terse and urgent. "Both camps have run out of food, the temperature is boiling hot, and we need more supplies," a general barked into the telephone.
U.S. Ambassador Roger Harrison, who inspected the Iraqi border camp today, said that until the Jordanian government provides transportation for the mass of refugees, more tents and more food will be needed. "There is a real potential for problems," Harrison added. "We brought in 500 tents and 18,000 meals last week, but it's only a drop in the bucket. I expect hundreds of thousands are headed our way."
An Egyptian refugee lamented the state of Kuwait. "It is sad," Mohammed Ashry said. "There are no Kuwaitis in Kuwait anymore. Kuwait is finished."
Other Egyptian refugees lashed out against Saddam, saying his Iraqi troops had robbed them of VCRs, television sets and even cans of biscuits for their children. "They wanted to buy everything from us, and when we agreed, they told us it was illegal and they could take us to prison, so we gave them everything," one irate Egyptian said.
Filipinos crammed inside a tent said all they wanted to do was go home. Some played cards, others just slept, wilting in the heat. A seamstress, Dali Caoile, said she could not take it anymore. "We are afraid to die here," she said. "I want to go home as soon as possible, and I have been here for two days."
"We have a real humanitarian problem here," Ambassador Harrison said as he and his wife walked through the tents. "It is not politics but hunger and 100-degree heat. The international community should be mobilized."
"There is water and medicine, but we need more shelter and food. I saw more than 10 children in one tent and 18 pregnant mothers. Jordan has done a fantastic job, but it is incumbent on us to provide more resources," Harrison told reporters.
"There is a great need, and it is not going to go away in the next few days."