AZRAQ, JORDAN, OCT. 6 -- With the evacuation of refugees through Jordan finally under control, relief officials have begun drawing up regional contingency plans for what could become a human flood if an all-out war broke out.
Preparations have been hampered by uncertainty over how many more foreigners would show up at the Jordanian border if hostilities erupted or if the present tension persisted into the winter. United Nations and Jordanian officials said the total would depend on whether Iraqi authorities opened other borders for fleeing foreigners and on the location and scope of any fighting in Iraq and Kuwait.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has stockpiled in Cyprus tents, blankets, medicine and enough food to nourish 120,000 refugees for three months, according to M'hamed Essaafi, coordinator of the U.N. Disaster Relief Office. Additional tents and supplies have been readied in Jordan and camps are being prepared for winter, he said at a news conference.
Nearly 700,000 refugees who quit Kuwait and Iraq -- the largest groups being citizens of India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka -- have passed through Jordan since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, according to an estimate compiled by U.N. and Jordanian relief agencies.
Essaafi said another 80,000 are expected in the coming week. But with a daily airlift of 8,000, the evacuation could be down to a trickle by the end of October if the current rate of arrivals continues, he said. The problem, he added, is that nobody knows if it will.
Authorities have estimated that more than 1 million Egyptians remain in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of other foreign workers also have remained in Kuwait and Iraq, some by choice, and it is impossible to estimate how many will seek to flee in the months ahead.
"If there is war, maybe nobody will move, because maybe they won't be allowed," said another international relief official. "But maybe the conflict will be localized only in Baghdad, and everybody else will come. Who knows? Nobody has the answers in hand."
For the present, Indian authorities have arranged a dozen flights a day to transport their nationals, the largest single group. Scores of Indian refugees loaded their suitcases onto buses today at this dusty refugee camp for the 50-mile trip to Amman's Queen Alia International Airport, from which they had been promised a free flight to Bombay.
A Jordanian threat to close the border to further arrivals was withdrawn today after pledges of additional funds from the U.N. Disaster Relief Office to pay for the bus transportation between camps and the airport. Essaafi said he handed the government a check for $1.5 million and another $400,000 is due in a few days.
Jordan, which has estimated it is spending $2 million a week on overland transport, has insisted on getting cash in hand rather than pledges of future payments, said Salam Hammad, the Interior Ministry secretary general who heads a committee on refugee problems.
In a measure of the improvements in handling arriving refugees, most of those departing today said they had been in refugee camps for three or four days. In the confusion that engulfed arrivals in August, many waited for weeks in rough conditions while relief officials frantically sought to line up planes.
At Azraq, where two tent cities have been set up, rows of green-and-white tents march across the desert terrain, so numerous that some of them stand empty. At Azraq I, some 10,000 Indians have been lodged while awaiting their turn for a flight home. At Azraq II, just across a sandy rise, about 13,000 Sri Lankans and 1,500 Filipinos have been given shelter for a similar wait.
Refugees coming out of Kuwait arrive desolate and poor, facing a return home without funds or job prospects. Most of the jobs in Kuwait evaporated as Iraqi troops stormed in, halting business and installing a military occupation. The refugees, who said they were left without paychecks and subjected to robbery and repeated searches by Iraqi troops, pulled up stakes in a country where many of them had spent years to earn the decent living that they had found impossible at home.
Mohammed Abdulrahman, a native of the Madras area, said he saved 10,000 Kuwaiti dinars, or about $33,000, by working in Kuwait for eight years as a driver and secretary. He said the funds, deposited in a Kuwaiti bank, were lost because of an Iraqi order that only Iraqi dinars, which cannot be freely converted, could be withdrawn.
In addition, Abdulrahman and his fellow refugees had to pay 100 Iraqi dinars, or about $300, for transportation in an Iraqi-run bus to the Jordanian border.
"The Iraqi soldiers came into the buses and took all the videocassettes and recorders," lamented Nassib Singh, who also was bused out of Kuwait. "They just took them and smashed them, like this," he added, smacking his vinyl travel bag.
As a final blow, the Iraqi buses unloaded their passengers at a point before entry into Jordan, forcing them to pay another 500 to 700 Iraqi dinars per busload for a second ride across the no man's land that separates Jordan from Iraq.
"We had to pass the hat," smiled another refugee, pointing to a 10-gallon stetson that he said was a gift from an American friend in Kuwait.