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Reporters Notebook: Iraqi Border Town - 2003-03-28

U.S.-led coalition forces left many small Iraqi villages in their wake as they rushed toward their current positions outside Baghdad. VOA Chinese Branch's William Chien visited one. Here is an excerpt from his reporter's notebook for the day.

Everyone assumed Iraqi forces would retreat deeper into their territory after coalition forces entered Iraq, and Kuwait would be quite safe.

The opposite seems closer to the truth. In Kuwait, air raid sirens loudly wail almost daily, forcing schools to suspend classes. Most foreign students and foreign citizens have already left the country. It almost seems the only foreigners left in Kuwait are journalists.

Today, the International Red Cross is organizing a cross-border inspection of Iraqi refugee camps. Just as I and about 100 other reporters begin boarding buses, Kuwait is again a target.

Two minutes after the alarm ends, two guided missiles thump the ground not far from us. I feel the shock waves; or is that just my imagination? We barely have a chance to gauge our reactions before the Red Cross organizer cancels our trip, saying it was too dangerous.

Luckily, a Red Cross worker I had met while waiting in Bahrain for a plane to Kuwait took me aside. He tells me that if I really want to cross the Iraqi border, he can help, the Red Cross is just about to deliver relief supplies to a village across the border in Iraq. I can come if I promise not tell anyone that I am a reporter; he also suggests it would not be a good idea to use my tape recorder or my video camera.

I accept. We ride in his truck due north for about two hours through barren, semi-desert landscape. At the border, 10 American soldiers inspect every vehicle. The line is surprisingly short. Seeing the Red Cross markings on our truck, the soldiers do a very cursory inspection and waive us through.

My Red Cross friend says villages in southern Iraq depend on grain supplied either from central Iraq or from across the border in Kuwait. But the border between Iraq and Kuwait has been closed to shipments of common goods since before the war; and nothing from the north has reached them for more than a week. As such, the relief supplies in our truck would be among the first these Iraqi refugees have seen since at least the start of the war.

We soon arrive at an area where refugees had been told to gather to wait for relief supplies. As soon as our truck stops, around 50 villagers immediately surround us. They begin singing and dancing as they encircle the truck. They look and sound joyful, but there is a tension in the air.

The scene was too tempting: I raise my video camera to begin filming, but before I am aware of what is happening, the group begins to push each other aside in a mad scramble to get to the head of the line. Instead of waiting for the workers to unload supplies, they pull food and medical supplies off the truck. I immediately stow my camera, afraid that they would grab it as well. In less than five minutes, the truck is picked clean.

On the way back to Kuwait, my Red Cross friend tells me the song they were singing was, "We will use our blood and lives to protect Saddam."

Why, I ask, are they so eager to eat American food, if they vow to fight to the death to protect Saddam? The response speaks volumes about what life has been like for these people in recent years. I'm told these villagers are not really loyal to Saddam. They don't know how to sing anything other than the propaganda slogans they've been taught since childhood.