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Thousands of Iraqis Return Home from Abroad - 2003-03-27


Its now been a week since the start of the war in Iraq, and very few refugees have been reported crossing into Jordan. But Jordanian officials say several thousand Iraqis have headed the other way, leaving the kingdom to return home. Some are going home to be with their families. Others say they are leaving to join those fighting U.S. and British forces.

The bus driver stands on the curb of the busy street in downtown Amman, shouting out the destination of his bus: Baghdad.

He steps aside to let some 40 men step on board, small bundles of clothes tucked under their arms, their heads covered in the traditional red and white checkered headdress, the keffiyah.

Another bus not far away welcomes a few dozen more passengers. The bus is bound for Baghdad, Basra, Nasiriyah. Friends hug them farewell, their eyes moist with tears.

Bassam al Qaldi, 35, arrived in Amman the night before from the United Arab Emirates. He's a sailor and has been away from home for two months

Bassam says he has not been able to talk with his family in Nasiriyah and is afraid for their safety. "When I listen [to news] about Iraq. I must go to Iraq," he said.

The men crowding around him nod their heads. They say the battle scenes on television and pictures of injured Iraqi children make them want to go home too.

Mohammed al Hassen, 53, is heading to Basra, even though there is still fighting in the southern city. He has had no news from his wife and four children and says he has to go home.

He says he hates Saddam Hussein but now Saddam looks like a hero for standing up to the American and British forces. Mohammed says war by foreign forces is not the way to get rid of him. "We don't need that freedom," said Mohammed al Hassen. "We don't need that help by bombs and blood. If they come by peace it's all right but by bombing and killing thousands of Iraqi children, this is not freedom. This is only they come to destroy Iraq and take the oil."

U.S. and British commanders say they are deliberately trying to avoid civilian areas to minimize casualties as they pursue military targets associated with Saddam Hussein.

Construction worker Khalid has been living in Amman for more than year, finding odd jobs to survive. He is going home to a village near Nasariya where U.S. and British forces have been battling Iraqi troops and irregulars.

This will be Khalid's third war. The 35-year-old was just a teenager when he fought in the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s. He was still in the army when it invaded Kuwait in 1990. He says he did not want to fight then but now he does. "This is different to me," he said. "This has a different taste because the last two wars we were going to Kuwait and we were fighting with Iran. But now somebody is invading my country. This is different issue that nobody understands. This is my land. I want to fight for my land. This time I'll do it."

Jordanian officials say more than 4,500 Iraqis have crossed the border into Iraq since the start of the war. The trip to the border costs less than $10. Many of the buses that leave from Amman only go to the border with Iraq, but once there passengers can transfer to taxis and other buses for the 10-hour ride across the desert to Baghdad and beyond.

Fear and anxiety are etched on their faces. They look worried and nervous. They are well aware of the dangers they face traveling into the heart of a war zone. Only a few days before a bus carrying Syrians out of Iraq was hit by a missile, killing at least three and injuring more than a dozen others.

Nearby an Iraqi woman sits hunched on the pavement behind a large tray of cigarettes. The mother of five says going home to Baghad is not an option.

I would love to go home to be with my family, she said, but I am too scared of the bombs.

Saddama says she came to Amman a few months ago to earn some money to send home to her family. She says life is hard in Baghdad

Saddama speaks with her children every night. She says they hear the bombs but so far they are safe. Still, she says her heart stiffens when she watches the news on television. She is just waiting for the war to end.

Photos by VOA's Laurie Kassman