SAFWAN, Iraq – Five buses carrying 240 Iraqis crossed the desert border from Kuwait (search) early Wednesday, met by excited relatives welcoming the first group of Iraqi refugees to return since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Scores of eager Iraqis, some in torn and dirty clothing, waited on the border. Some knew their relatives were on board the blue buses, others were just hoping.
The night before, the men, women and children refugees left a camp in northern Saudi Arabia (search) where they had lived since the end of the 1991 Gulf War (search). The convoy, under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, drove through Saudi Arabia and Kuwait at night to avoid the scorching heat of the day.
Mohammed Qassem, 35, broke down in tears as he spotted his brother, Abdul-Karim, who had fled their town of Kurnat Ali after the brutally suppressed 1991 Shiite uprising against Saddam.
Despite police attempts to keep him away from the vehicle, Qassem managed to kiss his brother through the glass pane of the bus door.
"His mother and father have died, and he still doesn't know," he told The Associated Press.
Old women, clad in black head-to-toe cloaks and with tattoos on their chins, asked reporters if their sons were among the returning refugees.
Hamed Khaled, a bearded man, anxiously screened the faces behind the tinted windows as the buses made a brief stop. He was looking for three of his cousins who went missing in 1992, he said.
The convoys were continuing to Basra, about 37 miles north, where the refugees would be dropped off.
The refugees had been at Rafha Camp, a remote site in the Saudi desert, since the end of the Gulf War that liberated Kuwait from a seven-month Iraqi occupation in 1991. Most are army deserters or prisoners taken by the U.S.-led coalition that liberated Kuwait.
Rafha, which once had a population of 33,000 Iraqis, still hosts 5,200 refugees. The UNHCR plans to organize more convoys at 10-day intervals that are expected to return 3,600 Iraqis by the end of the year.
Because of security concerns in Iraq, UNHCR isn't encouraging Iraqis to return but it is willing to assist them if they want to, UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski said Tuesday.
More than 25,000 Iraqis resettled in other countries over the years, while 3,500 returned to Iraq when Saddam was still in power.
Although Qassem couldn't wait to hug his brother when the convoy reaches Basra, he said he was worried about Abdul-Karim's future without a job or a place to stay.
"I just don't know where I will get the money to build him (an extra) room in my house. ... I have nothing," he said.