SALLOUM, Egypt – This trash-strewn, windy desert plateau that marks the frontier with Libya was a tangle of small vans, station wagons and tour buses Tuesday — all ferrying home thousands of Egyptian workers who told of mercenaries, airstrikes and chaos in Moammar Gadhafi's violence-wracked country.
"Gadhafi is crazy. It's a massacre over there," said Ashraf Mohammed, who worked as carpenter in Tobruk, not far from the border. "They were shooting at civilians and children. We heard there were airstrikes in other cities and I have friends who can't leave!"
Some of those fleeing said government officials had vanished in Tobruk and other towns in the east. Egyptian guards at the frontier added that Libyan soldiers appeared to have melted away from their border posts, with security taken over by tribesmen.
Mohammed was bent double under the weight of suitcases and bulky blankets as he walked back through the border checkpoints toward the waiting buses, where the names of Egyptian cities were being called out.
Full vans topped with improbable piles of luggage lurched away from the border and down the winding road into the town of Salloum.
Military police struggled to bring order to the swirl of vehicles, shouting for the stunned refugees to clear the way as ambulances screamed by, sirens blazing.
A neat row of white tents had been set up to the side as a makeshift field hospital by the army, each with pair of soldiers in fatigues standing at attention in front.
Dr. Amin Gabr said there had been few injuries to treat so far, but more were expected.
"There are 2 million Egyptians in Libya and many of them are now coming back to Egypt," he said. "There have been no major injuries — all of them just abrasions and contusions."
Gabr said his patients told him they had been beaten by mercenaries from other African countries. Egyptians waiting to board the buses corroborated those stories.
The unrest in Libya began Feb. 15 in the eastern city of Benghazi and spread eastward to Tripoli, the capital.
"There is no security in Libya. The authority is no longer in Moammar's hands because he oppressed the people," said Muftah Farag. "It is now in the hands of the people who have taken up guns. It's not worth staying for the money if I lose my life."
Despite days of fighting, the flood of Egyptians returning only just began Tuesday morning.
Faisal Abdel Aziz explained why it took him so long to make the journey.
"I couldn't leave my house for four days because of all the fighting and gunfire. Finally I was afraid I would die, so I returned to Egypt," he said.
Egyptians weren't the only ones leaving Libya. In one case, a party of Korean engineers from Tobruk was caught up in the unrest as they tried to drive toward Tripoli. Arriving in one town in the middle of a pitched battle, they turned around and headed for the border.
"I saw guns and crazy people. They were following the old flag of the kingdom. All the police stations and government buildings were burning," said one of the engineers in halting English. He refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
"All the government is gone," he said.