After weeks of uncertainty, the last U.S. troops in southern Iraq finally know their withdrawal is imminent. For many, a sense of relief is mixed with pride in waging peace as well as they waged war.
"War's hell, but sometimes things come out better at the end," said Sgt. Jim White, an Arabic interpreter who has worked with Iraqi refugees at the U.S.-run camp in this town near the Iraq-Kuwait border.U.S. troops have provided food, medical care and protection to more than 11,000 refugees around Safwan. Over the weekend, the refugees were told they would have to move to a camp in Saudi Arabia or remain unprotected.
The U.S. Army was moving out.
Most refugees agreed to be transferred, and an airlift to the Saudi camp began Sunday. About 640 more Iraqis were airlifted out Monday.
The airlift could be completed in a week, and the Safwan camp will then be closed.
The start of the airlift "signals the beginning of our withdrawal, the end of our mission," said Lt. Col. John Kalb, who has commanded the Safwan sector. But for soldiers like White - a National Guardsman who has been away from his family in West Jordan, Utah, since August - the chance to help the refugees proved a satisfying legacy.
"Eight months away from my family is hard, but things like this make you feel good," he said.
Like others at Safwan, he has become familiar with the fears and hopes of the refugees, many of whom oppose Saddam Hussein and fled Iraq after Saddam loyalists crushed the uprisings that followed the war over Kuwait.
"These people are giving up a lot," said White, referring to rules allowing the refugees to take only small bundles to Saudi Arabia. "I try to tell them, `Don't be afraid. You have to believe in yourself.' "
The first batch of departing refugees waved and shouted thank-yous as they left the camp in buses, said Kalb. "We felt good," he said.
Soldiers under his command have treated ailing Iraqi children, taught sanitation and hygiene, revived a war-battered clinic in Safwan, distributed tons of free food, restored a well and encouraged townspeople to reopen local schools.
Soldiers who didn't speak Arabic before their arrival have learned enough to chat with refugees.
Kalb said most of the Iraqis wanted to get as far away from Saddam's security forces as possible. Asked if a change in government would lure them home, Kalb said, "They're going to want to see who comes in if Saddam goes and what happens to the secret police."
He said his soldiers had arrested several refugees recently in connection with attacks on suspected Iraqi agents, included one man who was blindfolded, bound and beaten with rubber hoses.
In the town of Safwan, he said, permanent residents have resented the influx of refugees and appear reconciled to the imminent return of Iraqi authorities.
But at the camp, one refugee leader, Ahmed Ali, thanked the Americans. "The USA never abandoned its principles. It stood up and fought for them," he said.