RUWEISHED, Jordan (Reuters) - Packed into buses with luggage and blankets stuffed under their seats, the first group of people to escape war in Iraq and flee to Jordan arrived on Thursday at a barren desert camp set up near the border.
Three busloads of Sudanese families, dazed from lack of sleep after a journey of more than 18 hours from Baghdad across Iraq's western desert, disembarked blinking into the sunshine and trudged through deep sand to tents flapping in a blustery sandstorm.
"We ate a few boiled eggs on the way and slept upright in our seats," said Alawia Abdullah, her eyes watery with tears, as she waited to climb out.
Her three children sat silent and wide-eyed next to her in the gloom of the bus. Her husband remained behind in Iraq.
One of the travellers had a small portable radio with him during the journey, and informed the others when he heard about the early morning U.S. missile strike on Baghdad.
Officials at the Jordan Red Crescent said they expect up to 276 Sudanese on Thursday, the first batch of non-Iraqis to flee war for Jordan and arrive at the camp run by the Jordanian Red Crescent and its federation with the Red Cross.
"We have the capacity to hold up to 5,000 people and expand it if needed," said Rana Sidani, a spokeswoman. She said 26 of those who arrived on Thursday would remain in the camp because they had no papers, and the others would be sent on to Sudan.
"The third country nationals will come in and should be out again in weeks," United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) senior logistics officer Douglas Osmond.
Jordan, more than 500 km (310 miles) from Baghdad, is preparing a second camp near the border with Iraq run by UNHCR strictly for Iraqi refugees.
Both camps were initially expected to be able to hold about 20,000 people each.
Around Osmond, families dragged bulging suitcases and bags across the sand. One man carried a ceiling fan.
Bashir Abdullah, a tailor, followed a camp worker from the bus and was shown into a white plastic tent. The flap was held aside for the 43-year old man and his wife and four children.
They collapsed in fatigue on the thin mattresses, the walls of the tent whipping violently around them.
"We heard about Bush's deadline on the radio on Wednesday and decided for the sake of the children we had to leave," said Abdullah, referring to U.S. President George W. Bush's deadline for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to go into exile or face war.
"We locked the door of our apartment tight," Abdullah said.
His wife, Amouna Noreddin, sat next to her sleeping toddler.
"We had such lovely furniture," she said.
Her husband shrugged his shoulders. "But when you have to decide between your children's lives and the apartment, it isn't very difficult," Abdullah said.
(Writing by Christine Hauser, editing by Diana Abdallah)
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