RUWEISHED, Jordan — More than 5,000 refugees from war-torn Iraq remained trapped Sunday at the Jordanian border, enduring bitter cold on the open desert.
Snow fell overnight, and puddles were sheeted with ice on the fifth day since Iraqi officials, without warning or explanation, closed the border crossing point.
The few refugees who were permitted to cross into Jordan told reporters that stranded families were sleeping in cars and buses and some were taking shelter under the vehicles.
"They're just waiting out there, and it's really cold," said Gabriella Morroy, a Dutch physician with the Doctors Without Frontiers relief organization, which has a camp stocked and ready but so far unable to take in the refugees.
Remarked a Red Cross executive in Amman of the border closure: "There's no indication how long this will last."
While the refugees remained stuck at the border, cross-border traffic in Iraqi oil continued Sunday, with tanker trucks bringing in Jordan's only supplies of crude. The oil traffic has been acknowledged and accepted despite the United Nations trade embargo against Iraq.
According to a Jordanian official, Iraqis at the Trebeil border post, 50 miles east of here across a no-man's-land, told the refugees that they would have to return to Baghdad and obtain exit visas before they could leave Iraq.
The Iraqi capital is 300 miles from the border, on a highway that has become a deliberate or incidental target of the American-led air war over Iraq. Several civilian vehicles were reported damaged Sunday by bombing along the road.
Even if they decided to risk the return to Baghdad, the refugees have no assurance they could get gas for their cars. The Iraqi authorities ordered service stations closed five days ago, presumably to save fuel for the war effort.
An Asian diplomat who toured the impromptu encampment at Trebeil on Saturday told The Times that the refugees included Asian and Arab refugees.
There was no sign of 116 Indian nurses who reportedly had left Baghdad for the border; some Indians in the camp said the nurses discovered the frontier was closed and headed back to the beleaguered Iraqi capital.
Other reports said Tunisians and Somalis were among the thousands holed up in their cars or in makeshift shelters. Some women and children were permitted to sleep inside the Iraqi border post, one traveler said.
"The major problem is they're terribly, terribly miserable," the Asian diplomat said. "It's just so cold."
Two transit camps have been established in the no-man's-land between here and the border to handle the refugees: an International Committee of the Red Cross camp built for 5,000 and the 8,000-bed center run by the French-based Doctors Without Frontiers.
At the ICRC camp, spanking-new 12-man tents stood in neat rows against the cold, waiting for the refugee onslaught that has not come.
Peter Fierz, a Swiss relief official at the Red Cross camp, said only two refugees were being housed there Sunday, the last of the refugees who left Iraq before the border was barred. Fierz said a six-man team went to Trebeil Sunday morning to assess the needs of the stranded refugees. In Amman, a Red Cross official said Sunday night that the team counted more than 5,000 refugees and delivered food, medicine and blankets to handle that many for a short term.
Another Red Cross team was attempting to get permission to visit Baghdad and examine relief needs there, supplementing four Red Cross officials already working in the Iraqi capital.
Despite Jordanian fears that nearly a million people might flood its border with the outbreak of war, only a relative trickle has reached the crossing point. The reasons were not certain, but relief officials say they include fear of travel, shortage of fuel and exorbitant prices set by cars for hire. Some foreign journalists who left Baghdad after the war broke out said they had paid drivers $3,000 or more for the trip to the border.
Risk is also a factor. Drivers of the cars damaged on the Baghdad-Trebeil highway Sunday said allied planes had bombed the road and the blasts had blown out their windshields and showered the vehicles with rocks and dirt.
The occupants, all Jordanians, who have been able to leave Iraq even since the border closing, said two men were slightly injured in the incident. The target of the raid was not known, but rumors at the border said the planes were bombing the road so it could not be used as an emergency air strip by Iraqi fliers.
At the Red Cross camp, a 22-year-old Palestinian woman who disclosed only her first name, Ebersam, seemed a classic case of refugee despair.
Standing amid a knot of reporters, and leaning against a post marked with arrow-pointers to Baghdad and Geneva, which is Red Cross headquarters, she told her story.