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Yemenis winding way home, uncertain of what awaits them

They are coming home. From this spot on the Saudi-Yemeni border, a caravan of cars, jeeps, and trucks, laden with Yemenis and the possessions they have accumulated over years _ for some a lifetime _ of work in Saudia Arabia, winds its way through the port towns and villages and mountain outposts on the often unpaved roads of this stunningly beautiful, poor country. At least 500,000 Yemenis have crossed the border here, Saudi and Yemeni officials say, since mid-September, when the Saudi government suspended a series of residency privileges for Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia in response to what the Saudis regard as Yemen's support of Iraq in the Persian Gulf crisis.

Because the immigration authorities on both sides of the border count passports rather than people, the number of refugees, or returnees as Yemenis prefer to call its expelled nationals, could be as high as 750,000, the officials said. About 30,000 Yemenis have crossed at smaller checkpoints elsewhere on this ill-defined and much-contested border.

The scene here at Haradh was less chaotic than the situation at the Jordanian border two months ago after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2. While thousands of Asians and foreign nationals who fled Kuwait to Jordan were often forced to leave without money, food, or possessions, the Yemeni exodus from the Saudi promised land has been much more orderly.

Many Yemenis have been permitted to take their possessions and most of their money. And last week, the Saudi government gave the estimated 2-million Yemenis who lived in the kingdom an extra month to find Saudi sponsors and meet other requirements that would enable them to stay. So while about 30,000 Yemenis a day had been crossing this border two weeks ago, by Saturday the flood had slowed to a trickle.

Yet because so many of those coming back to Yemen have lived in Saudi Arabia for years _ some for all their lives _ the disruption caused by this migration is in many ways more profound than the exodus to Jordan. Moreover, the departure reflects the change in relations between the two Arab countries whose economies and, some thought, political fates, were intertwined.

Here at the border, in the port town of Hodeidah, and in Sana, where some are living in tents while searching for housing in the capital, those returning expressed opinions as varied as their brightly colored vehicles. There was bitterness toward the Saudis, regret over the departures and, for some, resignation.

Under the intense noonday sun, the Yemenis spoke of their losses, the disruption of their lives, and the unfairness of the Saudi decision, which required that Yemeni workers get legal residence _ including the guarantee of a Saudi employer _ and that Yemeni business owners get a Saudi partner or sell their business to a Saudi.

Few said they blamed Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, for what he calls his neutral policy in the gulf crisis, which infuriated Saudi Arabia. When the Arab League voted to send troops to defend Saudi Arabia in early August just after the invasion, Yemen abstained. Yemen also did not condemn Iraq in the first United Nations vote after the invasion.

One of those who have returned here, Mohammed Soutan, said he and his family of 11 had owned a tire shop in Hail, Saudi Arabia, for 12 years. He had to abandon it, he said, because he could not find a Saudi partner as the law required.

"Nobody would buy it," he said. "Why should they when they can take it for free after I have gone?"

All he could salvage, he said, were 70 tires, which were then confiscated by Saudi Customs when he got to the border.

Others complained of having food _ rice, milk, sugar, and grain _ taken away. One man, tugging gently on a Yemeni official's sleeve, complained that the Saudis had seized a crate of apples. Could the Yemeni official get them back?

Saudi wealth and Yemeni poverty are as stark as the differences between the two sides of the border. On the Yemeni side, there was no shade. A single giant truck dispensed a ration of water in little plastic bags to the lines of returnees, most of them men wearing head scarves, robes, and J-shaped "jambiya" knives tucked into belts _ all caked in dust. Refugees and their possessions were spread out on both sides of the road, with no shelter from the sun or the small whirlwinds that swirled sand and garbage some 50 yards into the air.

Monsour Kassim Kadri, the Yemeni general director of security at the border, wore a faded green uniform, a white head scarf, and sandals. His makeshift office was a tiny hut on the side of the road, airless and dank.

The only trees on the border were on the Saudi side. The road to the Saudi Tiwal Point Station was lined with irrigated flowers and shrubs. A volleyball court was visible behind the fleet of government cars, including several Mercedes-Benzes.

Inside the air-conditioned office of Col. Mohammed Shamrani, the Saudi Interior Ministry's chief officer for the border station, guests were offered seats on leather couches atop a pristine Persian carpet. Saudi border guards were snappily attired in new camouflage uniforms and leather military shoes.

Shamrani denied Yemeni charges of mistreatment at the border. Nothing except contraband had been confiscated, he said.

The exodus is expected to have a harsh impact on the economy of Yemen, one of the most populous countries in the region. The payments sent home by Yemenis working in other countries _ most of them in Saudi Arabia _ totaled about $2-billion a year, and have been the country's largest source of income.