WORLD

The risky road home

Canadian medics face a daunting task

May 13 1991
WORLD

The risky road home

Canadian medics face a daunting task

May 13 1991

The risky road home

WORLD

IRAQ

Canadian medics face a daunting task

As some Iraqi Kurds began returning to their homes last week, relief workers, including a Canadian Forces medical team, cared for other refugees in makeshift camps in the rugged Iraqi-Turkish border region. Maclean’s European Bureau Chief Andrew Phillips visited the camps and encountered an improving, but still bleak, situation. His report:

In a crowded tent on a muddy mountainside in southeastern Turkey, Cpl. Mark Emery was starting his day’s work. Emery, a baby-faced 26-year-old medic from Montreal, gently cradled a shrunken Kurdish baby boy in his arms, then laid him on a scale to weigh him. “This little guy’s doing OK,” he said. “He’s going to make it.” But not all the children that

Emery treated last week in the Kurdish refugee encampment of Yekmal were so lucky. The first baby he saw on Tuesday morning, a twomonth-old girl, died of dehydration after suffering from diarrhea contracted by drinking contaminated water during her family’s trek through the mountains from their home in Iraq. “I just went to warm her bottle,” Emery recalled quietly. “By the time I came back, she was gone.”

Still, there were more victories than defeats last week for Emery and hundreds of other workers bringing food and medical help to the more than 400,000 Kurds who took refuge in Turkey. In the remote valleys where they fled from Iraqi troops after the defeat of the Kurdish uprising against President Saddam Hus-

sein, the refugees at least had enough to eat, tents to shelter them from the cold mountain nights, and doctors to prevent all but the weakest from dying. In Yekmal, one of the better-organized camps, where about 50,000 people huddled in tents on a steep hillside, an average of two babies died each morning. Medical workers said that the children were simply too weak to recover from the effects of their families’ flight from Iraq and fell victim to the lack of food or shelter when they finally found sanctuary in Turkey.

Many Kurds also displayed renewed confidence that they could safely leave the mountains. Thousands of people began streaming into camps that allied soldiers were swiftly building just inside Iraq. Others travelled directly back to their homes. Kurdish clan leaders last week toured the Iraqi border town of Zakho, where American soldiers and British Royal Marines patrolled the streets, and decided that their people could safely return. Helicopters ferried some of the refugees out of the hills; hundreds of other families arrived on the back of wheezing trucks or in carts pulled by tractors. “The word is out that it’s OK to come down from the mountains,” said U.S. army

Capt. Deborah Luebker, surveying several hundred Kurds who waited patiently to be assigned tents in a camp under construction in a wheat field on the outskirts of Zakho. She added: “The floodgates are opening up.” The allied forces attempted to reinforce the Kurds’ confidence by extending their security zone 60 km eastwards to the town of Al-Amadiyah, or about 20 km from the Turkish border. As they had done the previous week in Zakho, the U.S.-dominated force told the Iraqi army to withdraw its troops from the area, leaving only a small detachment of security police. The Iraqis complied, and columns of U.S. soldiers atop their squat Humvee vehicles, accompanied by small British, Dutch and French units, moved east to occupy the area, enlarging the Kurds’ socalled safe-haven zone. A second camp will be built in that area, offering further encouragement to the Kurds to leave both Turkey and Iran, where another million refugees sought shelter in conditions even worse than those faced by the ones who reached Turkey.

u an governments, which have large and restive Kurdish minorities in their border areas, had strongly urged action to bring about the refugees’ return to Iraq. By last week, a massive influx of aid from two dozen countries had ensured that the immediate crisis, at least in the Turkish sector, had passed.

But the Canadian Forces medical team sent to Turkey to provide assistance still faced a daunting task. The Canadian Field Ambulance unit based in Lahr, Germany, first joined other allied troops three weeks ago at a relief centre near the Turkish town of Silopi, just 15 km from the Iraqi border. Then, they split into three teams. One group of 18 medical personnel went across the border to Zakho, where they worked with a French medical team to get the town’s filthy and decrepit hospital back in order. A second group of 17 Canadians drove 180 km through the mountains to the camp at Yekmal, where they set up a medical clinic and a 20-bed ward to treat children. The third group of 14 medics helicoptered into a remote refugee camp named Yesilova, where they quickly ran into trouble with local Turkish soldiers.

On the Canadians’ first day at the Silopi relief centre, about a dozen Turkish soldiers attempted to seize food from them. When the Canadians refused to give up their supplies, the Turks pointed their rifles at the Canadians,

who in turn put their hands on their weapons. The confrontation was quickly defused and no shots were fired. But, said Capt. Pierre Charpentier, from Sorel, Que., who is based at the Silopi centre, “If someone had made a wrong move, it could have been a very bad situation.”

Last Tuesday, the Yesilova unit left by helicopter and moved to another refugee camp at Uzumlu, further to the west. But there was not enough room aboard the aircraft to bring all their tents and equipment with them, and, said Charpentier, “Who knows if it will be there when we go back?”

The Canadians at Yekmal found a sprawl of tents and makeshift huts on a steep hillside churned into mud by thousands of feet. A fiveyard-wide stream rushing through the valley marks the border with Iraq. Most of the refugees were on the Iraqi side, while the Canadian, French, German and Irish medical teams in the camp set up their clinics on the Turkish side. Men and women crossed the stream on

bridges improvised out of slippery logs in their search for medical help, food and wood to fuel the hundreds of cooking fires that filled the valley with a smoky haze. At night, the fires twinkled on the mountainside, providing an eerie beauty in a landscape that otherwise presented scenes only of hardship and endurance.

The mountainous terrain and lack of clean water were the biggest obstacles that relief workers faced. Bemd Domres, a surgeon working with the German Red Cross in setting up a 210-bed field hospital at Yekmal last week,

is a veteran of refugee camps in Cambodia, Lebanon and Armenia. “It is worse than any of them,” he said. “You have the harsh climate and terrible sanitation.” Gesturing at the mountains towering above him, he added: “And to make everything even worse, you have to deal with an environment that is practically vertical.”

By last week, however, Yekmal, like the three smaller camps strung out along the valley that contained about 30,000 people, was no longer a place of desperation. Truck convoys and freight helicopters brought in enough food for all. A fight over a shipment of clothing left hundreds of garments strewn over the ground, and for several days afterwards refugees picked through the discarded pieces, taking only the choice items. A group of enterprising Turkish Kurds hammered together a wooden shack and set up a little store, selling everything from Coca-Cola to Surf soap. The refugees, desperate only two weeks earlier for any food, again had choices. “They’re getting a bit picky,” said Capt. Michel Petit of Montreal, Yekmal’s only Canadian doctor. “They won’t take just anything.”

Petit and his team treated as many as 185 patients a day at their clinic, but few last week were serious cases. The most common complaint was diarrhea from contaminated water; others were suffering from chronic respiratory diseases or burns. Still others lined up for hours with minor complaints, attracted by the chance to see a Western doctor. Medics gave many of them ASA tablets simply to persuade them to leave and clear the way for those more in need of help. For most of the Canadians, the sick and injured children were the s most difficult to deal with. 5 Cpl. Brian Murray, 28, of I Fredericton, recalled seeing a child with a finger blown off ft by a gunshot or mine fragment, and a teenage girl badly burned by boiling water in a cooking-fire accident. “You can get a bit choked up at first,” said Murray. “A couple of times, I had to take a walk outside.”

Despite the allies’ efforts to persuade the refugees to return home to Iraq, many in the camps last week said that they were still unconvinced. In Yekmal, a dozen members of the Botani family, who had fled from their home near Zakho, said that they would not return as long as Hussein remained in power. The family, ranging from a grizzled grandfather named Mohammed (who said that he was 65, but looked at least 10 years older) to a two-monthold baby, walked for three days through the

Both the Turkish and Irani-

snow-covered mountains to reach the camp. They emerged from their rain-soaked tent and told Maclean ’s why they would not go back. One of the old man’s sons, they said, was a tank commander in the Iraqi army who had fought alongside the Kurdish rebels in their shortlived uprising against Baghdad. “If one of the family goes against Saddam, he will kill all of them,” said the grandfather. “So we all had to go away. And we can’t go back until Saddam is gone. He will never forget, and he will never forgive.”

Domres, the German doctor, estimated that 80 per cent of refugees would refuse to return to Iraq. “They are still very afraid,” he said. “It will take a lot of convincing.” In another refugee camp, Isikveren, a group of Kurds last week made their feelings even clearer. After the allies gathered a group of them for transfer back to northern Iraq, they staged a demonstration against both Hussein and the United States, charging that the Americans were collaborating with the hated dictator by forcing them to return to Iraq.

In their security zone in northern Iraq, American and other allied forces put on a determined display of strength last week to counter such fears. In Zakho, U.S. troops commandeered an Iraqi military base, and dozens of supply helicopters ferried in equipment for the new refugee camp nearby. With only 50 lightly armed Iraqi security police allowed in the area, American soldiers in armored personnel carriers toured the ramshackle city, accompanied by Kurdish Pesh Merga (“those who face death”) guerrillas with their distinctive turbans. At Zakho’s police station, sullen Iraqi security men glowered as the allied convoy rolled slowly by.

On the streets, British Royal Marines fresh

from patrol duty in Northern Ireland strode along, followed by a ragtag collection of little boys begging for candies. Patrolling in Iraq, the marines said, was a lot more enjoyable than the same duty in Ulster. “It’s so nice to be welcomed,” said Lieut. Peter Kemp of the 45 Commando unit as he smiled and waved at local people. “In Northern Ireland, the people won’t even meet your eyes. Here, they all come out and give you big smiles and offer you tea.”

At the town’s hospital, French physicians from the Doctors of the World aid group were working with Canadian medical personnel. Because of eight months of economic embargo against Iraq and two months of war conditions, they found the hospital filthy and poorly equipped. Floors were littered with bits of food and excrement; toilets were not functioning and the hospital had no electricity. A young Kurdish doctor was attempting to run the hospital almost on his own. “It was the worst hospital I have seen in my life,” said Chief Warrant Officer Nick Doucet, 44, of Matapedia, Que., a 24-year veteran with the Canadian Forces.

The French and Canadian medics recruited local people and set them to work cleaning up the hospital. U.S. forces supplied a generator to restore electricity, and the medics began seeing as many as 800 patients a day. Entire families mobbed the building, cramming its narrow, dingy corridors and waiting patiently for hours to see the handful of harassed doctors. At the hospital gate, elderly men thrust themselves forward for treatment, forcing the soldiers guarding the entrance to reach through the crowd for the babies and children most in need of help. Many refused to be treated by the Iraqi doctors still working in Zakho. “They want to see Canadian doctors and medics,” said Warrant Officer Lome O’Connell, 39, from Yarmouth,

N.S. “They don’t want to have anything to do with the local doctors.”

Some members of the Canadian team said that they were surprised to find themselves caring mainly for local townspeople, a colorful mixture of Moslem Arabs, Christian Arabs and Kurds. Some refugees were airlifted to the hospital from the mountains, and it will serve as the main treatment centre for those who move into the new camp on the outskirts of Zakho, which will have space for 20,000 people. “We expected to be treating the Kurds,” said Master Seaman Cameron Barber, 30, of Ottawa. “But everyone gets treated here. It doesn’t matter who they are.” Others frankly acknowledged their frustration at the chaos they found when they arrived. “The conditions are so bad,” said Master Cpl. Marc Tobin, 30, from St. John’s, Nfld. “We feel like we’re fighting a losing battle.”

After a week at the hospital, the foreign medical personnel had settled into a deceptively calm routine of treating patients and improving conditions. But there were some pointed reminders of the Persian Gulf War that had so recently ravaged the town just outside the 10foot concrete walls surrounding the building. Precisely at noon one day last week, a loud explosion shattered the air and rocked the walls of the hospital. The medics, gathered on benches to eat their unappetizing lunch of U.S. military-issue Meals Ready to Eat, did not even flinch. “That’s just the Americans setting off the land mines they found today,” said one. “They do it every day at noon so no one will worry. Didn’t anyone warn you?” In the troubled land where Iraq and Turkey meet, no amount of warning could have prepared visiting workers for the intense humansuffering that they are helping to relieve. □