COVER

THE LONG ROAD HOME

COLD AND HUNGRY, THE KURDS RETURN

May 20 1991
COVER

THE LONG ROAD HOME

COLD AND HUNGRY, THE KURDS RETURN

May 20 1991

THE LONG ROAD HOME

COVER

COLD AND HUNGRY, THE KURDS RETURN

Tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees streamed down last week from the squalid refugee camps in the mountains that mark the border between Iraq and Turkey. Some went only as far as the new camps that allied troops were building in the so-called safe-haven zone inside Iraq. But others bypassed the new encampments and went straight back to their houses. Maclean’s European Bureau Chief Andrew Phillips accompanied one such family on their journey home. His report:

From the field just outside Ahmet Mohammed's house on the edge of the Kurdish town of Zakho in northeastern Iraq, the mountains appear almost close enough to touch. They begin 25 km away, soaring up 5,000 feet out of green fields of spring wheat, but the crystal-clear air of early evening brings them dramatically closer. It was to the mountains that Ahmet Mohammed, his family and his neighbors fled on the last day of March when the Iraqi army began shelling Kurdish rebels near Zakho, bringing with their bombs the spectre of a wholesale slaughter of the local population. And it was from the mountains that he finally returned home last week, after a month of hunger, cold, exhaustion and fear.

Bitter: It was not a joyous homecoming. Moments after Mohammed, his wife, Güle, and two of their six children clambered out of the car that had brought them to their concrete house, they discovered that their ordeal was still not over. The front door had been smashed open. Inside, the house had been stripped almost completely, leaving most of its rooms just bare chambers. “The Arabs have been here and taken everything,” said Mohammed, a carpenter who says that he is 49, but whose deeply lined and weather-beaten face makes him look closer to 65. “We have nothing left.” But with a stoicism bom of bitter experience, there were no tears. The family, accompanied by a Canadian visitor, appeared only embarrassed that they could not extend the traditional hospitality that even the poorest Kurd considers a matter of honor. “We are so sorry,” he said. “There is not even any tea to offer you.”

Mohammed and his family were part of the first major movement of refugees back to their homes in northern Iraq. As many as 20,000 a day rode a motley collection of swaying trucks, battered taxis and puffing tractors down the twisting mountain roads. And American commanders launched a new campaign called Operation Gallant Provider to persuade the tens of thousands of remaining Kurds to follow suit. They faced a new deadline imposed by the harsh geography of the region: by June 1, water supplies will have dried up in the mountains, where a few weeks ago there was snow and driving rain.

The allied forces also grappled with the delicate political task of convincing the Kurds that it is finally safe to go home. Many, with fresh memories of previous Iraqi campaigns against the country's Kurdish minority, insist that they will not return to Iraq as long as the threat from President Saddam Hussein’s forces persists. As a result, the allies were preparing to further extend their security zone in northern Iraq, which stretches about 200 km from Zakho eastward towards the Iranian border. U.S. troops pressed closer to the major Kurdish city of Dohuk, most of whose 300,000 residents fled to the mountains a month ago. By forcing the Iraqi army to leave Dohuk, the allies would create a triangle-shaped zone into which, they say, the Kurds could safely return.

“Many of them won’t go home until they are sure it is secure,” said Capt. Damien McKinney, who was commanding a British Royal Marine unit overseeing a supply station for refugees coming down from the mountains. “They are understandably very cautious.”

The ordeal of Mohammed’s family, like hundreds of others in Zakho, began on March 31. All that day, Iraqi army helicopters attacked Kurdish Pesh Merga (“those who face death”) guerrillas in the hills near the town. As the bombing continued, rumors flew around Zakho, whose 50,000 residents are mainly Kurdish, that the Iraqis might use chemical weapons as they did when they killed 5,000 civilians in the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988. “People were saying that Saddam would use gas,” said Mohammed. “Everyone was terrified.”

Panic: At 7:30 that evening, the panic reached its peak. Although it was dark and snowing, nearly all of the families on Mohammed’s street decided to join the stream of people already fleeing to what they hoped would be the safety of the nearby mountains. Many clogged the narrow roads with cars and trucks. Others, including Mohammed’s family, which includes six children age 2 to 23, walked the entire way. It took them four days to make it up the mountain road and along a narrow trail, at the road’s end, through a pass to the Turkish side of the border. “Everyone was cold and the children were all sick,” Mohammed said.

When they finally reached the border, marked by a concrete pillar and scattered guard posts running through a deep valley in the hills, the Kurds believed that the worst was finally over. Instead, said Mohammed, it was just beginning. “The Turkish soldiers shot at us when we tried to pass,” he said. “They killed many of our people. We couldn’t understand why.” Still, about 150,000 Kurds made it to the valley at Isikveren— only to find that they faced starvation as well as death from exposure.

For four days, they survived on what little food they had carried with them and small quantities sold or donated by local villagers. Dozens of people, mainly children, died every day as both the Turkish and foreign governments debated what to do. Finally, on April 7, American aircrews began dropping emergency ^rations, tents and blankets. Conditions in the camp improved slowly as aid poured in from relief organizations, but few Kurds were willing to go home. On April 24, the Iraqi army withdrew its troops from Zakho, under allied pressure, and American and British soldiers began patrolling the streets. Leaders of Mohammed’s clan, the Sulivani “family,” which includes people from about 100 villages, went to inspect the area. They brought back word that the Iraqis were indeed gone—and that it was safe to return.

With those assurances, Mohammed left four of his children with relatives in the Isikveren camp and set off with his wife, 8-year-old daughter Ihlas and 11-year-old son Mohammed, to retrace their steps through the hills. Carrying their bedrolls and a few clothes, they walked for three hours on May 5 along the narrow path that crosses the border. At about midday, they came to the end of the road on the Iraqi side of the frontier. There, dozens of vehicles of almost every description lay where their drivers had abandoned them in the rush to escape. Cars, tractors, even garbage trucks and road graders had been used to ferry people up the mountain. Many had broken down, or had been stripped of batteries, tires and engines while their owners were in the camps. Mechanics with the U.S. special forces worked to get the bizarre array of vehicles operating again so that the Kurds could drive them home. “They came up on anything that would move,” said Sgt. Jeffrey Mallette, a special forces soldier at the site.

Mohammed’s family did not have a vehicle waiting. Instead, they piled into the back of a bright yellow truck along with about 40 other people, who were crammed in with blankets, cooking pots, sacks of rice and whatever else the refugees had been able to carry out of the camp. The truck became so crowded that one elderly man, Abduljabar Fatah, appeared to be on the verge of fainting. Partially paralysed on his right side, Fatah had taken two days to hobble over the mountain path from Isikveren. Neighbors lifted him and his wife out of the truck and placed them in the relative comfort of the back seat of a car for the long trip home.

‘IF SADDAM'S SOLDIERS COME , WE WILL GO BACK TO THE MOUNTAINS'

Mohammed, though, was fit enough to make the trip with the others. As he hoisted his son and daughter into the truck, he explained that he was anxious to get back. “Somebody might steal things while we’re away,” he said, unaware of what had happened to his house. Then, they jolted down the mountainside through clouds of reddish dust, along a potholed track clinging to the sides of steep cliffs, past dozens more broken and abandoned vehicles. They cheered American helicopters buzzing overhead, and applauded any allied soldiers that they saw. The girls giggled and covered their eyes when the truck careened past a French army post where soldiers lounged in scanty shorts.

It took 2xh hours to cover the 25 km to the new campsite, one kilometre outside Zakho, where the truck pulled in. The driver asked hopefully whether the Americans would pay him for bringing his cargo of Kurds down from the hills. Told that they would not, he looked distinctly crestfallen. The other refugees asked whether they had to stay at the camp, a fast-spreading settlement of neat blue-andwhite tents set in the middle of a wheat field. Harried allied officials, anxious to see as many Kurds as possible go directly back to their homes to lessen the pressure on aid workers, told them that they were free to continue on. Within an hour, Ahmet Mohammed and his family were back at their home.

Vandalized: In the mountains, Mohammed had described it as a “fine, large house.” The reality was more modest: a one-storey dwelling surrounded by a six-foot-high wall on the edge of a scrubby field where goats rooted for food under the fast-setting sun. But Mohammed had built it himself, and it represented the fruit of a life’s work—to find it vandalized and almost empty was a hard blow. Chairs, tables, sofas and beds were gone. The family’s television set and video cassette machine had been stolen, as had the stove from the kitchen. Most of the clothes closets were empty, and even the walls were bare. “They even took the pictures I had to remember my father by,” said Mohammed. “Who would want them?”

Outside, many of Mohammed’s neighbors had found their homes in a similar state, and gathered in the weedy area that served as a street to commiserate with one another. Mohammed blamed what he called “the Arabs”— Iraqi soldiers or local Arabic-speaking people who stayed behind when the Kurds fled. “They must have brought a truck in here to hold everything,” he said. But Mohammed insisted that neither he nor other Kurds would seek revenge. “We don’t want to fight the Arabs, no matter what,” he said. “Let’s just have peace.” Gtile Mohammed, who had been silent, even managed to find something to be thankful for. “Finally, I can wash my children’s clothes,” she said. “They have been so filthy in the mountains, like little animals.”

Many Kurds in other areas found their homes in a similar condition when they returned from the mountains last week. In AlAmadiyah, an ancient Kurdish town spectacularly set atop a mountain peak 70 km east of Zakho, local people were eager to display the damage that had occurred while they were away. Abdulrahman Newroz, a government office worker in his mid-40s, pointed to the broken locks on the doors of his house and the empty rooms inside. In the kitchen, the countertops and floor were smeared with rotting food. “Iraqi soldiers came in, looking for something to eat,” he said. “This is how they left it.” Still, Newroz said, no one in the town was surprised by the damage. “We ran away three years ago, when Saddam gassed the people in Halabja,” he said. “It was the same mess when we came back then.”

But Mohammed and Newroz were at least able to go home under the protection of allied troops. The homes of tens of thousands more refugees are located in areas still held by the Iraqi army, and few are willing to risk returning. American commanders acknowledged that those Kurds who had fled from Dohuk, Mosul and other cities under Iraqi control were refusing to go home, seriously complicating the allies’ task of persuading them to come out of the mountains before water supplies dry up and disease spreads. In one camp alone, at Cukurca, just inside the Turkish border, medical workers detected about 150 cases of cholera, and attributed six deaths to the disease.

As a result, U.S. commanders launched Operation Gallant Provider, designed to clear the hills of refugees by bringing down 7,000 a day in a fleet of 300 trucks. As part of that operation, they began setting up way stations along the mountain roads to provide refugees with bread, water and fuel to help them on their way. But that plan quickly produced its own complications.

At Kani Masi, a station set up last week in the rugged hills north of Al-Amadiyah, allied officers found that many Kurds preferred to settle down, rather than move on. Most were from Dohuk, and were waiting for the Americans to take control of the city before returning. A team of Canadian medics from the Canadian Forces’ 4 Field Ambulance, based in Lahr, Germany, set up a clinic at Kani Masi. Naval Lieut. David Wilcox, 33, of Halifax, the team’s medical officer, acknowledged the problem. “We just want to move them on, but it’s going to become a new tent city here,” he said, as the 11 Canadians set up their clinic. “It’s unavoidable.”

Just two kilometres away was a stark reminder of what the Kurds fear. Kani Masi, once a village that housed about 1,500 people, with a district school and hospital, ceased to exist in 1978. As part of its campaign to end local support for Kurdish Pesh Merga guerrillas in the mountains, the Iraqi government evacuated the town and blew up all of the buildings. Their remains, masses of twisted steel and broken concrete slabs with weeds growing up among them, bear witness to the fate of Kani Masi and dozens of other villages destroyed at the same time.

Acid: Down a slope from the dead town, blackened tree stumps are further evidence of the Iraqi government’s determination to stamp out Kurdish resistance. Soldiers, the Kurds say, poured acid on the roots of apple and pear trees to kill the orchards and make it impossible for the local people to live in the area again. Ironically, Saddam Hussein built his own summer palace atop a hill in the same area, symbolically proclaiming his personal rule over the rebellious Kurds. The palace, entirely surrounded by a forbidding, Berlin Wall-style concrete barrier, was guarded last week by a handful of loyal Republican Guards who were stranded inside the allied security zone.

With the experience of Kani Masi and the other destroyed towns, the Kurds had no illusions about Saddam Hussein’s regime even before their latest flight. What they want, they say, is for American and other allied forces to remain in northern Iraq indefinitely to ensure their safety. In fact, with the Baghdad government rejecting a U.S.-backed proposal for a UN police force last week, there was a possibility that American forces might face an extended stay. But told that the Americans, too, want to go home, the Kurds reply that they are ready for that eventuality as well. “If Saddam’s soldiers come back, we will go back to the mountains,” Ahmet Mohammed said, only minutes after returning to his looted home. “It is our fate.” □