AMERICA AND ITS ALLIES ARE SENDING MASSIVE RELIEF TO IRAQ’S SUFFERING KURDS
A MOUNTAIN TERROR
AMERICA AND ITS ALLIES ARE SENDING MASSIVE RELIEF TO IRAQ’S SUFFERING KURDS
Hour by hour, the death toll rose among Kurdish refugees on the barren, wind- and rain-swept mountain slopes of northern Iraq. Hour by hour, the domestic and international pressure mounted on President George Bush to take forceful action to help end their misery. Then, last week, he sent Secretary of State James Baker to inspect a makeshift refugee camp on the Turkish border and ordered a large-scale relief effort. At the same time, the Europeans, led by British Prime Minister John Major, called for the establishment of an enclave for the Kurds inside Iraq, protected by allied troops. At first, Bush appeared to reject
that proposal, clearly concerned that a protected area might lead to the establishment of a separate Kurdish state. Instead, he warned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein not to use his remaining ground and air forces in the relief area and not to interfere with supplies or attack the fleeing Kurds north of the 36th parallel. But the pressure for more positive action continued to grow and, finally, after talks with two top European officials, Bush announced “total agreement” with his allies.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that differences between the Americans and Europeans were superficial. Instead of in a formal enclave, the estimated 1.7 million most-
ly Kurdish refugees will be fed, sheltered and protected in areas to be called “sanctuaries” or “safe havens.” Iraqi officials and United Nations experts who flew to Baghdad on the weekend will set the boundaries for those regions. Bush described the relief operation, spearheaded by a U.S. airlift, as “the largest in modem military history.” Meanwhile, the state of war between Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition that liberated Kuwait in February formally ended. The UN Security Council declared a ceasefire after Hussein’s government accepted peace terms under which Iraq has to destroy its weapons of mass destruction and pay large war reparations. In turn, the ceasefire cleared the way for the deployment of a 1,440-member UN peacekeeping force—including Canadians—along the Iraq-Kuwait border.
At the White House on Thursday, Bush met European Commission President Jacques Delors and European Council of Ministers President Jacques Santer. The U.S. President later declared [I that there had never been any differences between himself and the Europeans over how to help the Kurds. “I want you to understand that,” said Bush, stabbing a forefinger at reporters. “There is no difference on this.” Referring to Hussein, he added: “We do not expect any interference from the man in Baghdad. He knows better than to interfere.” Bush’s emphatic tone seemed to be a response to widespread criticism that he had been far more decisive in liberating Kuwait than in helping the Kurds, whose uprising the President and other Western leaders had helped to inspire with calls for Hussein’s overthrow. Said Representative David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat: “Kuwait had oil, so we did something about it. [The Kurds] don’t have oil, so they’re going to get slaughtered.” Bush, on the other hand, insisted that the Kurdish uprising was an internal matter and that his priority was to bring U.S. troops home as quickly as possible.
Still, Fitzwater said, Bush ordered that every effort be made to help the refugees. The U.S. relief campaign, code-named Operation Provide Comfort, will feed, clothe and shelter 700,000 people over the next 30 days, Fitzwater said. But by UN estimates, the number of Kurdish and other refugees from northern Iraq totals 1.7 million. The majority of those were at or near the Iranian frontier, but the U.S. aid is clearly concentrated on the Turkish border area, as is Canada’s relief effort.
Last week, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announced that Ottawa would send four Canadian Forces CC-130 Hercules transport aircraft and a 60-member medical unit to assist the refugees. Two of the planes and the medical unit will be based in Turkey and will operate with the U.S.-led relief effort there. The other two aircraft will ferry supplies to refugees in eastern Turkey and Iran as part of a relief program established by the German government. That assistance is in addition to $7.3 million in humanitarian aid that Ottawa had already promised to send to refugees on or near the Turkish border, and $800,000 that will be used to help those on the Iranian frontier.
At week’s end, U.S. officers began setting up a forward base in Turkey, close to the Iraqi frontier, to allow U.S., British and other allied aircraft to readily stage relief flights. U.S. officials said that 1,300 tents, 130,000 blankets and 89,000 cases of MREs (“meals ready to eat”) had already been taken from stockpiles in Europe. By week’s end, fixed-wing military transports based in Turkey had dropped at least 334 tons of relief supplies. But poor weather conditions and soaring mountain peaks made the supply program difficult. Many cargoes landed in areas beyond reach, while some actually killed refugees by falling onto them.
As the operation increased, relief workers said that up to 1,000 refugees are dying daily of starvation, exposure and sickness. Bitter cold, driving rain and, at higher altitudes, snow added to the misery of the refugees and made hairpin mountain roads impassable to trucks trying to deliver supplies. Western observers on the Turkish frontier described one camp in a mountain valley, at an altitude of 6,000 feet, as a quagmire of ankle-deep mud. Without sanitation facilities, the camp reeks from the pools of human excrement. And refugees, who have no water supply and must eat snow or collect water from a muddy stream to survive, are suffering from diarrhea, according to observers. Many families had only plastic sheets as shelter from the icy, driving rain. Some did not even have those, and they sat in the open night after night in the relentless downpour. “We left Iraq to live,” said one old Kurdish man. “We came here to die. Everyone is dying.”
The Turkish authorities, determined to prevent a massive influx of refugees because they say they do not have the resources to deal with it, were forcibly keeping the majority of the refugees from entering their territory. The Iranians, facing an even larger influx than the Turks, but receiving far less international assistance, appeared to be more welcoming. Having closed the border after allowing hundreds of thousands to cross, they reopened it early last week. In the sudden influx that followed, the border city of Sardasht was overwhelmed by an estimated 200,00.0 desperate Kurds. State-run Tehran Radio reported that “all houses, public places and mosques” were overflowing, with many refugees sleeping in streets and alleyways.
Dr. Roger Vivarie, of the French medical
charity Doctors Without Borders, described the situation as “apocalyptic.” He told of two Kurdish women who stood in a food line for hours, not realizing that the babies they each held in their arms had been dead for two days. Iranian officials said at week’s end that more than one million refugees had already arrived, with hundreds of thousands of others on the way. But the Iranians said that the rest of the world had left them almost alone to deal with the situation. Still, not until last Friday did they grant permission for U.S. transport planes to land in Iran.
Meanwhile, despite the U.S. aid effort, relief officials continued to criticize the operation’s slow pace. Said Rudolph von Bernuth, chief operating officer for the international relief organization CARE: “The U.S. government is still involved in the process of assessment of refugee needs, while other governments have already become operational.” As well, von Bernuth pointed out that the supplies that U.S. planes were dropping to the refugees included considerable amounts of such unsuitable items as chewing gum, noodles, strawberries and cream. By contrast, he said, CARE had purchased and trucked in the kind of food to which the Kurds are accustomed, including bread, cheese and olives. Peter Davies, president of Interaction, a coalition of 127 private American relief agencies, said: “Up until now, the U.S. relief effort has been very much a BandAid operation.”
Despite White House denials, it seemed clear that there had been a considerable difference of approach between the United States and the Europeans. A Western diplomatic source in Washington, who wished to remain anonymous, told Maclean ’s that Prime Minister Major, who proposed an enclave for the Kurds at an EC summit last week, had been “very upset” by Bush’s “less than wholehearted” response. It was only after international opinion began turning against him, as well as domestic pressure, that Bush changed course, the source said. Canada had been an early supporter of the European plan, proposing that a UN supervisory committee should move immediately into northern Iraq to co-ordinate the delivery of relief and provide security for the refugees.
At a meeting with congressmen in Washington last week, members of Doctors Without Borders described Kurdish children whose flesh had been charred by Iraqi napalm and phosphorous bombs. Representative Helen Bentley, a Maryland Republican who wept openly at the account, said that outraged constituents had been calling her office to demand government action to save the Kurds. She added that one woman had told her: “I’m ashamed of my country, to let this happen.” Meanwhile, huddling in their mountainside camps, the Kurds clung grimly to life, buoyed only by a late-week letup in the rain, allowing some rays of sunshine to provide a rare source of at least some warmth.
JOHN BIERMAN with WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington and correspondents’ reports
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