JOHN BIERMAN April 29 1991



JOHN BIERMAN April 29 1991




Nearly every morning after the night’s rain subsides, the men gather in the half-light to dig graves for those who have died in the dark. The dead are mostly children. One morning, at one of the many cemeteries dotting the vast refugee camp for Iraqi Kurds just inside Turkey, 16 deaths were recorded close by. A father finished digging a small grave, and his wife laid the body of their six-day-old daughter inside. It was wrapped in a white shroud, embellished with a scrap of red ribbon. The mother showed little emotion. She seemed drained of all feeling.

In that camp alone, located at Isikveren and holding almost 200,000 refugees, freezing rain, sickness and hunger were claiming hundreds of lives a day last week. Veteran international relief workers seemed overwhelmed by the scale of the suffering. Some pathetic family groups, lacking men strong enough to compete in the ffantic scrums that greeted every food handout, were reduced to eating grass and weeds. And only the persistence of unseasonably cold weather prevented a mass outbreak of cholera and typhoid in the unsanitary conditions of camp life. But huge aid efforts were under way. An advance guard of the 10,000 American Gis and 7,500 European troops committed to the effort began arriving with scores of helicopters, hundreds of trucks, and copious supplies of food, clothing, tents, blankets and medicines to take part in the biggest international relief operation since the 1948 Berlin airlift.

For many of the Kurdish refugees in the mud of squalid makeshift camps along the mountain-

ous Iraq-Turkey border, it was too late. But for those still clinging to life while the allied troops set up protected camps in more accessible sites inside Iraq, there was hope. The government of President Saddam Hussein, which crushed a Kurdish rebellion after the Persian Gulf War ended on Feb. 27, seemed unlikely to risk military action to interfere—although Baghdad had protested the intervention as a violation of its sovereignty. Launching a parallel relief plan of their own, UN officials also voiced doubts about the legality of the U.S.-led operation. Even President George Bush had obvious misgivings. He authorized the operation under strong international and domestic pressure and he was clearly concerned that America would be drawn into a lengthy Iraqi civil war. But humanitarian considerations became the overriding factor. “The idea of being able to walk away from the situation was never a viable policy,” said Robert Hunter, a Middle East expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. And the U.S.-led relief operation represented the best hope of saving the Iraqi Kurds from near-extinction.

U.S. forces fanned out across northern Iraq last week looking for suitable sites to relocate the estimated 700,000 refugees struggling to survive in the mountains near the Turkish frontier. One location was the beautiful valley at Kasrouk, running parallel to the border. Five or six other camps are likely to be located far deeper into Iraqi territory—as much as 100 km. In the nearby Iraqi city of Zakho, senior allied military officers, one of them Canadian Lt.-Col. Mike Murphy, met their Iraqi counterparts on Friday. In a terse 45-minute encounter, they warned the Iraqis against any attempt at interference. On the other hand, the allies assured the Iraqis that they would not allow the camps to be used as bases by guerrillas of the Kurdish Pesh Merga, or “those who face death.”

The relief campaign does not cover a million refugees gathered near the Iran-Iraq border. In an effort to help ease that situation, Ottawa announced last Wednesday that it would direct much of Canada’s unilateral humanitarian aid to the Iranian border (page 24). In both sectors, conditions were frightening. A Maclean ’s correspondent who visited Isikveren last week

described the sprawling encampment, laid out beneath towering peaks, as a reeking sea of mud, excrement and urine.

The putrefying entrails of slaughtered sheep and goats lay almost everywhere, adding to the stench. The earth itself seemed poisoned, and there was little clean water. One mountain stream supplied the entire camp, and only a handful of the strongest Kurds could climb to where it had not yet been reduced to the condition of an open sewer. Dr. Alain Destexhe, a Belgian member of the European relief organization Doctors Without Borders, said that a deadly epidemic of cholera and typhoid is inevitable unless the refugees can be moved quickly to more sanitary surroundings with hygienic toilets and clean water.

Destexhe and other foreign relief workers appeared initially to be almost paralysed by the scale of the suffering. The first Doctors Without Borders crew to arrive was held up for days by Turkish red tape. When the three doctors

were finally allowed to enter the camp aboard a tractor-pulled trailer carrying boxes labelled “Basic health kits—1,000 persons,” refugees surrounded them and stopped them. The Kurds carried a dying woman in a blanket and placed her, almost like a religious offering, next to a wheel of the trailer. The doctors looked on in horror but made no move to help her—she was apparently beyond assistance. Then, they drove on, looking for a suitable site to locate their clinic. Explained Destexhe: “First we must start the clinic, then we can start treating people. Otherwise, it will be impossible.”

Conditions at Isikveren were so desperate that, despite the arrival of aid, some refugee families were preparing to return to their -Lomes, risking the vengeance of Hussein’s troops and secret police. “They have no choice,” said Ali Hassan, a refugee whose

sister had left for home with her immediate family two days earlier. “They would die here because they have no one young and strong enough to fight for their food.” The desperation of such families was apparent. On the way to Zakho, to which they were apparently returning, a mother and her two young daughters were eating grass and weeds that they had plucked from the roadside.

That family and other would-be returnees found their way barred at a Pesh Merga roadblock where guerrillas ordered them to turn back. “They don’t let us through,” said one man who had been an English teacher in Zakho and wished to remain anonymous. “They say that the government will arrest and torture us.” But he was apparently desperate enough to take a chance that Hussein’s promise of amnesty to returning refugees was genuine. “I am going to stay here until they allow us to go,”

he said. Hassamudi Sadalah, a 46-year-old interpreter with Pesh Merga connections, said of the guerrillas: “They don’t want to give any sign of reconciliation or of confidence in Saddam Hussein’s amnesty. And they don’t want families to go back because they may get killed in the fighting when the Pesh Merga liberate Zakho again.”

In fact, the ultimate aim of the allied relief operation is to persuade the refugees to return to their homes. But at the Isikveren camp, most people seemed determined not to go back unless Hussein is overthrown. “Even if he promised a million times, ‘I forgive you,’ we won’t believe him,” said Mohammed Arat. “He has proved it to us before. How can we trust him?” In fact, many refugees expressed reluctance even to go to the so-called safe havens that the allies are establishing inside Iraqi territory. They clearly feared that the Americans and their allies would eventually leave, abandoning them to the mercy of Hussein’s troops and secret police. “We are not going,” said one refugee

named Ali Mohammed. Another, named Ahmed Abdul Karim, said that he would only return “if they send Saddam away or someone kills him.”

As the allied relief effort began over Iraqi objections, the Baghdad government and the UN announced agreement on a parallel program under which the UN would set up a series of

refugee relief centres. Those would service not only Kurdish and other refugees in northern Iraq, but also Shiite refugees in the south who fled as Iraqi troops crushed an antigovemment uprising following the liberation of Kuwait. But there were no provisions for the UN centres to be defended against possible attack by Iraqi troops. In Baghdad, UN troubleshooter Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan said that he hoped his operation would “dovetail” with I that of the allies. And in « Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that the UN centres appeared to provide a basis for the world body to take over the U.S.-led rescue operation. “Hopefully, we will be out as soon as possible,” added Fitzwater. “But it is impossible to say how long that might be at this point.”

Earlier, UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar had expressed doubts about the legality of the U.S.-led program without new and explicit authorization by the Security Council. But U.S. Secretary of State James

Baker argued that the operation was fully authorized by Security Council Resolution 688 of April 5, which called for the use of “all resources” to alleviate the suffering of the refugees. Some international lawyers expressed agreement. Still, analysts said that the main reason Washington did not seek fresh Security Council authorization for its plan was the fear that the Soviet Union and China, with ethnic problems of their own, would delay or even veto a proposal. As British Defence Secretary Thomas King pointed out in Parliament on Thursday, “time is of the essence” when people are dying at an estimated rate of 1,000 a day.

Although the Americans took the lead in the allied program, supplying by far the greatest number of men and machines, the British and French were clearly the instigators. British Prime Minister John Major, strongly supported by French President François Mitterrand, first proposed the creation of safe havens—inside Iraq but protected by allied troops—at a European Community summit on April 8. Initially, Bush expressed opposition to the idea. “I do not want a single soldier or airman shoved into a civil war in Iraq that has been going on for ages,” he declared. But Major and Mitterrand kept up the pressure, repeatedly telephoning Bush over a 10-day period with pleas for him to reconsider. A French foreign ministry official, who wished to remain anonymous, said last week: “Their arguments were essentially the same—that our victory in the Gulf would be tarnished if we failed to intervene.” Said a British diplomat: “We nudged and nudged the Americans, and suddenly they came through like a rocket.”

Another factor in Bush’s decision was plainly the impact of media reports and nightly television footage that has graphically depicted the Kurdish suffering. But when Bush did act, some experts expressed disappointment. Christine Helms, for one, a Washington-based Middle East analyst who was a White House adviser on Iraq during the Gulf crisis, told Maclean's'. “Bush’s action could be very problematic in the is long run. He has created a potential arena for o Kurdish groups seeking not just autonomy but 2 independence, and that will have a destabilizing 1 effect on Turkey.”

For the moment, however, those consider>= ations have been swept aside by the desperate § needs of the refugees. And when the huge z allied operation began last week, the zeal of the people taking part in it was evident. Second Lieut. Charles Kind, a U.S. army helicopter pilot based in southern Turkey for the relief operation, declared: “You feel a lot better about doing this than combat, because you’re not trying to kill people.” For Kind and his comrades, flying in mountainous territory and landing amid thousands of desperate, starving people was clearly a hazardous undertaking.

For Bush and his allies, the open-ended and politically unpredictable relief effort seemed as dangerous as it was vital.