For Kurdish refugees, a border closes of hope

April 08, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

YERMAL, Iraq -- Dejected, hungry and hopeless, 6,000 Iraqi Kurds stranded in this border town are coming to the terrifying realization that there may be no place for them in this world.

Across a narrow stream in front of them lies Turkey, where soldiers patrolled with orders not to let in Iraqi Kurds, and behind them, in Iraq, lies Saddam Hussein's offer for amnesty for those who return -- in actuality a probable death sentence.

"If you run forward [or] if you run back, it is worst," Cemil Abdi, a Kurdish guerrilla who thought he was bringing his two wives and six children to safety in coming here. "We have no choice."

The refugees have given up hope for help from Turkey, which is grappling with its own Kurdish separatist problems and is doing all it can to stem the exodus.

And the refugees have only bitterness toward the United States, which they believe gave them reason to hope they could overthrow Mr. Hussein but failed to support their uprising.

"We are just hoping for some help from Europe," said Mr. Abdi.

Officially, the Turkish government itself has done next to nothing to assist the fleeing Iraqi Kurds, in sharp contrast to the well-organized welcome granted Bulgarian Turks a few years ago. The Bulgarian Turks slept in government buildings and were given food and free medical service.

"We want a safe place. We know some people have made it inside the Turkish border," said Hikmet Cuma, 23.

The refugees, who are camped at the base of a mountain, sathey did not come to the Turkish border to build a new home. They left their home and belongings in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk, and now they want to leave behind their country as well.

"Just 100 yards from here, they [Iraqi soldiers] killed us in 1988," said Shami Umer, a 24-year old carpenter. "That's why we're afraid they might kill us now."

In 1988, Mr. Hussein's plan to eradicate the Kurdish resistance prompted tens of thousands of Kurds to flee to Turkey. At that time, they huddled against the Turkish border for months before Ankara allowed 50,000 to enter.

The Peshmergas, or Kurdish guerrillas, said that 11,000 people took advantage of Mr. Hussein's offer to return home in 1988. Upon returning, many were hanged, the guerrillas said.

One man in the camp had been with 400 people when Iraqi planes began firing on them a few days ago, he said. He was

among a group of 20 who ran into the camp two days ago.

"All we want from the Turkish government is to take us. We don't even want food," said Mr. Cuma. "Even if they can't take us, if they can just take our women and children, at least we will know they are safe."

Food, shelter and medical care are the most immediate needs here. Nineteen babies have died in the last week, said Sudki Abdulla Said, a dermatologist for the Dohuk hospital who is serving as the camp doctor with only a small grab-bag of antibiotics, ointments and other medicines, hardly enough for 6,000 people living in the camp.

There are no medical instruments, no shelves to hold supplies. The grass is his closet and his examining table.

He has no treatment for diarrhea, which is dehydrating most of the babies.

This morning another child was buried here.

Families appeared to be living on tea, bread and whatever could be found. A toddler mixed her fistful of bread with onions on the ground.

The Turkish soldiers on the other side of the border are trying to maintain a distance from the desperation across the stream bridged by a few logs. But over the weekend, some Turkish cities, moved by the refugees' plight, took up collections for them.

When a truck unloaded loaves of bread, 100-pound sacks of flour, macaroni, old clothes, blankets and pillows, the soldiers tried to organize a neat line.

But the discipline broke down. First one child, then another and then suddenly whole waves of refugees ran across the stream in a mad -- for food.

After about five minutes, the soldiers began pushing the refugees off Turkish territory.

The refugees surged back to Iraq in fright.

A little farther down the road, at the Isikveren refugee camp, Turkish soldiers forced 15,000 refugees on Turkish territory to go back up a mountain to another refugee camp, close to the Iraqi border. The action was taken before international relief workers began arriving at the camp yesterday.

On Saturday, refugees said, they feared the soldiers would lead them back to Iraq instead of another camp. The military denied refugee pleas to visit the camp to confirm its existence.

A 4-year-old girl was wounded in the arm after soldiers opened fire onrefugees who were throwing stones in an effort to stay where they were.

In Iran, Tehran Radio said that 698,000 Iraqi refugees had crossed the border and that Iran could not accept any more people.

"At present, hundreds of thousands of refugees are massed across the border, waiting to enter the Iranian soil. But unfortunately lack of food, bedding and clothing make it impossible to accept more," the report said.

Iran has so far received little foreign aid.

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