Famished Kurds surround caravan of relief trucks

April 09, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

ISIKVEREN, Turkey -- When the trucks first lumbered up the narrow path, 75,000 people of Turkey's largest Iraqi refugee camp could not believe what they saw from high above: water, bread, flour meal, clothes, blankets and cradles, finally arriving here.

They swarmed down the mountainside, the half-dead and the half-mad. "Please, water, water," a woman cried, walking in circles down the hill. She fell to her knees and kissed a dirty crust of bread she found.

A few yards away, soldiers were beating a man, until one shouted at another to stop: "You idiot! Can't you see there are foreigners here?"

The outside world officially encountered the Iraqi refugee crisis here yesterday, as U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III flew briefly into the Cukurca refugee camp, and foreign relief workers got their first glimpse of conditions there.

For the mostly Kurdish refugees, who until yesterday did not even receive water from the Turkish government, the glimmer of interest was enough to spark wild hopes and fears.

"Are they really sending us back to Iraq?" one man asked a stranger.

"Is it true we may go to Diyarbakir and live in tents?" a little girl asked of Turkey's largest Kurdish city.

"If James Baker comes here and I tell him that my husband is in Syria, do you think he can help?" wept a woman who was separated from her husband and children during their flight from Iraq.

The contrast yesterday between well-meaning outsiders and those in charge of running the Iraqi refugee camps was sharp. So was the difference in standards.

The outsiders were appalled by the concentration of filth and neglect, while the powerful Turkish military appeared mostly preoccupied with preventing the refugees from swelling Kurdish separatist ranks. The troops have shown few signs of humanity at this camp.

During the distribution of aid donated by Turkey's southeastern Kurdish cities and villages yesterday, Turkish troops shot at least one child, 11-year-old Yahsan Sheker.

His mother, Reyhan Sheker, came stumbling and wailing up the hill, drooling, with a white crust over her lips from lack of water.

"They shot my son. I don't know if he is dead because they took him away in an ambulance," she cried, as the crowd gathered around.

She said she had run forward to accompany Yahsan. "They wouldn't let me go with him," she said. The soldier overseeing the distribution here yesterday looked evenly at a reporter who asked about the shooting. "I didn't hear any shooting," he said.

Khalil Haji Abdi Slevani, a former parliamentarian representing the border city of Zakho in the Iraqi parliament, said Turkish soldiers had shot 10 children so far.

So far, the Turkish military has not acknowledged or explained any shootings.

Jan de Lange, from the Dutch branch of Doctors Without Borders, said he found conditions at this camp "much worse" than he had expected.

Climbing up the mountain with colleague Peter Grodtendorst, they found packets of medication intended for hungry children strewn on the ground.

There are no toilets, sinks or showers on the mountain, and no drinking water. Families are slaughtering their cows, goats and sheep, and leaving the entrails and carcasses to rot in the mud.

Doctors Without Borders is flying in 40 tons of supplies, two doctors and several nurses, Mr. de Lange said. He said the aid could be given almost immediately, depending on the cooperation he receives from the Turkish Red Crescent -- the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross -- the military and the government.

In seeking permission to donate the group's medical aid, Mr. de Lange said, "The Red Crescent did not seem really convinced of the need for cooperation."

As of yesterday, a representative of the Red Crescent had yet to visit refugees here. People run to a stranger wearing a white shirt, in the hope that she may be a doctor. They complain of headaches, diarrhea among the children that comes from drinking melted snow, and stomachaches.

A father showed his 11-year-old son, whose face and hands had suffered hideous burns from napalm in Zakho, Iraq, six days earlier. The boy had been burned so badly he could not eat.

"He watches us eat, and we feel bad," the father said. "Sometimes if we have water, his mother tries to force him to drink some, but it hurts him so much."

He said he had taken his son to the soldiers' station on the plateau below three times asking for medical help, and each time they pushed him away.

"They didn't even want to look at him," the man said.

In punching through Turkey's reluctance to provide aid to the refugees, Doctors Without Borders and other humanitarian organizations may raise questions that are not likely to please the Turkish military.

Mr. Grodtendorst said the camp's location high on this 3,000-foot mountain makes medical care difficult.

"It would be a big help if people got off the mountain," he said. "It's almost impossible to treat so many people in such a rugged area."

But the army has forced some 15,000 refugees here from a lower plateau, concentrating them all closer to the Iraqi border and farther away from Turkish Kurds.

To get them to move up here, the soldiers promised the refugees that food, water and medical care would be available on the higher ridge.

"Water is not a problem there," one soldier promised people whose babies were dying from drinking dirty water.

There is, however, no water at the upper camp at all.

"Down below was paradise for us," said Mohammed Hussein.

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