Starving, cold, desperate Kurdish refugees press into Iran by the thousands

April 10, 1991|By Kamran Fazel | Kamran Fazel,Special to The Sun

HAJOMRAN, Iraqi Kurdistan -- The man with the bright blue eyes and traditional Kurdish dress carried a bundle of blankets in his arms. Wrapped inside was the body of his 3-year-old daughter, Azar, dead from hunger, cold and exhaustion.

The Kurd, who identified himself only as Omar, had refused to allow his daughter to be buried in one of the dozens of makeshift graves that lined this muddy road through the Zagros Mountains, now choked with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds on their way to Iran. Only crude stone markers distinguished the piles of fresh earth.

"I want her to be buried in holy ground," said Omar, one of the scores of refugees who made painful detours to a turquoise-domed mountain shrine, home to the remains of an imamzadeh, or descendant of a saint. The shrine was surrounded by dozens of fresh graves, mostly for children.

Omar blamed himself for Azar's death. He should have carried her on this five-day trek out of Iraq, he said.

"She was weak," he said, beginning to cry. "I knew it. I knew it."

Azar was one of at least 15 dead children observed during three days spent with Iraq's Kurds, an estimated 1.5 million of whom are pouring across the border into Iran. The exodus was a human sea of weary, hollow-eyed men, women and children filling the road that wound through snowcapped peaks and valleys fed by mountain streams.

Some rode out in expensive BMWs with black government license plates and on top of tractor-trailer trucks, in Mercedes-Benzes and taxicabs. Others rode mules, horses and donkeys.

But most struggled on foot, sometimes leaving behind shoes stuck in the thick mud of the trail. For most of the trip, even the weather was against the refugees, with driving rain and temperatures that dropped below freezing after sunset. White-haired old women leaned on sticks or on friends and relatives. Tractor-trailers crammed with people were covered with plastic to shut out the chill. Everywhere children cried.

Most had only dry bread to eat, some of it brought by Iranian Kurds who made forays down the line with loudspeakers, handing out sheaves of the thin flaky lavash bread, sometimes with dates and fruit.

The convoy of cars and trucks and tankers stretched back at least 40 miles from the Iranian border.

At the border, the cars backed up, but those on foot passed through quickly because they had few or no belongings. Many had started out with possessions. But in five days, since they poured out of Kirkuk and Erbil and other towns and cities under what they described as a hailstorm of bullets, napalm and sulfuric acid, many had abandoned most of their goods.

Officials of the Kurdish Democratic Party estimated that as many as 15 percent of the refugees escaping Iraq never managed to reach Iran.

Iranian officials estimate that 800,000 Kurds have crossed the border into Iran. With Turkey's borders still closed, that number is expected to grow exponentially.

An editorial in the Tehran Times said that Iran would need 150,000 tents to accommodate the refugees who were already in the country, and that so far other nations had contributed only 1,000.

According to Iranian television, about 500 refugee children have died so far.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati called on the diplomatic corps in Tehran yesterday to renew a plea for humanitarian aid to deal with the influx of refugees.

The drama is constantly featured on Iranian television, spurring Iranians to give money, clothing, tea and sugar and other food for the refugees. Collection centers have been set up in mosques and other public places.

In Piranshahr, the first destination of Kurds fleeing across the Zagros Mountains, residents, who are 90 percent Kurdish and 10 percent Turkish, opened their homes to refugees, cramming as many as 20 into a room.

Piranshahr's eight mosques were overflowing with refugees. The town's residents, devout Muslims who were fasting for the holy month of Ramadan, reviled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for his cruelty.

Relief efforts

People wishing to donate money to Kurdish relief efforts may call the following private agencies:

The American Red Cross in Washington,D.C.:telephone (202)639-3314. Boxes for the Red Cross should be marked "Middle East International Response."

The U.S. Association for Migration:telephone (202)862-1826. Their boxes should be marked "I.O.M. Airlift."

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