In wilderness, Kurds live--and die--by nature's law

April 14, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

ISIKVEREN, Turkey -- In the two weeks since the exodus from northern Iraq began, the people of Zakho, Dohuk, Mosul and Sulaimaniya have climbed a mountain and dropped back in time, here where biblical lore places the beginning of human civilization.

About 2 million Kurds of northern Iraq have packed their belongings on their backs and left their homes, cars and jobs behind to escape President Saddam Hussein's vengeance. Some children bear burns from napalm on their faces and hands.

Now, lawyers and doctors, musicians and mothers fall behind as the laws of society are replaced by the rule of the strong over the weak. Suddenly, survival depends very much on strength and endurance.

"We're so jealous of the Arabs in Iraq," said Hayah Mohammed, from Dohuk. "Now they're sleeping in our beds, and we're sleeping on stones."

Home now is a few square feet of dirt on the rugged Cudi mountainside, part of a scene that could have unfolded 5,000 years ago.

Near the top of the mountain, women and young men scrape snow for water, carrying it back to their tents in bags and luggage that was probably last used for vacations and business trips. They wash their clothes, hair and faces in the muddy water flowing down the mountain.

The camp's only large field has become an open-air slaughterhouse, littered with the entrails of cows, sheep and goats. Walking in the area, the stranger trips over goat and cow heads. When the sun shines, the stench is nauseating.

Although burying the animal remains would be hygienic, the few shovels here are being used to bury dead humans.

Last week, a young boy chewed on the raw skin of a goat, then offered some to his little sister, who ran away.

"Bring it here. We have to cook it," his mother ordered.

Around the field, hollowed-out trees are burned from the inside ,, to fell them for firewood. Few men have axes.

In the new hierarchy of survival, families from the cities have more difficulty than village families, who seem better adapted to living off the land and have fewer reservations about fighting for the bread brought in by relief agencies, which arrives farther down the mountain.

As donations from Turkey's Kurdish villages finally began arriving here last week, the law of the jungle prevailed: Goods went to those who could grab them.

Rather than share, those who took more than they needed generally ended up selling it for something else they needed.

"It's difficult for us to go down because we are embarrassed," said Umer Basher Hassendi, a former representative from Zakho in the Iraqi National Assembly. "The ones from the village can manage better than us."

"People look at my children and they think I'm a bad mother because they are dirty," said a mother of five who gave her name only as Mrs. Mohammed. She complained that the dirt and deprivation were making her lose face. "I was as clean as you before this," she said.

Not having a mirror, Mrs. Mohammed could only gauge how wretched she looked by seeing the reactions of her cousins and friends.

Her children all had diarrhea and shared the symptoms of a neighbor's child who died the day before.

For Mrs. Mohammed, being displaced by Mr. Hussein's forces was depressingly familiar. Originally a native of the area around Halabja, Iraq, she had fled to Turkey in 1988, after chemical attacks on the village.

When the first-aid packages arrived here, there was no pretense of organization amid the refugees' overwhelming hunger, thirst and cold.

Old women struggled to carry supplies up the mountain on their backs, stopping often, while young men clambered on trucks in a mad grab for whatever they could get.

"Whoever has many sons is rich today," observed one man watching the scramble for food and water last week.

Soldiers made fitful attempts to prevent hoarding, beating back swarms of refugees with sticks in an effort to maintain order.

"He who sells this has no honor," an elderly man trying vainly to get a sack of macaroni shouted over the clamor.

Halila Mustapha, a 61-year-old woman from Dohuk, took a break during the hour-and-a-half climb up the mountain after getting her first food supplies since reaching Turkey a week ago.

"They don't bring it up. If we don't go down, we don't get anything," she said. Then she looked at the men loading bags on their shoulders.

"Why didn't I marry four husbands?" she asked, smiling wryly. Under Muslim law, men may have up to four wives.

As elderly men and women climbed the mountain with their packs, young boys walked near them empty-handed. But they did not offer to help the old ones. Then again, there was little likelihood that the old people would trust the boys enough to hand over their precious cargoes.

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