Turkey begins rescuing Kurds off mountainside

April 16, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent Sun reporter Mark Matthews contributed to this article.

SILOPI, Turkey -- Turkish government officials, reassured by a U.S. commitment to feed and shelter hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides of the border with Iraq, yesterday began transferring refugees down from the mountaintop camp at Isikveren to an improvised relief center here.

Clearly stung by international criticism of Turkey's failure to deliver emergency aid and care to an estimated 400,000 refugees massed at its borders, government officials said yesterday that 2,000 refugees a day would be bused down from the Isikveren camp, where they have been stranded at elevations of 7,500 feet in the Cudi Mountains.

They said another 30 to 40 sites were being surveyed for possible relief centers, with the eventual goal of bringing all the refugees down from the mountain.

"In the coming days, we hope international organizations will open their own camps in the area. Then we will compare: How are the Turkish camps and how are the other camps?" said Hayri Kozakcuoglu, regional governor of the southeastern province of Diyarbakir.

Halil Sivgin, Turkish minister of health, said at least 50,000 refugees would die if they were not brought down from the mountainside immediately and given food, fresh water, shelter and medical care.

At a press conference yesterday, Mr. Kozakcuoglu estimated that there were 400,000 refugees gathered at three main areas along the border with Iraq and that another 300,000 would join them in the next few days.

The refugees will be moved to a rest stop normally used for Muslim pilgrims on their way to the holy city of Mecca. Tents were still being pitched yesterday for the refugees, who would now have access to sanitary facilities and health care. The facility is expected to hold up to 20,000 refugees.

Doctors and nurses at the center said they had been summoned to come here only the day before. Matresses and blankets were piled high inside buildings, and doctors said that only some of the needed drugs and medical supplies had arrived so far.

Asked what had persuaded the Turkish government to allow the refugees to begin coming down the mountain, Necati Utkan, a former Turkish ambassador to Iraq who is now overseeing foreign relief efforts, said, "The Americans have come to us with a plan, seeking Turkish permission, which was granted."

U.S. teams have begun surveying refugee needs and the terrain, and they plan to build relief centers at the foot of the mountains -- where water and supplies are easier to deliver -- on both sides of the border.

"Now, we could foresee [the U.S. doing] this, so we are taking the northern Iraqi people in," said Mr. Utkan. "It's not fair to expect us to enter into Iraqi territory and do everything there, too."

"We don't need pledges," he added. "We need action. And we hope the first action will come from the United States."

Once the United States gets started working on Iraqi territory, Turkish officials said they would expect international organizations to join the Americans through United Nations oversight.

"If the camps are located in part on Iraqi territory, according to U.N. resolutions, it's up to the international organizations to take care of them," Mr. Utkan said.

U.N. Resolution 688 requires Iraq to grant access to relief agencies working to help refugees "in all parts of Iraq" and to provide "all necessary facilities for their operation."

But relief workers here said confronting the Baghdad government for access to refugees in Iraq right now would not help the hungry and sick refugees here.

"It will not change things fast," said Philippe Thoume of the Paris-based Doctors Without Borders. "We need to rush. The situation is deteriorating very rapidly."

"We're trying to deal with the problems that we've already seen," added Henry Wynroks, a Dutch doctor from the same organization.

The group welcomed the Turkish decision to bring the refugees down the mountainside, where they had no easy access to fresh water and where it was difficult to haul supplies or reach patients.

Mr. Kozakcuoglu, the regional governor, appealed yesterday for increased international aid, which he said had so far proved insufficient. Of an estimated 70,000 tents and 600,000 blankets the refugees needed, for example, Turkey had received only 8,500 tents and 182,500 blankets, he said.

Relief officials say that there is enough aid on the ground for the moment but that poor organization was hindering distribution. At least 15 refugees have been crushed to death beneath food packages dropped from helicopters, while others have been shot by soldiers or crushed by other refugees in the desperate competition for food.

In addition, witnesses say that tents, blankets and food have been pirated by Turkish soldiers, while most refugees sleep beneath makeshift tents made from blankets draped over branches or with no shelter at all.

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