Kurdish refugees find more hunger in new Turkish camp

April 17, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

SILOPI, Turkey -- Bedrya Rashid found lunch growing by the gravel lot on the edge of Turkey's model refugee camp here yesterday -- a plant leaf called chandar in Kurdish, not something she normally eats or gives to her family.

"But we know you can eat this," she said. "We were lucky to find it growing here. We don't have anything else to eat."

Twenty-four hours after Turkish officials announced with great fanfare the opening of this former rest stop for Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca as a relief center for Kurdish refugees, the first group of 2,500 refugees had not been given any food, several of them said.

"I don't want to say it's bad here," said Sivan Saris, 24, "but we haven't had food for two days. We're lucky that we were not stuck in the mountains, because we were afraid of getting shot."

As of yesterday doctors at the camp still had not received the medication necessary to treat the predominantly Kurdish refugees, who have spent two weeks in the rain and cold, with little food and only dirty snowmelt for water since crossing the mountains from Iraq.

The lack of food, medicine, soap and towels for the refugees yesterday appeared to underscore the hasty nature of this camp's opening, which came after severe international criticism of Turkey.

It also illustrated the lack of organization that is hindering Turkish and international relief efforts for the refugees and that has prompted Washington to assume greater control of the relief operations.

"They told us not to take anything [with us] upon leaving the Isikveren camp," said an electrical engineer from Zakho, in northern Iraq. He said his name was Suphi, but he did not want to give his family name for fear of retribution against his relatives still in Baghdad.

"They told us everything would be prepared: food, blankets, some clothes."

There is universal agreement among the refugees that conditions are better here than at the Isikveren camp, about two hours away and 7,500 feet higher up the Cudi Mountains.

Nights are not as biting cold, and there is running water here, even if it is always cold. And each family has a tent, donated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"It's a warm place, but with a hungry stomach you can't do anything," Mrs. Rashid said.

Refugees said Turkish authorities here had enlisted some of their number to unload the supply trucks.

"We are hungry, and they ask us to work unloading," said Madior Gunaid, 36, a mechanic from Zakho. "We have no strength. If it were to unload trucks of food, I wouldn't mind."

Mr. Gunaid said his 2-year-old daughter was hungry all the time. Rather than hear her crying, he asked his wife to let the baby sleep as much as possible.

Around 4:30 p.m. yesterday -- about 25 hours after they came here -- a Turkish Red Crescent van pulled up and began distributing plastic bags of bread and soft white cheese to the refugees.

Mehdi Degirmenci of the Turkish Red Crescent, in charge of distributing food at this camp yesterday, said the refugees had received food Monday after their arrival here.

But when told the refugees had denied having received any food, he first asked who had said food had not been distributed, then promised that the refugees would receive a hot meal of beans and rice.

A moment later, Mr. Degirmenci told a plainclothes policeman what had happened. "We didn't give them anything for just one day, and already they are telling the press," he said slowly.

Police then forced reporters to leave the camp.

While the rest of Turkey took the day off yesterday for the Eid el-Fitr celebration marking the end of Ramadan, relatives who had heard their kin were refugees here gathered outside the gates to visit.

Some said they brought hot meals for their cousins from Iraq, but none of the relatives was allowed in. Nor could they speak through the fence.

"Ramadan finished, and still we're doing Ramadan," said Jemal Suphi Abdo, 38.

Outside the camp, about 50 Turkish Kurds waited in the vain hope of seeing a relative.

"I want to see my people," said a high school physics teacher, who had waited since morning with five other men.

"We are going. We had no chance to see them, but still we have hope," said another man.

The refugees, formally referred to as "Northern Iraqi People" by a Turkish government reluctant to recognize its own Kurdish population and ill at ease with granting the refugees such basic rights as unrestricted travel inside the country, are being kept as virtual prisoners.

When relief packages did not arrive yesterday, several refugees said they had the money to buy food in the town of Silopi -- if only they were allowed out of the camp.

In the distance could be heard the sound of U.S. helicopter blades beating the air as they delivered food to refugees closer ++ to the border and in Iraq.

The refugees and their cousins outside had only bitterness for the policies of President Bush. They accused him of encouraging the Kurds to rise up against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, then turning away after they were defeated.

They said they believed that the enormous U.S. relief operation was geared mostly to save Mr. Bush's prestige. "People are already dying. If you help or you don't, it's already done," said one man.

Nevertheless, the refugees appeared crestfallen when told that the camp would remain under Turkish control.

"We've had bad experiences with the Turkish military," said the electrical engineer named Suphi.

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