After Turks, U.S. troops a relief for Kurds

April 24, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

ISIKVEREN, Turkey -- The men of Ibrahim Salih's family took turns at the shovel as his body, wrapped in a stained plaid blanket, lay on a stretcher. A U.S. CH-47 Chinook helicopter hovered overhead, then sent swirls of dirt flying as it landed briefly to give food to refugees on the plateau a few hundred yards away.

Two days before Mr. Salih's death, he had stood near the same spot, digging his daughter's grave. Now his own 45-year-old body was carefully lowered into the ground, surrounded by stone and covered with flattened cardboard boxes in his improvised coffin. Mr. Salih and his daughter had both died of dysentery.

"Do the American people support this?" asked a Turkish Health Ministry worker of Kurdish origin, standing between two babies' graves -- small mounds of earth marked with stones. "Do they support that Bush has turned his back on the Kurdish people, after first supporting them?"

To the Turkish soldiers and government workers here, Operation Provide Comfort amounted to littlemore than a late attempt by Washington to clean up the political and social mess it left behind after forcing Iraq out of Kuwait.

To many of the roughly 700,000 Kurdish refugees massed on the Turkish-Iraqi border, the U.S. pledge of food, tents, blankets and medical care offered psychological relief -- despite their deep resentment at President Bush for encouraging Saddam Hussein's overthrow and then abandoning the Kurds when they challenged the Iraqi president.

After three weeks during which Kurds saw only Turkish soldiers -- some of whom shot at refugees, skimmed from relief supplies and sold some of the tents, blankets and water to refugees -- the well-meaning U.S. soldiers arrived free of the animosity that has raged between Turks and Kurds for 70 years.

"We have to say thanks to America for what it is doing, but we cannot forgive what has happened," said Halid Hassan Ahmed, 27, a deserter from the Iraqi army.

In the refugee camp at Isikveren, a line of 25 U.S. soldiers walked down the winding mountainside, the last private bearing a small American flag in his knapsack. The soldiers had been talking to refugees on both sides of the border, laying groundwork for construction of relief centers on the Iraqi side.

Soldiers chatted with refugees and stopped to rest at times.

Refugees said that since the U.S. soldiers arrived, Turkish soldiers have appeared more relaxed. Bursts of gunfire still echo along the mountainside, but less frequently. More supplies sent by Kurdish communities in Turkey are getting through.

"I think they see the American soldiers are a bit softer. They talk to people and don't go pointing their guns," said Mr. Ahmed. "Maybe they realize they don't have to be so harsh."

Turkish officers and soldiers, while admiring and perhaps envying U.S. military might, deride the U.S. operation as a high-profile effort that will ultimately provide little help.

The Turkish officers insist that what the Iraqi Kurds really want is not food or water but a safe homeland. But it is doubtful that Turkey would countenance what could become an independent Kurdistan along its border.

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