Kurdish children learn what illness and death are

April 26, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

ISIKVEREN, Turkey -- Amira Hassan walked up the mountain yesterday, her little feet latching onto the stones and swinging easily around the tree stumps. She stopped at a place where the dirt seemed to bulge from the ground. A child had been buried here.

"She was 4 years old," said Amira, who watched the funeral six days before. "Her mother cried so much, because she was a big girl. She wasn't a baby. She was even walking."

Amira is one of the uncounted children of Isikveren, refugees of northern Iraq who are adapting, or falling, here daily. She is 11.

The children have left behind their homes, their friends, theirclassrooms and toys, packing up with their parents, fleeing their country to save their lives.

Amira, her 9-year-old sister, Haifa, and their cousin Amat Rouf, 8, waited with a horde of children to collect water from a truck 6,000 or so feet up Cudi Mountain, where Amira's family of nine now lives in two small tents -- one for sleeping and one for cooking.

Amira carried an empty 2-gallon margarine tin, its jagged top turned back like the open mouth of a shark. Her light brown hair was tied back with a string, and she wore a ragged pink duster. She spoke with the authority of the eldest child -- she has six younger brothers and sisters.

Amira's extended family has reproduced a community despite theloss of home and state. Uncles, aunts and cousins live in neighboring tents, near the only dirt path on the mountain.

It is the path the supply trucks must take, the one the American soldiers walk as they hike up and down the mountain. Each day, Amira said, the children watch for the Americans.

"Whenever they pass, they wave and say hello. We wait for them to come. We like it when they say hello," Amira said.

The Americans were a startling contrast to the Turkish soldiers whom the children had come to see as tormentors in the few weeks they were alone at the top of the mountain, before foreign relief arrived.

"The Turkish soldiers, when they see us, they say: 'We're taking you to Saddam. We're sending you back to Saddam,' " Amira said.

Perhaps to see how they would react, the children say Saddam Hussein's name in front of the American soldiers.

"They say, 'Saddam's finished. No more Saddam,' " Amira said. "Then we know they like us."

Amat, Amira's cousin, wore a Turkish schoolgirl's uniform someone donated to the refugees, a black pleated dress with a white collar. Above her left eye was a fresh scab, which she received when a Turkish jendarma, the paramilitary police who have been replacing soldiers lately, hit her, she said.

"Two days ago, I tried to go down to bring water. They told me no, and I tried anyway," Amat said. Then she reverted to her customary shyness, playing with the seam on Amira's dress as the older girl explained.

"The Turkish jendarma pushed her," Amira said.

In this enormous mass thrown together in a strange timeless world somewhere between Iraq and Turkey, the children seem to fear most that their parents will somehow lose track of them.

The babies too young to talk are still dying here, despite the brightly colored flags of relief organizations from all over the tTC world spread on the plateau far below.

People say that reaching the foreign tents is nearly impossible, and just getting to the plateau for a chance at decent medical care can require serious bribery of the Turkish jendarmas.

"My father had a good knife they took from him," Amira said. "They tried to get my aunt's gold, but shewouldn't give it to them."

Amira insisted that some strangers see her baby cousin, Amer Naif Mohammed, a 10-month-old boy with a faint smile, too weak to keep his eyes open. "We think he's going to die tomorrow."

Amira's mother, Halima, said she took the baby to the Turkish Red Crescent doctor, who gave him a capsule the baby could not swallow.

Suddenly, a cluster of women appeared with half-conscious babies oozing pus from their eyes. At the Red Crescent, they said, they were getting turned away with only a bottle of sugar water for the children.

In the air now laden with the inescapable odor of dead animals and human feces, three children played, reconstructing a cleaner, probably quieter life.

The youngest boy rolled twigs in strips of cloth and laid them side by side on a larger rag, like babies bundled up in bed. The middle girl built a doll-size cradle of twigs and cloth, and laid a chip of bark like a baby inside, tucked under a tiny rag blanket. Nearby, she built a minuscule tent.

The oldest girl put some finishing touches on the middle child's little home and surveyed some strangers watching the children play.

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