Hunger, illness, tradition weigh on Kurdish women

April 29, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

ISIKVEREN, Turkey -- Each night the seven women of the Mohammed family lie packed in a 6-foot-by-15-foot tent with about 25 of their children, many crying from sickness and the cold. Between comforting the young ones and watching for scorpions, the mothers here get little sleep.

In the morning, exhaustion might prompt them to doze off. But once their husbands and older boys wake up, tradition forbids it.

"We can't do that," said Halima Abdul Wahad, cradling her 10-month-old son, rendered as skinny and frail as a 2-month-old by diarrhea. She has not slept in four days.

Stranded with their families in this unyielding mountain camp, the refugee women strain to wrench life from rock and dirt.

When there is enough water, they wash their children without soap. When there is food, they cook it. And constantly, they apologize for not keeping their children clean and swear that they were not like this before.

Rather than fight tradition, the women are preoccupied with fighting disease. Given the dismal state of medical care here, sickness is often death's waiting room.

Mrs. Wahad's baby, Naim Ahmed, was given only sugar water at the Turkish Red Crescent tent, although her boy seems barely alive.

At the Red Crescent pharmaceutical tent Friday, a young man who acknowledged knowing nothing about medicine gave out medication to ailing refugees. To a baby suffering from acute diarrhea he gave Neoferol, iron citrate, normally used to stop hemorrhaging in women who miscarry, according to the label.

He also complained that he had no medication for the scorpion bites refugees have been getting lately.

"Perhaps you could bring us some, next time you come," he said.

In the primordial division of labor, forced by the competition for food and shelter, the men battle one another to collect the food, tents and blankets donated by relief agencies or foreign governments, while the women line up to fill enormous jugs and tins of water they balance on their left shoulders as they scale the mountains.

"We don't stand in line because there are women there," said Khalid Mohammed Ali, who leaned back on a rock one recent day, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette in a bright yellow plastic holder. "It is against our culture."

Tempers run short at the water trucks. Mr. Ali said it would be shameful to fight with the women or brush against them inadvertently in line. The moment before, a young woman had shouted hysterically after some women argued over whether another had cut into the line.

"We fight over water. We fight over food. Look how we claw at each other!" she shrieked. "If you are so eager to fight, go back and fight Saddam Hussein."

An older man, witnessing the outburst, nodded. "She is right," he said sadly and walked away, muttering, "We deserve to live this way."

In the Iraqi mountains, Peshmerga, the guerrillas whose name is "those who face death" in Kurdish, for a time cut a dashing figure defying Saddam Hussein.

But whether guerrilla fighters, collaborators or clan leaders, the men in Isikveren have done next to nothing to organize their people, all suddenly forced to fend for themselves in the mountain.

On Friday, no food deliveries were expected at the bottom of the mountain, so the men took the day to recline on rocks, talk and smoke. A few went to collect tree branches for wood.

Miriam Amer is 52 years old. On Friday, she nursed her infant son, Ferman, whose name means "death sentence" in Kurdish. She said she chose the boy's name "because the Kurds have so many problems."

Her 59-year-old husband was away fetching wood from the mountains. For wood, there is no competition; food is another matter.

Sugar was delivered recently, and her husband tried to get some but couldn't. "He isn't so strong to fight the young ones," she said.

"We don't have any soap," she said, in apology for her children's grimy faces and hands.

The parents and their 10 children live in a green plastic drop sheet fashioned into a tent too low to allow a person to sit up straight. They only managed to get this because their husband's brother saved one for them from a relief drop.

Behind Mrs. Amer's 7-year-old daughter, a group of boys gathered dangerously close to the fire on which dinner was boiling: six potatoes for the family of 12.

Suddenly, the little girl swung around and let out a ferocious animal cry, instantly frightening the boys away. Then she turned back and resumed listening to their mother, smiling shyly at two visitors.

While the little girls here look like little mothers, hoisting infants on their slight hips and fetching water on their shoulders, boys play at exploding empty bottles of spring water beneath oncoming trucks, or sliding down the mountainside on the flattened plastic.

"The boys go off. They come back all dirty, and we don't have any soap to wash them," said Zemrid Ahmet. She is one of the other six women in the Mohammed tent. In traditional Kurdish marriages, women do not necessarily take their husband's names.

Back in Dohuk, in northern Iraq, four of the six married Mohammed sons lived in their own homes. The families visited each another on Fridays.

Now, they spend all their time together, too much time, they say, and there is nothing to serve.

Because the men do battle for food, and because the Kurdish culture particularly values men, they get first choice at mealtime. Mrs. Ahmet complained that Halima's husband was always eating too much.

"He brings the least and he eats the most," Mrs. Ahmet said, her eyes creased with laughter.

"They are men. You have to accept. They eat until they are full, but we are half-full because we give the children what we have," she said.

"Now I have to stop you," Abdul Wahad said, also laughing, "Now you have really gone too far."

"No, he's gone too far," Zemrid said, the tent suddenly bare of humor. "I have to say the truth," she added quietly.

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