Kurdish refugees begin mass exodus from mountain

BOUND FOR HOME

May 01, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

ZAKHO, Iraq -- Packed in cars with their windshields shot out, battered school buses, and gasoline and garbage trucks, Kurdish refugees began their mass return home yesterday, ending their painful monthlong sojourn as unwanted refugees along the Turkish border.

Hamsi Ibrahim Keloo joined the wary convoy of the dispossessed with her only surviving son, an imp named Khalad, and her cousin, Heshmal Mohammed Saleh, 13.

They had set out from Turkey in the morning, guided as far as the Iraqi border by her husband, who then stayed behind on the Turkish side with their six daughters. It was Mrs. Keloo's job to check their house and give her family the all-clear to return home.

All the way down the Iraqi side of the mountain, the three saw life begin again in northern Iraq. Men hunched over motors and car batteries, filled their tanks with gasoline donated by the French military and scrounged for parts to get the cars started. They tied straps and wires between cars so that often only one good car towed two or three.

The vehicles are stark reminders of the refugees' desperate -- from the guns of the Iraqi army. They fled in tractors, school buses, government vans, a firetruck, a garbage truck -- anything they could drive.

Yesterday, Mrs. Keloo paid a van driver five dinars, about $1.50, to take her and the children down the mountain and on to her brother's house in Zakho. As she rode, she supressed a smile. "God is watching over us today. I am well," she said.

*

At the second level down the mountain, two Pesh Merga guerrillas, armed with grenades, knives and guns, kissed the cheeks of the French officers organizing the convoy.

The guerrillas fear that Baghdad is still determined to destroy the Kurds. In the back of their truck sat three men they had caught near the Turkish border. Hukmet Ibraham Hassan, one of the Pesh Mergas, said the three were about to poison the refugees' water supply.

The men, Iraqi Arabs, said the security chief of Mosul had sent them to dump chemicals in the water supply. Ra'he Sa'al, one of the three, said that Iraqi security authorities "showed us on the map where to go."

"Believe it or not, we felt pity, because we saw that the women and children would all die together with the men," he said.

The men warned that though they had been caught, President Saddam Hussein would send others to poison the water. "He's making many people do this," Mr. Sa'al said.

The prisoners were terrified for their personal safety, but they appeared to fear the Iraqi forces far more than the Kurdish guerrillas.

The Pesh Merga guarding the men said he could only halfheartedly endorse the refugees' return, which the Americans had ordered Monday.

"You see that everybody is saying we are wrong" to have blocked refugees from going home, said Mr. Hassan. "We

believe there will be more of this. That's why we pushed people not to come."

*

Mrs. Keloo was eager to get home, though she knew there was no food in the refrigerator and there were reports that the Iraqi soldiers had pillaged some houses.

She wanted to walk on her street, to see her house. She did not seriously consider going to the American tent city, set up to help returning refugees. "I've had enough of tents," she said.

The van cruised with the 60-car French convoy down this beautiful green mountain that in gentler times or more peaceful places might be a state park. Behind her, she had buried her eldest boy, who hadn't the strength to make it all the way to Turkey. "He died on the border. We couldn't even wash his body to bury him," she said.

Mrs. Keloo guessed her son's age at 14, but like most Kurds, she is blessed with an absolute disregard for age. "Goodness, how ** can I say?" she said when asked her age.

"How old do I look? Put that down as my age," she said finally. So, given that she has been living with the elements for a month, Mrs. Keloo looks probably about 30 or so.

Her surviving son, his tan face framed by golden curls, is "5, 6, 7 -- anyway, old enough to go to school," she guessed.

Mrs. Keloo seemed resigned to her son's death at the border. But none of the passengers on this journey could understand the Turkish military's brutality once they had made it across the border.

"Sometimes they wanted money, sometimes the knife, sometimes it was just to torture us," Mrs. Keloo guessed.

"I know it sounds funny if I say Turkey was worse than Saddam Hussein, but you can say it is so," her cousin Heshmal said.

The boy had watched another cousin, a 12-year-old, die after Turkish soldiers bashed his head and shoulder with the butt of a rifle. This was before the U.S. soldiers arrived at Isikveren.

Now many of the families return here as if from a war, with every second family counting at least one dead.

Their dead are buried on Turkish soil, or just over the border in Iraq.

*

Mrs. Keloo reached home in the early afternoon. She had stopped at her brother's house first. "Don't go home," he warned her. "I saw your house. You can't live there anymore."

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