Where Cats Are Rescued, Where Children Are Not Back in Paris after a month in Kurdish refugee camps, the contrast is jarring

May 19, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo

PARIS — Paris.--I returned home from Turkey two days ago to find a cat trapped in a tree near the Russian Orthodox church here. Its gray fur matted from the rain, the terrified cat was hugging the top of the spindly tree.

When I called, the guardian at the church sounded near tears upon hearing my description of the cat, which had disappeared two days before. "God bless your soul," he gushed, and hurried out to rescue his cat.

A month before, a Kurdish medical student and his extended family of 19 from northern Iraq struggled to survive without water or food on the mountainous border between Iraq and Turkey. "If we were dogs, we would be treated better than this," the student, Yunis Aieman, said bitterly.

The contrast between here and now and then and there struck me with savage force. Suddenly I felt as if I had crossed centuries, indeed, entire worlds, though my flight home from southeastern Turkey could be measured in hours.

It had been little more than a month since I had first disguised myself as a Kurdish refugee to get past Turkish soldiers and glimpse what the Kurds were going through on the mountain border with Iraq.

That first day a baby dehydrated from advanced diarrhea tried to play with his mother as she wept over his impending death. The infant smiled faintly before losing his strength; he had big eyes and a drawn face, with the flesh hanging from his bones. He looked like a little, old man.

At the bottom of the mountain were truckloads of food, donated by Kurdish communities of the region, that the Turkish military would not let pass. The refugees said they had not eaten in two days.

They were apparently being starved and denied water to drive them to a second camp higher up the mountain, closer to the Iraqi border. From that second camp came the sound of gunfire throughout the morning and afternoon.

Before the day ended, a Turkish soldier caught and detained me for sneaking into the camp. "You're acting like a spy," said the commanding officer, as he considered what to do with me. The soldiers had already shot twice at my Kurdish interpreter, after he was caught trying to slip in to speak with the refugees at my insistence.

Finally, the chief officer sent me back into the camp with permission and a soldier-interpreter, perhaps because he figured had already seen the worst, perhaps because U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III was due in Turkey two days later.

After the charade, I spoke with a lieutenant colonel about conditions in the lower camp, the only one I saw that day. He said they were trying to move the refugees up the mountain, where medical care, food, water and tents would eventually be delivered.

But the Turkish military was not insensitive to the refugees' plight, he insisted. He pointed to two ambulances near the camp, and said they were for transporting urgent medical cases to the hospital in Sirnak.

I decided to take him at his word.

"When I was wandering alone in the camp, I saw a baby that without immediate medical care will surely die tomorrow. If I take you to that baby, will you put it in an ambulance and send it to the hospital?" I asked.

He declined, repeating only that there would be doctors at th camp up the mountain, if only the refugees would go. The baby, certainly, did not survive. My initial relief, even gratitude, at not being interrogated and arrested turned to revulsion.

I felt that day as if I were entering a thick forest, lacking the guideposts civilization had provided until then: compassion, justice, simple decency. The name of the nearest village, Isikveren, meant "that which gives light," but this camp seemed at first devoid of light.

In the following days, I would see that baby's wan smile and rolling head over and over in my mind, each time wondering if I had pressed harder with the lieutenant colonel whether he would have put the child in the ambulance. Could he have been saved?

Other images would run through my mind, too. The nine-year-old whose hands and face were burned crisp by napalm, the blind woman lost on the mountainside after dark, calling her daughter's name, the delirious girl crying, "Water," as she walked down the mountain the first day foreign relief supplies arrived. I would find myself weeping, for every reason and for no immediate reason.

Writing became a way of restoring balance, of expelling the images that crowded before the eyes, the smells so overpowering they made one gag. It was an answer to the grand question that presented itself every time one felt moved by a particular family or person: "What about all the others?"

The layer of suspicion and disdain among Turkish soldiers for the Kurds was palpable at times. The Turkish military, which has been fighting a low-level insurgency among separatists of the Kurdish Worker's Party in the region for ten years, appeared to make no distinction between the Kurdish refugees from Iraq and the separatists from its own country.

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