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The Sad, Horrific Fate of Kurdish Refugees in Iran During the Gulf War

Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

Sardasht, Iran

In war there are winners and losers, and then there are the truly screwed. Meet Majid Abdullah. He is 30 years old, and up until a month or so ago he was a soldier in the Iraqi army. When the ground war started in Kuwait, he ran away from a fight he wanted no part of anyway, and made his way back to his home in Kirkuk, a city in the Kurdish north. Soon after he arrived, his neighbors, Kurds like himself, decided to seize the moment against their old enemy, Saddam. Abdullah says they had an idea, based on listening to George Bush, that the United States might lend a hand. This proved fatally false, and in no time Saddam’s helicopters, Abdullah recalls, “were killing, killing, killing—killing people in the streets.’’

Abdullah ran again, this time with about a million and a half of his fellow Kurds, to the sanctuary of Iran. And this is where he is now, on a late April afternoon, standing shivering and sockless in the mud on a hilltop in a refugee camp that looks like a place for prisoners of war, where a meal of a few potatoes and water and a little bread is daily fare, where the weak and the sick are dying at a slow but steady clip, and where, it turns out, he and his kind are not welcome at all.

The Kurds who fled Iraq’s butchery for Iran’s mercy have escaped hell to land in purgatory. Their brethren who fled to Turkey are, relatively speaking, the lucky ones. America has promised them protection, decent camps are being built, the Marines are watching over them.

Sorrow does have its gradations. The saddest place I came across in the hundreds of miles of western Iran over which the refugees have been scattered was the camp of lost children. This place, located just outside of the farm market city of Saqqez, in the province of Kurdistan, was set up by the Iranian government to care for the thousands of Iraqi Kurdish girls and boys who have lost their mothers or their fathers or both. Some of them saw their parents gunned down by helicopters. Others misplaced them in the terrible exodus through the snowy mountain passes to Iran. Now they live here—infants, toddlers, and teens, together with aunts and occasional uncles: 5,000 thoroughly wretched souls. In happier times the camp was a farm, and it must have been a fine and pleasant place, situated as it is in a lovely green and broad plateau ringed by gently rounded hills and old, soft mountains. Now it is guarded by armed soldiers and surrounded by metal fences and shining, slice-to-the-bone new rolls of concertina wire. The first thing I saw there was a pretty little girl, maybe four years old, sitting alone at the front gate against a big roll of the razor-edged steel, smiling in the afternoon sun.

In the old bucolic days the concrete and corrugated tin barns held beasts. Now they hold humans treated like beasts. Each building has been divided into pens, with sheets of tin tied together with twine. The pens fill the barns and the people fill the pens. I counted twenty-three in one ten-by twenty-foot square. The refugees sleep in the pens, on worn and dirty blankets on the concrete floor; the children play in them; the women cook in them, on crude kerosene stoves that are tipsy on the uneven floor. The sick lie still, staring or sleeping, and the others fit themselves around them, in a squalid, squirming zigzag. Rain leaks through the roof and through the windows and doors that are covered only with plastic sheets. The air is fetid and close, rich with the stink of sweat and kerosene and the shit that is everywhere, and that peculiar smell of apple-sweet rottenness that emanates from the lungs and pores of the gravely ill.

I walked, with another reporter, through the beast-homes. A refugee and mechanical engineer named Barham Abbus pointed out one hollow-cheeked woman lying curled on the floor in a fetal position, with two young children lying next to her. He said, “You see her? You see these children? They have had diarrhea for twelve days. They are going to die.” The people swarmed, shouting for attention, each one trying to tell what horrified him or her the most. “Mister, mister! There are no showers.... Mister, mister! We have no freedom to leave. Mister, mister! This is a place for cows and chickens.... Mister, mister! There is no food.... We are sick.... The water is bad....” Very soon after we arrived in the camp, the Iranian official accompanying us decided this was not a fit sight for the foreign press. “Come,” he said, pushing and prodding. “Enough. Must leave now.” The soldiers escorted us out and shut the gate.

Lesser horrors greeted the eye everywhere. The dirt roads and green pastures leading from the mountain passes were thronged with dirty, tired, hungry people. On a path thirty miles north of this western Iranian city, thousands camped in rough tents made from tree branches and plastic sheeting. On a warm afternoon the women washed clothes against the rocks in a brook swollen by spring melt. The dirt road was a bizarre bazaar, the result of private enterprise rushing in to supply food and goods that the government and the relief agencies had not. Small boys walked down the road tempting the hungry with boxes of pastries and cookies and hard-boiled eggs (a pinch of salt included). A stand of aluminum tent poles stood next to a shish kebab brazier that was bordered by a display of lady’s plastic pumps. To pay for such goods, the refugees had opened a medieval trading route, carrying on foot from Iraq into Iran anything of value they could take from their home. Every ten or fifteen minutes, another importer would come trudging down the road from the mountains. One old man, perhaps five foot three inches tall and weighing maybe 130 pounds, was bent double from the refrigerator strapped to his back. Another labored under a load of four large television sets, still in their cardboard factory boxes. The men said they had walked six or seven miles with their loads.

In the towns and small cities near the border, the wandering homeless overwhelmed the streets, searching for food, resting by small fires along the sides of the road, joining roosters and hens and just sitting and scratching in the dirt. Here the only care seemed often to come from the local Iranian Kurds. “We get nothing from government,” said Muhammed Kidur, standing on a street corner in Sardasht. “No medicine, no food. We haven’t seen meat, we haven’t seen bread, we haven’t seen anything. We are not even allowed to go to the market to buy food.” Others rushed around, a cacophony of complaints, but the Iranian media-minder hurried a few policemen over to shoo the witnesses away.

It is not that no one was trying to care for the refugees. By the second week of the crisis, the large foreign relief agencies—principally the International Committee of the Red Cross and the French group Medecins Sans Frontières—had done much good. But they were nowhere close to coping with the scope of the problem. No one knew the basics: how many refugees were still arriving, where they were going, how many camps had sprung up and where they were located, how many people were dying, and from what. I talked one afternoon with the Red Cross’s chief delegate in the refugee-swamped province of Azerbaijan. I mentioned the fact that in at least some of the Iranian government-run camps, refugees were guarded by soldiers who seemed to treat them as prisoners. He demurred. “In the camps I have been in, I have seen them come and go as they please.” It turned out he had not been to any camps except the one operated by his own agency, and one or two others. “I don’t really have the time.”

What the international relief workers did know was enough to make them gloomily sure that things were going to get worse. In the only camps where medical teams had made a complete survey, the mortality rate among children was found to be four times the level considered “acceptable”: two deaths per 10,000 people per day. “The rate should stay the same for the next week or so, but because of food supplies being insufficient, it should rise after that,” said Dr. Bitar Dounia, the Medecins Sans Frontières epidemiologist who analyzed the survey results. “To what extent it will rise, I have no idea.”

The insufficiency of food is the heart of the problem. Foreign relief supplies, arriving in the regional capitals of western Iran, mostly by cargo planes, are not enough. By the third week of this crisis, an estimated 150 planes had landed, bringing 500 tons of food, blankets, medicine, and other supplies. But, said Pierre Sarant, chief field administrator in Azerbaijan for Medecins Sans Frontières, “This is not going to work. There are 500,000 refugees here. Under these circumstances, 500 tons is nothing. It is rain in the desert.”

Which brings the issue back to the Iranian government, whose resources in manpower and at least such basics as bread dwarfed that which the foreign relief agencies can bring to bear. From the beginning of the flood, the government, first in the form of the wholly controlled Iranian Red Crescent and then through the Interior Ministry, has insisted on handling all food distribution. Privately, Red Cross and other foreign relief workers complained that the government’s role seems to have focused on maintaining bureaucratic protocols and stockpiling food, rather than speeding it to the often remote refugee camps and border areas.

The Iranian government has contended that a modest Third World nation cannot be expected to do any better caring for such multitudes of guests. But a number of the international relief experts working with the Iranians said they did not believe a paucity of resources was the real reason why, for instance, the children in the Saqqez camp were being fed nothing but potatoes and bread, why they were being given drugs that had expired as long ago as 1964, why they had only eleven toilets for 5,000 people.

“The real truth,” said an angry Red Cross official, “is they don’t want these people here. They only want to give them just enough to survive and make them get the hell out of town and the hell out of the country.”

Which is why Majid Abdullah, sockless in the mud of Sardasht, is truly screwed. Because if you are an Iraqi Kurd in Iran, it may be some time before you can go home again.