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Refugees of last Gulf War fearful of chemical attacks; few fleeing now

DARA TOO, Iraq—This is where they came, with their sores and ulcers and nightmares. The wretched refuse of Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks arrived on this muddy, treeless plain in northern Iraq 15 years ago. They built an ugly little village and named it, oddly, Blackberry Bush.

Now they're on the move again, fearful of more gas attacks. Tens of thousands of Kurds have fled their cities and villages, making ghost towns out of places such as Dara Too, in order to find shelter in the hills and hollows of Iraq's northern mountains. The folk wisdom here says this: The mountains are the Kurds' best friend.

In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, 1.8 million Iraqi refugees fled the country, most of them crossing the western desert into Jordan or the northern mountains into Turkey.

In this war, aid agencies have been preparing for another, smaller human wave, about 600,000 in all.

But the refugee tents and border camps are empty. Not one Iraqi refugee has crossed into Jordan or Turkey, even as the war is about to enter its second week.

Iraqis are staying put and hunkering down in their own country.

In the south, virtually no refugees have arrived at the border with southwestern Iran, the region the U.N. refugee agency predicted would receive the largest number of refugees during this war.

Western aid workers say there could be several reasons that people haven't fled the fighting: Iraqi forces are preventing them from leaving, the fighting hasn't gotten bad enough to force them to flee across the war zone and Americans have handed out pamphlets in Basra and other areas telling them to stay put, that food and help were on the way.

In the north, as well, Iraqis simply aren't leaving the country.

The Tehran, Iran, office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said 22,000 people, mostly Kurds, were camped out in Penjwin, east of the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, on the Iraqi side of the border in the north.

In 1991, the best way for the refugees to guarantee their safety was to go to Turkey, but now there's a safe zone in Iraq.

That zone is Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region in northeastern Iraq that's beyond the control of the Baghdad government and military.

The people on the move in Kurdistan are not, officially, refugees. Instead, they're known to the international aid bureaucracy as IDPs, internally displaced persons.

A Human Rights Watch team in Kurdistan said the Kurdish government, U.N. agencies and international relief organizations were badly unprepared for large movements of displaced people. At three tent sites intended to accommodate more than 10,000 people, only 100 tents had been up.

Several families, including 49 children, are riding out the war in nine canvas tents they've pitched on a steep hillside east of the Kurdish capital of Irbil. They pooled their life's savings to rent the tents, along with generators and kerosene heaters.

They arrived 10 days ago, and at first it was like a big picnic. They even brought along their backyard chickens, to save them from being gassed.

"But when darkness fell the first night, the kids began crying," said Kamaram Aziz, who works in Irbil as a home builder. "They have nightmares. They jump at the smallest sounds, even when a dog barks."

Many of the kids are sick now. The men aren't working, the women are overstressed and the families are running low on clean water. To keep warm, they've been setting fire to huge truck tires outside.

They do have one luxury: a satellite dish. They get 500 channels, available in all nine tents, and they anxiously watch news of the war on Kuwaiti channels until 4 in the morning.

"We won't leave these tents and return home until Saddam falls," Aziz said. "We know best of all what he's capable of. Chemicals have already been tried on us, at Halabja."

Every Kurd, even the kids, knows about the chemical massacre at Halabja. Saddam's use of what they call "the powder" killed 5,000 people there in 1988 and left countless others with burns and sores that still haven't healed. Halabja was part of the notorious Anfal campaign of persecution that flattened thousands of Kurdish villages.

"I was 13 years old when I arrived here, and I was psychologically ruined," said Latif Rahman Ibrahim, 25, a graduate student, whose family fled to Dara Too from a village near Kirkuk. "I had terrible nightmares. Imagine seeing your home destroyed by bulldozers right in front of you."

Ibrahim's youngest brother was born two hours before Saddam's men knocked down the family home. His father named the baby boy Awara. Refugee.

"When Saddam is gone and we can go back to our home village, we're going to legally change my brother's name," Ibrahim said. "He's going to be named Azad."



(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Daniel Rubin in Turkey and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Iran contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+REFUGEES