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Forced from homes 2 decades ago, Kurds return to displace Arabs

KIRKUK, Iraq—Fatihiyah Amin was forced off her little farm 20 years ago by Saddam Hussein's goons, and now she's oh-so-close to reclaiming what she calls "the beautiful pleasures"—tending her sweet-faced sheep, the smell of young barley and new-mown hay, the green of a Kurdish spring, the tang of her own yogurt and goat cheese.

She's almost home, but not yet.

For now, Amin, mother to eight children whose husband was murdered, is living in the press box of a crumbling soccer stadium. For now, it's all she has.

Amin's little village outside Kirkuk suffered the fate of so many others in northern Iraq during the 1980s: Saddam's henchmen simply arrived one morning, loaded all the Kurdish families onto trucks, then turned over their farms, livestock and personal belongings to Arab settlers.

It was called Arabization, and everything Kurdish was forfeit, from tractors and hay rakes to bed linens and baby cribs. Several hundred thousand Kurdish villagers were shot, hanged, buried alive, or left to wander Iraq as internal refugees.

Now the Kurds are reversing the process, often with a vengeance. Encouraged and sometimes financed by aggressive Kurdish political parties, they're chucking out the Arab settlers and taking back their farms, sometimes at the point of a Kalashnikov.

"It's not a surprise that so many Kurds are moving back," said Paul Harvey, the coordinator in Kirkuk for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which runs Iraq until June 30. "They have every right to do so. It's a frontier spirit here. This is their land and they're rebuilding."

Ismael Shukir, a professor of Kurdish history, said most Arabs in the region "know very well that they took these lands illegally."

"Look at the cemeteries around Kirkuk and you'll see no Arabs buried there. They take their dead back to their home villages in the south.

"This is Kurdish land. The Arabs are occupiers."

Not everyone is so categorical about it.

"An Arab family living in Kirkuk 20 years can't just be kicked out so easily," said Tahssin Kahya, an ethnic Turkoman who heads the Kirkuk city council. "Yes, the Arabs were brought here by the old regime, but they've also became part of Kirkuk."

The payback by the Kurds has been chaotic, angry and ugly, and it has clearly raised the heat in multi-ethnic Kirkuk to the boiling point.

The coalition has installed procedures for reclaiming land and securing a legal title to it, but the procedures have been slow to take root. Still, Harvey is confident the process will work after the June 30 handover, mostly because it has to. He said the peaceful resolution of land disputes was "absolutely crucial" to defusing Arab-Kurd tensions.

Meanwhile, Kurds continue to pour into Kirkuk, and most of them, like Fatihiyah Amin, have no place to stay. Countless families are jammed into the stadium's old dressing rooms, ticket booths and concession stands. All around the stadium, squalid squatter's villages—mostly tents and mud huts—grow larger by the day.

Saddam's regime bulldozed many Kurdish settlements during the 1980s, so great numbers of returnees are returning to their former villages to find, well, no village at all.

The places that weren't demolished were given over to Arab settlers, who prospered on the land. Backed by cheap loans from Baghdad, they had access to fertilizer, hybrid seeds, modern sprinkler systems, and new tractors and harvesters.

But after liberation last year, as the Arab settlers fled the north, many of them torched their dwellings and barns rather than let the Kurds re-take them. They took the glass out of the window frames and the doors out of their jambs. They carted off water pumps, firewood, floor tiles, even the light bulbs.

That's what Hawer Omar found when he arrived at his family's farm in the village of Shergaran after 20 years of forced exile. The Arab settlers in his house had fled to Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, but not before they had stripped the place bare. Still, it was springtime, and the fields were ripe with corn and barley.

As a conciliatory gesture, the U.S. military insisted that Omar split the harvest with the Arabs who had planted it. American soldiers in six Humvees oversaw the tense exchange.

"The Arabs came with their trucks and I gave them their share, but I didn't want to," said Omar, 27, a carpenter by trade. "I was very upset. I spoke angrily. It wasn't a friendly encounter."

The Arabs called the village Al Quds, or Jerusalem, but the returning Kurds quickly restored the original name, Shergaran. And the flattering portraits of Saddam along the town's single street have been replaced with reminders to "Keep Your City Clean."

The town manager, Lakhman Hussein, said 600 Kurds had come back to Shergaran so far, about one-fourth the expected population. He said Arab newcomers are not welcome.

"We won't accept any Arabs here," he said. "They can come as guests, but not to settle. We sacrificed so many martyrs for this land. This land is our land."

Amin's husband might be counted as one of those. He disappeared into the clutches of the regime on March 16, 1987, and she and her kids were taken to a treeless plain in northeast Iraq.

"It was a desert," she said. "There was nothing between us and the sun for four months."

Eventually they made their way south to Ramadi, where for 10 years she tended goats for a wealthy Arab family.

After Saddam was toppled, she inched her way back to Kirkuk. Her village of Turkeshkan is gone, demolished flat, so she's waiting for government compensation so she can rebuild.

Meanwhile, to make bread, Amin, now 67, has rigged up a small stove in the hallway outside the stadium's third-floor press box. She carries her drinking water up 69 steps, bucket by bucket, from a communal spigot. A tiny kerosene samovar provides tea for visitors.

"I have been a refugee most of my life," she said, but there wasn't a trace of anger, complaint or bitterness in her voice.

Then she shrugged, smiled, and said, "More tea?"


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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


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