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WAR WITH IRAQ / THE NORTHERN FRONT

Kurds Face Struggle of Survival After Fleeing Threat of Hussein

Refugees huddle in tents and trucks in northern Iraq, hoping the government soon falls and they can return home.

March 27, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

BAQREN, Iraq — Kurds call it the rashaba, the black storm whose howling wind and driving rain tear at the flimsy plastic walls of refugees' tents on this muddy hillside.

For two days and nights, a torrent of rain and sleet that pricks like millions of tiny needles has made life even more miserable for more than 150 refugees living in seven trucks and 10 makeshift tents. After sunset, the temperature dips to near-freezing.

"Last night was just like hell," said Uthman Esmail, 39, as his barefoot children huddled against the cold in a shelter made of plastic tarps. "Our kids were really afraid, crying, because they didn't know it was just a storm. The wind ripped one of the plastic sheets off, but we were able to fix it temporarily."

At noon Wednesday, it was 38 degrees outside Esmail's tent, where 10 people from two families have been living for more than a week. The youngest is 7 months old; the oldest is a 55-year-old grandmother.

One of Esmail's children and two others in the next tent have been admitted to a hospital, feverish and vomiting. Yet the families are too afraid to join the thousands of Kurds and other Iraqi refugees who have returned to their homes in recent days.

They are convinced that the relative peace in most of northern Iraq is a mirage, and that the ground war is coming soon. They're determined to stay put on this hillside until it is over, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime is dead.

They know Hussein's cruelty too well to take a chance on this war being any different. Each family in the Baqren camp has a story of seeing relatives and friends die in the exodus that followed the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iraqi forces crushed a Kurdish uprising.

Zirar Ismael still has a deep scar on his leg from a land mine that exploded on April 7, 1991, when he was gathering firewood after fleeing to Azadi, a town on the border with Turkey. The blast killed Ismael's 2-year-old son, Dorbaz, who died in his father's arms.

A month ago, Ismael's wife, Fatima, gave birth by caesarean section to their seventh child. After a week in the small tent, her wound was badly infected. Now, she is in the hospital, and Ismael cares for the children.

The few proper emergency shelters set up in schools and community centers in the north have taken in 16,497 people this month. But the number is only a small portion of those displaced by war and fear, said Barzan Omer, manager of the regional government's emergency center in the city of Irbil.

Hundreds of thousands of Kurds and other northern Iraqis abandoned their homes in the first days of the war. But when the chemical attack they feared didn't happen, many returned home. Others are living in villages with relatives, or renting houses in areas where they feel safer.

Hundreds others remain in makeshift camps. And while their suffering isn't on the scale of a catastrophe, aid workers warn that one could come with any U.S.-led ground offensive.

"Mostly, people are suffering from the cold," said Parwin Aziz, who works with HelpAge, a British agency that deals with the elderly. "The urgent things we need are tents and kerosene. People were expecting the war to be short. They took limited supplies, but now it looks like the war will go on for much longer."

Although the U.S. military presence in northern Iraq is still relatively small, some Kurdish officials say privately they expect a ground assault on Iraqi forces in the region to begin in a few days.

"And then all will flee again," Omer said. "But this time, they won't have fuel" for their cars and trucks. The war has created severe shortages of gas, diesel and kerosene in parts of the north -- in a country with the world's second-largest reserves of oil.

In a small hint of the panic that may be coming, Omer said hundreds of Kurdish villagers in the Qushtapa district abandoned their homes Monday after Iraqi troops fired artillery shells at them for an hour.

Most of the displaced people have been forced to survive on their wits. Aid agencies have not distributed tents because the 2,000 they have in storage are reserved for any exodus from the Iraqi-held cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, Omer said.

Esmail made his tent with supplies he bought at Irbil's bazaar. He tied transparent green tarps to a frame of steel rods normally used to reinforce concrete. A truck battery powers a single fluorescent tube dangling from the ceiling.

The families' portable radio can't pick up a single station in the mountainous area, so they don't hear news of the war and can only imagine what may be coming their way. They expect the worst.

Mohammed Aulla Hawad brought 15 people from two families to the hillside camp in the back of a 16-ton, 10-wheeler Scania truck eight days ago. They have been living in the vehicle ever since.

The entrance to the truck is covered with a canopy of blue plastic. A ladder of welded steel rods serves as the steps. Blankets, pillows and mats are piled almost to the truck's ceiling during the day.

The families pass the hours leaning against the cold steel walls, with only a small kerosene stove for heat. Their supply of now-costly kerosene is about to run out.

His youngest child, Abdul Malik, is only 6 months old. The child lies in a wooden cradle, tightly bundled in several thin blankets. His 2-year-old brother, Abdul Aziz, wanders about in gray woolen socks with gaping holes in the bottom.

The toddler is wrapped in a mud-smeared winter coat, which has a patch on the front that shows an airplane encircled by the words "airwave assignment."

*

Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, contributed to this report.

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