Kurds Stuck in No-Man’s Land

RUWEISHID REFUGEE CAMP – A small stretch of desert, sandwiched between the borders of Jordan and Iraq, is a "no-man’s land," created by the Iraqi government’s decision to cede part of its western frontier to Jordan. It has become a place where refugees from the war in Iraq bide their time, desperate for resettlement.

For many, it all started when refugees from the Kurdish region inside Iran’s border fled their homes in 1979, after the Islamic revolution, and initially found a relative haven in Kellar in northern Iraq.

Not all were civilians fleeing government repression. Some sympathized with the separatist Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, and some are believed to have been involved with the PKK in Iran. Fearing reprisals from Iranian agents for their actions or association, many were resettled to al-Tash camp, outside Ramadi, Iraq, in 1982.

Azad Gvanmiri described some of the refugees for IPS: "We are a group of neighbors and supporters of Iranian organizations and parties against Iran. We have been refugees for 27 years, and one year and six months ago we left, because of our fear of being attacked by the Islamic regime of Iran."

Sadr, an Iranian Kurd refugee who successfully made it to Jordan in 2003, recalled life in the al-Tash camp: "The population of the camp was more than 10,000 people, and the camp was surrounded by barbed wire. The Iraqi government gave us ID cards on which was written, you don’t have the right to go outside Ramadi city. During all these years we had no facilities, formal schools, or health services. And unfortunately, no organization helped us."

As the war progressed, many of them fled Iraq and were given refuge inside Jordan, at the Ruweishid refugee camp, where they await resettlement in other countries.

Those who remained have not been so lucky. After the United States’ second assault on Fallujah in 2004, life became very hard in that area of al-Anbar province in western Iraq.

In January 2005 around 200 of the Iranian Kurds in the Al-Tash camp left Iraq, hoping to find refuge with their friends and relatives in Jordan.

The Jordanian government refused entrance however, feeling it had already reached its top capacity for admitting refugees from Iraq. Palestinians have also been denied entrance in recent months, and have opted for Syria instead.

The Kurds were able to leave Iraq, but found themselves stranded in this border region, known locally as no-man’s land.

Khabat Muhammadi is only 20 years old, but his colleagues have described him as a leader and spokesman for the residents of the camp. "On Jan. 11, we left the camp to meet the UNHCR [United Nations refugee agency]. They didn’t receive us, and we had no food, there was bad weather, and many problems," he told IPS in an interview.

Nearly a year and a half later, they are still waiting for a chance to find a peaceful existence away from the war and turmoil of Iraq and their homeland.

Each day, the camp’s children – who make up about half the population – go to the Amman-Baghdad highway to beg for water and food from the constant stream of truck drivers traveling between the two countries.

The camp has tried to send adults for this task, but found the truck drivers only seemed to show sympathy toward the children.

"When I wake up, I go beside the Iraqi trucks with a jerry can for water and reach out my hands for water, but they won’t give me even a little for drinking," Gvanmiri said.

The children don’t always wait to ask, and simply take water or fuel from the trucks. "Many times the children took water without asking, and sometimes the truck drivers have beaten or punished them," said Muhammadi.

The children in the No-Man’s Land camp are a ubiquitous presence. Fifty-one percent of the camp’s members are under 18, and more are on the way. There have been seven births in the camp. One of these children was stillborn, due to the mother suffering bleeding during the birth.

The UNHCR has made repeated contacts with the camp in an attempt to solve the impasse over the refugees, but they have failed to devise a solution the refugees themselves consider acceptable.

Just this week a representative from the UNHCR and the Kurdistan regional government visited the No-Man’s Land camp to again broach the offer of resettlement in northern Iraq. The refugees refused.

Many remember family members who were hunted down in Kurdistan by agents of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. "I was three months old when the Khomeini regime killed my father in Suleimaniyah. Iran killed him in 1986," said a man giving his name as Barzan.

The UNHCR did not return IPS’ e-mails seeking information about the refugees in the No-Man’s Land camp. According to the Iranian Kurds, the UNHCR is treating this as a problem of economic refugees, but they stress that they are political refugees.

"We named our camp the Orphans of the International Community Camp," said Gvanmiri. "We want our rights, we cannot live in Iraq after 27 years with no legal rights or identity, because we are the victims. Our problem is not starvation, our problem is a political problem. We are human and we should live as all the humans in the world."

The refugees are running out of options. They have issued a threat to begin a hunger strike if the Jordanian government continues to refuse them safe haven, and if the UNHCR fails to intervene on their behalf.

Barzan explained that their lives are becoming very desperate. "The situation is very hard, and we need water. Yesterday, a 5-year-old girl was burned by a campfire. Our situation is very bad; our babies are begging for food and water."

Khabat Muhammadi says he will not accept silence from the UNHCR and the Jordanian government. "On May 2, we held a peaceful demonstration, but they didn’t answer us. We told them if you do not support our human rights within the next days, we will begin a hunger strike in front of the UNHCR. We cannot live in this situation – it’s like a prison now. We cannot live another 27 years in No-Man’s Land."

Azad Gvanmiri notes a personal irony in his condition as a refugee: "My name in English means ‘free,’ but unfortunately I am not free. I am between two countries, but they refuse us; they will not allow us into Jordan. The UNHCR told us it is not their problem, it is up to Jordan, but the Jordanian government told us it is UNHCR’s problem."

Barzan hopes members of the international community will come to see their situation and tell others, "Second by second, we are suffering. We have a very good story, and you should come to see it, with your own eyes."