Kurdish Refugees: ‘We’re Not Living, Just Not Dying’

SULEYMANIYA, Iraq – Compared to most internally displaced Kurds in northern Iraq, Shamal Qadir is almost lucky. Since the Turkish army devastated his village, Kuzine, in a bombing raid Jul. 1, he’s been living in a schoolhouse, where room temperatures are comfortable and basic amenities are accessible.

"Our family bought land and started building houses in Kuzine in 1996. We did it for our children, so they’d have a place to live in the future," Qadir tells IPS. "Now, our dreams have been destroyed." 

Qadir is one of roughly 6,500 people who have been driven from their homes by Turkish and Iranian bombings of Kurdish border villages in northern Iraq since May 24. About two-thirds of the displaced are currently living in dusty tent camps scattered across barren mountain ranges, their essential needs barely being met by international aid agencies and local authorities. 

"We’re frightened people will die here during the Ramadan fast because conditions are so poor," explains Halima Ismail, a woman living in Doli Sahidan internally-displaced persons (IDP) camp near Sangasar town. 

"I had only the clothes on my body when I fled," Doli Sahidan resident Sham Ahmet-Ahmet, 92, says. "We slept in the open air for several days until aid agencies brought us tents." 

The UN refugee agency office in the northern Iraqi city of Suleymaniya says the approximately 500 families living in Doli Sahidan may be forced to move again in three months, after a nearby river rises with autumn rains. 

People living in the IDP camps complain of insufficient aid, health problems, intense summer heat, and difficulty in accessing electricity. Many are facing economic catastrophe, as they have been forced off their lands at the start of the planting season they depend on for income. 

"Our fields, crops, and vineyards have all been burned by the bombings," Abdullah, a man living in Gojar IDP camp near Qaladza town, tells IPS. "We can’t make money here. This isn’t life — we’re not living, just not dying." 

Red Cross officials in Suleymaniya say there is currently no acute humanitarian crisis in the camps. However, they add that there is a medium- term threat that health conditions could deteriorate due to a lack of proper toilet facilities and problems with waste disposal. 

And there are the attacks. At least two children have been killed and several civilians injured as a result of the recent bombings. 

Turkey says its attacks are aimed at the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the leftist insurgency that demands greater rights and freedoms for the country’s Kurds. Turkey has been bombing northern Iraq periodically since 1983, the year before the PKK formally began its military campaign against the Turkish state. 

For its part, Iran asserts that its cross-border shelling targets the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), an armed organization of Iranian Kurds closely connected to the PKK ideologically and logistically. 

In 2007, the Bush administration deemed the PKK a ”common enemy” of Washington, Ankara, and Baghdad. The U.S. government subsequently began to provide Turkey with actionable intelligence concerning PKK positions across the border. Since then, Turkey and Iran have been jointly bombing and shelling Kurdish villages close to their respective boundaries with Iraq. 

"When they (Iran) start an operation, we do too," current Turkish Chief of General Staff Ilker Basbug remarked in 2008. "They carry out an operation from the Iranian side of the border, we from the Turkish side." 

"I do not believe these sorts of raids do serious damage to the PKK — neither in terms of their ability to stage cross-border attacks, maintain themselves in northern Iraq, nor in attracting new recruits," Aliza Marcus, author of Blood and Belief, a major history of the PKK, tells IPS. "Rebels are rarely killed because the geography is so brutal that it is very hard for Turkish planes to hit them." 

Local villagers and aid agencies active in the area report that current Turkish- Iranian bombings are more intense and happening closer to civilian settlements than they have been in recent years. The escalation may reflect the early stages of a developing larger-scale assault on Kurdish rebel bases in the Qandil mountain area. 

The Turkish government recently announced plans to dispatch a new, professionalized ‘special army’ to fight the PKK along the Iraqi border and to build 150 new military outposts in the area. The U.S. has also started opening wider swathes of Iraqi airspace to facilitate Turkish attacks on the PKK. 

"We are looking at additional ways that we can provide assistance to Turkey, including weapons platforms," outgoing U.S. ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey recently said. "We are basically trying to get as much as possible for Turkey, as quickly as possible." 

The PKK canceled its latest unilateral cease fire on Jun. 1, and has been periodically attacking Turkish military positions since. 

"Since 1993, we’ve announced six unilateral cease fires and searched for a peaceful, democratic solution to the Kurdish issue within Turkey’s borders," PKK spokesman Ahmed Deniz tells IPS in an interview near rebel hideouts in Qandil mountain. "The other side doesn’t have such a project, and hasn’t taken any steps yet. 

"Turkish military operations have never stopped. In the first month and a half that followed our last cease fire announcement of Apr. 13 2009, more than 130 of our friends were martyred." 

On Apr. 14 2009, the Turkish government began a series of arrest operations that has led to the imprisonment of between roughly 840 and 1,600 Kurdish political activists, among them elected mayors from the leftist and pro- Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), and renowned human rights activists. 

"Kurds are under attack in all areas. We can’t tie our hands and wait for our death We have to exercise our right to defend ourselves, because all doors (to a solution) have been closed," Deniz tells IPS. 

"Like all peoples, we want to freely speak our language and develop our culture. We want our most natural rights to be respected — it’s that simple."

(Inter Press Service)