Going Half The Way Home

A frightened Kurdish family returns to Iraq

The scenes of chaos in the mountains of Turkey are drearily familiar now. Here, U.S. soldiers fight to keep Kurdish children from being crushed by hungry adults as they grasp for food. There, refugees open the valves of moving water tankers and spill the precious liquid on the ground. For Iraqi Kurds displaced by Saddam Hussein's troops during the recent rebellion, there is only one way out: a walk back over the mountains to where they came from. Turkey will not allow them to be bused or trucked home over its roads, despite the pleas of relief agencies. The American plan for resettling the Kurds inside northern Iraq therefore depends on the refugees' physical stamina-and on their trust that Saddam's forces will not renew their attacks.

Last week I joined some inhabitants of the refugee camp at Isikveren as they made their way home. Finally fortified with U.S.-supplied food, they began a slow march in chilly rain. It was no mass exodus. But the narrow paths bore a steady traffic up from the valley of Isikveren. Most were young men, sent ahead to test the waters. One kept shoving his heavy-laden donkey, occasionally calling it the worst name he could think of-. "Saddam." Some families made the march as well. On his back, Mohammad Samur, a driver from the Iraqi town of Dahuk, carried a huge roll made of all six of his family's blankets and the tarp that had been their roof this past month. Surrounding him were 10 of his children. The llth, seriously ill, nursed fitfully at his wife Shareen's breast. They were leaving a 12th child behind in a rough grave. At the top of the first crest they looked back at the camp far below, surrounded by white-capped mountains on four sides. Said Samur: "It's a beautiful place to die."

Just leaving the crude security of Isikveren was a big decision, but only one of several. Should they go all the way to the refugee camp set up by the Americans in the Iraqi valley of Zakhu? Or stay in the cold mountains, safe from Saddam? Should they go back to Dahuk, where their home has most likely been stripped clean by Iraqi soldiers? The Samurs had heard of Saddam's regional-autonomy deal with Kurdish leaders but weren't impressed. "I don't believe in any agreement with Saddam, Samur said. He also had heard that the Americans were promising protection at the new refugee camps in Iraq. "If the Americans tell us to go there, we'll go," he said. "We trust the Americans." But first he would have to think about it.

An afternoon's hard walk brought them to the far side of the mountains. They could look out over the Zakhu valley, perched on the edge of the plains of the Fertile Crescent. A team of French Army medics marched past, their friendly concern a hopeful omen after the harsh treatment from Turkish troops, who often barred sick people from camp hospitals and in several instances allegedly stole relief supplies. "It looks clean and safe,". said Shareen. Down the mountain, the family came to what has been dubbed Car City-a graveyard of vehicles abandoned by Kurds fleeing the marauding Iraqi Army. Cannibalized for spare parts, the cars are useless now. Another 25 miles of walking lay ahead, all downhill. But Samur finally decided not to go. Instead, like thousands of others, he camped in the hills, near a small French aid station. He wouldn't continue to the U.S.-built camp at Zakhu after all, even though he'd heard of a better hospital there. "I know it can't be worse than Isikveren," he said. "I'm ashamed of how we behaved like animals there. But until Saddam is gone from Iraq, Iraq is not for the Kurds." In his hometown of Dahuk, only 35 miles south of Zakhu, there were still Iraqi soldiers. Everyone expected Americans there by now. "It's not that we don't trust the Americans," Samur said, "but they don't know Saddam like the Kurds do."

The refrain was the same all along these trails. Many Kurds are only going partway back. Many more prefer the humiliations and privations of the camps in Turkey; at the weekend the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported only 65,000 returnees out of the million in the Turkish camps. Last week the allies extended their safe zone another 70 miles east of Zakhu. That should encourage repatriation. Still, the Kurds fear the Americans will leave soon-as indeed they have promised to do. "We need guarantees," Samur said. Until they feel they have them, Samur and people like him will remain hunkered down in these beautiful but brutal mountains.