'A Kinder, Gentler Quagmire'

In Kurdistan, too many refugees are coming back

Tent City was built as a model camp for Kurdish refugees returning to northern Iraq. Barely a month old, it is becoming grossly overcrowded, and its 60,000 new residents are getting restless. When the United Nations flag was raised at the camp for the first time last week, the Kurds boycotted the ceremony. Instead they staged a demonstration, calling on U.S. troops to stay. Then the demonstration moved into Zakhu and turned violent. American military police, still there, had to put down a near riot.

Some of the assembled dignitaries at the ceremony were holding their breath-but not out of worry. The flagpole was erected on a rise used as an open-air latrine by a population still suffering epidemic diarrhea. Kurds, it turns out, object to sharing toilet facilities among families. A crash program to build 10,000 individual privies was just getting underway.

Every day in Iraqi Kurdistan seems to bring a new setback. Long-term objectives are compromised. Short-term solutions go awry. The Bush administration's central aim was to create a security zone that would lure refugees down from the Turkish mountains where they were freezing and starving to death. Then American forces would pull out, giving the job of running the camps and policing the region to the United Nations and civilian organizations. At first the Kurds refused to come. Then they decided to trek back en masse. "We're suffering a little bit from our success," says U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John Shalikashvili, commander of the allies' Operation Provide Comfort. "None of us realized that the Kurds would vote with their feet in the numbers they have." Meanwhile the world supply of tents has dried up, thanks to other crises in Bangladesh and Africa.

The medical condition of many of the refugees, especially the children, actually has worsened since their return. Many are coming down from the mountains "on death's door" says British Royal Marines surgeon Lt. Frank O'Kelly. An outbreak of some mysterious disease afflicted 25 children last week. They were hospitalized in Zakhu, but 20 of them died.

Fred Cuny, a U.S. AID consultant who is a veteran of 68 disaster relief operations, calls the situation "controlled chaos-but chaos." By the end of last week there were still 168,000 refugees on the Turkish side of the frontier, streaming down at the rate of more than 20,000 a day. If 120,000 more in the Cukurca camp on the border start to descend on Zakhu, "we just don't have the resources to cope," says Cuny.

Matters could get still worse. A million refugees are in Iran. Last week French troops in the eastern end of the security zone reported up to 4,000 refugees a day returning, many of them bound for the already crowded camps near Zakhu and Cegova. United Nations special envoy Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan warned, meanwhile, that postwar conditions in Iraq proper are so bad that a new exodus could begin. Already, a trickle from cities south of the zone has started flowing north.

The biggest problem of the moment centers on Dahuk, just a few miles outside the security zone. Most of the remaining refugees in Turkey are from that area, but they are afraid to go back without allied protection. Late last week the Iraqi military evacuated the city after burning its headquarters and blowing up several neighborhoods. But Iraqi police remain, and the refugees show no inclination to enter the city without U.S. soldiers at their side. In Baghdad, Kurdish leaders said last week they were on the brink of a peace and autonomy deal with Saddam Hussein, but in the camps few put faith in his promises.

So each day thousands of makeshift shelters are sprouting in northern Iraq's fields of ripening wheat, and each one that goes up makes it harder for the United States to get out. "The more we build camps, the longer we're going to be engaged here," says Cuny. As relief workers try to plan for future problems, an air of permanence is settling over the operation. One U.N. official warns that if the Kurds have to winter in the camps, preparations must begin in July. "The American public and coalition forces have to come to terms with the fact at unless there's a change in the regime in Baghdad, coalition forces will have to be here for a long time," says Mark Gorman of the International Rescue Committee. U.S. forces are scouting winter sites, just in case. "You might say this is a kinder, gentler quagmire," quips one U.S. official on the scene. But that's little solace to the Kurds-or to anyone else.