Creating a 'mini-Kurdistan' by default, not design
Hell continues in the mountain camps of Kurdish refugees. At Isikveren, Rahim Safar picks his way through the fresh graves of children to speak to a visitor. Dozens still die there every night. "The Kurdish people need to live life safe," implores the 31-year-old engineer. It's basic hope, and behind it lies an ancient dream: the nation of Kurdistan. But such a place has never existed, and likely never will. There is no nation. There is only a Kurdish people and the land where they've always lived: a maze of boundaries. "A lot of people agree that the current borders are stupid," says an American diplomat who studies the Kurds. "But nobody is going to change them."
Just in the small valley where Zakhu lies, three countries divide the Kurds. To the north is Turkey. Until January the Kurdish language, even the word Kurd, in effect, was banned there. Its roads are still a gantlet of military checkpoints. Southwest is Syria, supportive of Kurdish rebels in other lands, ruthless with those in its own. Southeast is Iraq, still dominated by Saddam Hussein. "Many times he was about to fall. He came back up," says a despairing young refugee in the Isikveren camp. "Like a cat, he is hard to kill."
If the governments of the area were democracies, if they supported human rights and respected Kurdish culture, the Kurds themselves might feel no need for their own country. But in the real world, on any given day, the side of the line on which a Kurd was born can make the difference between living or dying. Last month's unprecedented exodus of 1.5 million from Iraq sprang from their panicked conviction that to remain within Baghdad's reach would be to invite extinction. "Saddam," says Abdel Karim Osmat, son of a Kurdish clan leader, "represents the nightmare of the Kurds." But he is only one of many.
Now to this valley of three frontiers, the United States and its allies have added a fourth. Kurds who fled to squalid mountainsides are supposed to find protection behind American and allied lines in an expanding haven carved out of northern Iraq. Privately, Western soldiers and experts already call it "mini-Kurdistan," but they know it's not going to survive.
President George Bush said last week that troops will stay "as long as it takes to ensure these refugees are taken care of, and not a minute longer." He was clearly anxious to get out: "I want these kids home, and so do the American people." The announcement of negotiations between Kurdish leaders and Saddam, along with the United Nations' decision to take over the enclave as soon as possible, raised expectations in Washington that President Bush may get his wish. In Zakhu it raised fears. "The United Nations come here?" asked one young resident, fiercely shaking his head. "We want Americans here." Without the strongest possible protection, the Kurds have every reason to believe their new safe haven could become a deadly trap.
The Baghdad talks were begun more out of desperation than hope. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani said afterward he had little choice. There was no international support for a Kurdish uprising. "We are alone," he told reporters. The Kurds will try to get solid guarantees. But Saddam has negotiated with them before, always under duress, never in good faith. In 1970 he concluded a sweeping autonomy accord. The next year he tried to assassinate the Kurdish leader who signed it. "I am very afraid," says a student in Zakhu, his chin trembling as he struggles to express himself in English. "You in Iraq. No in America. No in Europe."
The difference is obvious, but critical. Saddam's regime is totalitarian, its tools of coercion pervasive--a point apparently lost on American generals last week when they initially allowed him to replace his troops with "police."
With his Army battered by Desert Storm, in fact, the Iraqi dictator's hopes for long-term control lie more with his spies than with his soldiers. Terror works in subtle ways that Western forces can do little to counter. "In Iraq we are used to seeing dirty games," says Osmat. Members of Kurdish clans are drafted into the security forces or the Army where they are under Baghdad's direct control: virtual hostages. Meanwhile their vulnerable families become suspect in the eyes of fellow Kurds. When Fouad Ali, 19, returned from the mountains with his uncle last month he was jubilant to find Western forces in town. To see an American helicopter in Zakhu, "it's like seeing the sun," he says. But Saddam's agents took down the license number of his car. Later they questioned him about where he had been, what he had seen.
American and European officials, scrambling from day to day to address the countless problems of the enclave, have decided the only way to coax the Kurds down from the mountains and administer the camps effectively is to give them authority over their own lives-including internal security. Clan leaders and Kurdish guerrillas are expected to root out informers and contain the few dozen Iraqi police allowed by the allies to remain. "They'll police themselves. The Kurds will hold together," says Fred Cuny, a consultant with the Agency for International Development in the haven. So for a moment, and by default rather than design, the Kurds around Zakhu will have a chance to live a piece of their dream. Still, the nightmare will never be far away.