Cover Story

The Kurds' new day

Day 1 of their longed-for liberation coincided with an annual spring festival that marks a tyrant's overthrow: Will history repeat?

Issue: "Army of compassion," April 5, 2003

Residents of northern Iraq celebrate the new year on the first day of spring in a folk festival called Nawroz, or "new day." Tradition dictates elaborate picnics and bonfires at night to mark a legendary event several millennia old, a day of liberation when a blacksmith cut off the head of a tyrant named King Dhahak.

Last week the festival arrived less than 24 hours after a decapitating strike to the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad. Most Kurds of northern Iraq emptied their cities and towns in orderly fashion, choosing picnic sites along northern hillsides for camping out in the opening days of battle. They packed the traditional Nawroz feast. Most also brought along a Kalashnikov.

"It's all about fear and deja vu all over again," quipped an American traveling among the camper evacuees, who asked not to be identified. Iraqis who survived previous wars and chemical attacks have a long memory: destitution, homelessness, and hunger in the past characterized their struggle to survive in these hillsides before finding hostile refuge in nearby Iran or Turkey.

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Now things are different. Since the 1991 Gulf War the region is running for the most part independent of Baghdad, with a bubbling economy and growing cross-border transactions with Turkey and Iran. So residents have more to lose.

But they are also better prepared. United Nations workers distributed several months' worth of food rations before evacuating the region earlier this month. Residents who fled homes last week took along TV antennas and satellite dishes. That's an improvement over rumor, hearsay, and shortwave radio transmissions that were the only means of communication a decade ago.

Although about half of Dohuk's 200,000 residents evacuated, the city's main supermarket, a new slick Wal-Mart wannabe called Mazimart, remained open. The largest hotel, a boxy high-rise overlooking the city, continued functioning, if at half capacity.

Residents of Irbil, a city of 700,000, left their homes in the opening hours of the war, but many returned a few days later even as U.S. air strikes hit nearby Mosul and Kirkuk. The precision of U.S. air attacks, together with better communication, boosted confidence that they could stay. That confidence grew when a U.S. officer walked into the regional government headquarters just outside Irbil on March 24 and calmly announced, "The United States is here."

U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Pete Osman gave reporters and local government officials a brief outline of the U.S. military's plan to administer humanitarian programs. Across Iraq, areas secured by U.S. fighting forces are quickly getting about the work of returning to normal life with the help of those same forces. U.S. soldiers will administer humanitarian programs until the country is safe enough for civilian groups to enter.

The first shipments of the "massive amounts of humanitarian aid" President Bush promised were expected to be routed through the port of Umm Qasr and overland via Kuwait.

Already a shipment of 50,000 metric tons of wheat is on its way, according to an announcement from USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development)-the first in a pledge of up to 600,000 metric tons of food supplies from the United States. Six merchant vessels that carried military supplies from Britain sat anchored in the Persian Gulf, waiting to be loaded with food and necessities for delivery through Umm Qasr. Iraqi resistance, however, could delay the resupplies from reaching their destinations inside the country.

Red Cross and other private organizations, with the UN, readied medicine, food, and camps at the Iraqi borders for up to 1 million refugees. Flights by the UN from Cyprus to countries bordering Iraq last week brought shipments of refugee camp materials like blankets, plastic, and construction supplies. With up to half a million Iraqis reportedly out of their homes, few were seeking to get out of the country last week.

How U.S. forces open the spigot to allow in these outside efforts will be a challenge. Donor countries poised at the border include many that sided with Saddam Hussein in opposing U.S. military intervention.

Kremlin officials announced they had transported four planeloads of cargo to Iran to set up a refugee camp. At the same time, the White House announced it had "credible evidence" Russia had sold to Iraq sensitive military equipment-including satellite jamming devices and night-vision goggles-in violation of UN sanctions. The equipment was stowed in humanitarian supplies imported under the UN Oil for Food Program, throwing open to speculation what all might be in the latest Russian charity shipments.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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