The United Nations warned that a war in Iraq would produce up to 1 million refugees. Thanks to a quick coalition victory, however, the actual figure was in the low thousands. But numbers alone don't tell the whole story: For Iranian Kurds, the fall of Saddam has brought only the freedom to trade one barren, inhospitable refugee camp for another. Stuck in the desert between two international borders, they are the forgotten victims of three different wars. In a WORLD exclusive, Bob Jones reports from no man's land.
This is the camp no one wants to acknowledge, the one the world is not supposed to see. Reporters are not allowed to stop, and photography is "strictly forbidden," according to the police who watch night and day to ensure no one escapes. Even the location speaks volumes: a barren, windblown stretch of desert a mile and a half wide, between the borders of Iraq and Jordan. No one claims this land-or the more than 1,000 people gathered here.
Most of the refugees in no man's land are Iranian Kurds who lived nearly a quarter century in a filthy camp outside Baghdad. Then, in late April, they suddenly began showing up on the Jordanian border, some 350 miles away. Newspaper reports in Baghdad suggested refugees would be able to obtain Jordanian transit visas, yet when the Kurds arrived, they found the border closed. But only to them: Other refugees, mostly Africans and Palestinians, are ushered 60 miles inside Jordanian territory, where more professional, more permanent camps have been set up.
Out in no man's land, past the police barracks and the barbed wire that mark the limits of the Kingdom of Jordan, the Kurds are left mostly to fend for themselves. Three staffers from CARE, the giant international charity, are the only full-time workers to oversee a camp of 1,000. According to the camp's handwritten manifest, 480 of the refugees are children under the age of 18; 100 are less than 5 years old. And those numbers are growing by the day. Just an hour before WORLD arrived, six more families dragged into the camp in the midst of a rare desert hailstorm.
When the storm passes, children slip out of their tents to gather rainwater from dirty gullies. Women hurry to dunk their laundry into the muddy little pools before the water is swallowed up by the rocky earth. There's no plumbing here, so the nearest ditch is more convenient than the large metal water tanks at one end of the camp. But the rain is a mixed blessing at best, flooding the crowded tents where large families sleep on thin blue pads. Blankets and carpets are slung over the ropes that support the tents, but the sun is already low in the sky and there probably won't be time for the bedding to dry completely. For the new arrivals-as for everyone else here-it promises to be an uncomfortable night.
Still, the arrival of an American journalist at the forbidden camp has brightened their day more than the desert sun. While the women watch from a distance, men gather around talking excitedly. "You are the first journalist we have ever seen," says one young man in an old pinstriped suit coat. "Nobody knows we are here."
That's not exactly true, of course. The Jordanian government, the U.S. military, the UN, and the scores of charities temporarily based in Amman all know that the Kurds are just across the border. What nobody really knows is just what to do with them. The Kurds first fled their homeland in 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini established a Shiite dictatorship in Tehran. During the long Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, some of the exiles, adopting a vaguely Marxist philosophy and calling themselves the People's Mujahedeen, fought alongside Iraq in an effort to topple the Iranian government. Although the Pentagon and the People's Mujahedeen shared a common enemy in the Ayatollah Khomeini, they were never exactly allies, and, in the wake of 9/11, the Iranians found themselves on Washington's official list of terrorist organizations.
The Kurds flooding into no man's land insist they are democratic opponents of the Iranian regime, not Mujahedeen. And the Pentagon on April 16 reached a ceasefire agreement with the Mujahedeen still in Iraq, allowing them to continue their insurgency against Iran. Still, governments in the region are wary. Little Jordan, already awash in refugees, can ill afford to become the new base for the Iranian resistance movement, and it won't even allow Jordanian charities such as the Red Crescent Society to provide direct aid to the homeless Kurds.
The United Nations, meanwhile, seems to fundamentally misunderstand the Kurds' position. It has demanded that U.S. forces restore order so that the refugees can safely return to their home outside Baghdad. But that, according to the Iranians, is the last thing they want to do.
"Al Tash is not home. It is prison," says a man who identifies himself only as Khalid. Like many others in no man's land, he still fears the spies of the Iranian regime, though he's perhaps 1,000 miles from Tehran. An intense, bearded man in a white ski jacket interrupts with a tirade in Kurdish. Khalid interprets: His friend is 30 years old and has never been to school. Saddam wouldn't allow education, he says. For 23 years he has been a refugee. The Al Tash camp is all he can remember, but it was never home. Conditions there were terrible, even worse than no man's land. He'll never go back, he vows.
It's hard to see how anything could be worse than the current surroundings. There's no electricity, and outside many tents, little gas stoves sit unused for lack of fuel. Desert nights are cold, made all the worse by the constant winds roaring across the flat landscape. Food supplies are pitiful. The daily ration consists entirely of bread and hummus, a spread made from mashed chickpeas. Toilets are nothing more than holes dug in the ground. Green plastic sheets nailed to plywood frames provide a little privacy, but do nothing to improve sanitation or to contain the reek of sewage that pervades the camp.
Japanese volunteers provide medical help until 4 p.m., when they pack up and travel back to Jordan for the evening. When the doctors leave, overnight emergencies go mostly untended. Last night, a woman miscarried after her trip across the desert. And there are more common dangers after the sun goes down, as well: "Please mister," beseeches a skinny boy who can't be more than 14, "we have scorpions in our tents."
Although the Kurds came to the Jordanian border hoping for asylum in Europe or America, what they want more than anything is to return to Iran. "East or West, home is best," says another man who won't give his name. "The dictator of Iran is as bad as the dictator in Iraq. We wish to push them out so we can return home." He scoffs at recent overtures by the Iranian government, inviting refugees back into the country. "If we could return, if we thought it was safe, we wouldn't have stayed 23 years in Iraq," he says.
"All the countries in the world, they don't want us," says Khalid, summing up the hopelessness that hangs over the camp. "We don't want to stay here even for a week. Please inform humanitarian organizations of our condition. No one thinks of us here. America is a great power. Can the great power that defeated Saddam save us from this place?"