Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (Focus : 1996 in review) - More turmoil in northern Iraq

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1996

September was a tumultuous month in northern Iraq. Dramatic events heightened international tensions and brought the situation in northern Iraq squarely back on to the international agenda. Renewed fighting forced some 65,000 people to seek refuge in Iran.

By Rupert Colville

September was a tumultuous month in northern Iraq. On the last day of August the people of the Kurdish-administered region awoke to news that the main city of Erbil had been seized by forces of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) backed by Iraqi government troops. The surprise attack came as the representatives from the KDP and its long term rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), were involved in American-sponsored peace talks in London. The KDP justified its action by saying that it was responding to a buildup of Iranian forces in the region. Both Iran and the PUK denied such allegations.

Over the next week, the KDP consolidated its position and on 9 September seized Sulaimaniyah, the PUK's main stronghold near the Iranian border this time without the help of mainstream Iraqi forces.

The PUK, written off by many as it withdrew in disarray to the Iranian border, suddenly rose from the dead and recaptured Sulaimaniyah on 12 October without a fight. In what looked increasingly like the mirror image of the KDP's lightning advances a month earlier, the PUK immediately began fighting its way north towards Erbil, threatening to win back everything it had lost. However, by early November, the situation in northern Iraq appeared to have stabilized, with the KDP still in control of Erbil and the PUK reinstalled in Sulaimaniyah (in other words the two parties had more or less returned to their positions before May 1994 when the PUK originally captured Erbil from the KDP).

A cease-fire was soon reached between the KDP and the PUK. Unfortunately, a great deal of humanitarian damage had been done in the meantime. Some 65,000 new Iraqi Kurd refugees took shelter in Iran. Operation Provide Comfort, the air umbrella to protect the Kurds, was undermined and the international network of aid and development programmes was severely damaged.

The refugees fled in two separate waves. While the fall of Erbil had produced very little displacement, during the KDP capture of Sulaimaniyah an estimated 75,000 people headed down the road towards the Iranian border in scenes disturbingly reminiscent of the huge 1991 displacement of close to 2 million northern Iraqi Kurds.

Fortunately, once word spread that hardly a shot had been fired in Sulaimaniyah, many of those who felt they had nothing in particular to fear from the new KDP regime started returning, thereby averting a large-scale emergency. In the end, 42,000 people actually crossed into Iran over the next week or so, with a few thousand remaining displaced on the Iraqi side of the border. Most of the rest were back in their homes in Sulaimaniyah within two or three days.

While most refugees said they had left because of fears about what might happen in Iraq, some of those who did in the end cross the border, did so almost arbitrarily: one group told a UNHCR team surveying the main border crossing points that their main reason for entering Iran was they did not have enough fuel in their vehicles to return to Sulaimaniyah.

The second wave of refugees, who took the total of new arrivals up to some 65,000, entered Iran as a result of the second round of fighting. Even though Sulaimaniyah itself once more emerged unscathed, various smaller towns were less fortunate.

Once in Iran, the new refugees soon faced various problems. Acting with commendable speed, the Iranian authorities, and in particular the Iranian Red Crescent, set up camps and started trying to satisfy the basic humanitarian needs with assistance from UNHCR and Médecins Sans Frontières. However, the remoteness and military sensitivity of the border region was soon hampering the aid effort. More seriously, the proximity of some of the camps to the border led to a series of security incidents. One camp in particular, Tileh Kooh, which was located only a couple of kilometres from a prolonged border battle between PUK and KDP fighters, was hit on at least two occasions by stray bullets and shells.

As well as sending a number of teams to monitor the assistance and protection conditions in the camps, and providing 1,000 family tents and 9,000 plastic sheets, UNHCR donated an initial sum of $3.1 million to the Iranian relief effort, on the condition that UNHCR staff would have full access to the refugees and that the camps would be moved away from the border area, which not only was proving insecure but was also, with winter fast approaching, located at too high an altitude for tented camps. Already by the end of September, the temperature was dropping close to freezing point at night. By early November, with snow already appearing on the mountains, the camps had still not been relocated, and UNHCR's Tehran office was growing increasingly alarmed and frustrated by the lack of progress on this and other issues. By the end of November, bitterly cold weather and exposed conditions prompted most of the Iraqi Kurds to return home. UNHCR and some humanitarian NGOs made it known that undue pressure had been used by the Iranian authorities to induce refugees to return. A little over 1,000 refugees were finally relocated from Ghamtareh border reception centre to Zarean-e-Khoy camp in West Azerbaijan province by mid-December. By the end of December 1996, reportedly only a few hundred remain in Seyranband, Kurdestan province.

On the Iraqi side of the border, the problems left over by the events in September were even greater. In the wake of the U.S. cruise-missile strikes against Iraq's southern air defenses, many of the NGOs operating in northern Iraq, and in particular the U.S. NGOs, beat a hasty retreat, as did the ground component of Operation Provide Comfort, which had up until then been based in the city of Zakho, near the Turkish border. Perhaps even more damaging was the loss of numerous skilled local staff working for foreign or United Nations agencies, through fear of retribution for the air strikes, or possible association with spy rings that had allegedly been operating in northern Iraq.

The dramatic events in September heightened international tensions and brought the situation in northern Iraq squarely back on to the international agenda. The conflict between the two main Kurdish parties in northern Iraq had caused a power vacuum, opening the possibility that outside forces could try to exploit the situation for their own ends.

Even before the events this autumn when many NGOs had to withdraw, and local staff became frightened for their safety, the extraordinary position of northern Iraq in relation to its northern, eastern and southern neighbours, made life extremely difficult for relief agencies. In order for international staff to work in the north, they have to obtain visas from Baghdad. U.N. agencies have their main offices in the capital, Baghdad as they would in any other country. Special arrangements were made for U.N. staff to cross freely to and from the north and on the whole these agreements have been honoured. However, in times of crisis, it can be difficult to get extra staff into the north in a hurry.

Evacuation plans and security procedures are extremely complex. Getting in relief supplies has also been difficult at times: first, because of the international sanctions which apply to the whole of Iraq, and second because Baghdad had previously imposed its own embargo on the north.

Nowadays, UNHCR plays two main roles in northern Iraq. One is to facilitate the repatriation and reintegration of Iraqi refugees still in Iran, who were continuing to trickle home at the rate of a few thousand a year. The second is to protect and assist two groups of refugees: around 14,000 Turkish Kurds located in a camp in the western Dohuk governate, and about 4,000 Iranian Kurds scattered around Erbil and Sulaimaniyah in the east.

Both groups have been badly affected by the military incursions of their respective countries of origin living in fear that they will be mistaken for fighters belonging to the same ethnic groups. When the Turkish Kurd refugees first entered northern Iraq in 1994, they were initially scattered around close to the Turkish border. They resisted UNHCR's initial attempts to move them down to a camp well away from the border, until a couple of cross-border bombing raids helped change their minds. By March 1995, around half of them had been moved to two small camps near a village called Atroush, some 60 kilometres from Dohuk. The other half were still up by the border when 35,000 Turkish troops came into the country in one of several attempts to put an end to cross-border raids by Turkey's Kurdish separatist group, the PKK. After that year the remainder were also moved to Atroush.

Nevertheless, there were continuing allegations that the Atroush camps were harbouring fighters. The allegations usually centered on Atroush A, which was located close to some hills where the PKK sometimes operated. So in October and November 1995, UNHCR moved the refugees to Atroush B, which was well away from the hills and therefore easier to monitor.

However, since that time it has become increasingly difficult for UNHCR to carry out its humanitarian mandate in the camp. In September 1995, refugees in Atroush A took UNHCR staff hostage as human shields during fighting between a local Iraqi Kurdish group and the Turkish Kurdish separatist group, the PKK. By late 1996, it became clear that a small number of activists within the camp were dominating the majority, which is made up of women, children and elderly men. For their own political reasons, these activists were keen to prevent refugees there from returning home to Turkey. The hostile actions of this group meant it became increasingly difficult for UNHCR to gain access to the camps. On 1st December, UNHCR staff who went to the camp to distribute leaflets referring to the option of voluntary repatriation to Turkey were confronted by a hostile crowd of some 2,000 refugees. They and their vehicles were stoned and refugees tried to block the exit from the camp.

On 21 December UNHCR announced that it was pulling out of Atroush because it felt that the humanitarian and non-political nature of the camp had been compromised to such an extent that it could no longer provide its services there. It told the refugees who had received a one month food and kerosene ration the week before that no further rations would be forthcoming. It was made clear to them that the local Iraqi Kurdish authorities would help the refugees to go to transit camps at Muqibla and Balkus where they would hear the assurances offered by the Turkish government about the welcome they would receive if they wished to return home. It was stressed that it was entirely up to the refugees themselves to decide what to do. If they wished to remain in northern Iraq, UNHCR would provide them with assistance on an individual basis. However, by the end of 1996, no significant numbers of refugees had left Atroush.

The Iranian Kurd refugees were caught in a similar if much shorter-lived situation in July, when more than 1,000 fled to the UNHCR office in Erbil, fearing they would be caught up in the Iranian military attempt to neutralize Iranian Kurd opposition fighters. Although the Iranian operation only lasted several days, and no refugees came to any harm, there were still refugees sheltering in a school next to the UNHCR office in Erbil, when that city fell to the KDP. Another group of nearly 400 refugees, who had fled to a warehouse in the town of Rania in July were also still there when that town fell as well.

All of which makes northern Iraq one of the most difficult places in which UNHCR is currently operating.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (1996)