Kurdish Refugees Straggle Into Iran, Followed By Tragedy
PIRANSHAHR, Iran (AP) _ The graves of fallen Kurds line a snow-swept highway from Iraq. Beside them, others march, clinging to life as they flee the onslaught by the Iraqi army.
About 200,000 Iraqi Kurds - many tattered, limping, spitting blood and crying for bread and milk - have poured through this town of 30,000 in the past two weeks, said the official Islamic Republic News Agency. Thousands more are believed to have died along the way.
The exodus from northern Iraq has strained Iran’s meager resources. The government has closed several border posts, although it reopened them to refugees later.
About 900,000 Kurds have already flooded into Iran to flee a failed rebellion, and more than 1 million refugees are expected over the next few days, according to IRNA.
Officials in Turkey say about 500,000 refugees have already crossed the border into their nation.
In Piranshahr, apple tree orchards have become camp grounds for the Kurds. Tents of plastic sheeting and cinder blocks dot the orchards, and at night the narrow streets are packed with refugees seeking relief from the near-freezing temperatures.
″This is not life,″ said Zakia Ahmed, a 61-year-old Kurdish woman who spent 10 days walking from her hometown of Erbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq. ″We are like dogs - worse than dogs.″
Women and children seem to have born the brunt of the suffering.
Azad Othman, a 25-year-old graduate student of microbiology, said he helped bury 51 women and children during his 13-day trek from Erbil.
″Most people are dying from cold. When we moved through the mountain passes, it snowed for two days,″ he said.
Unconfirmed estimates say hundreds are dying each day along the way.
At a graveyard on Saturday outside of Piranshahr, 10 Kurdish men hacked at the earth with broken tools.
″My grandmother wanted to be buried in Kurdistan,″ said Jahar Karen, a 22-year-old Kurd. ″But (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein chased us out. She froze to death on the way.″
Karen said he and his comrades buried three other elderly people Saturday. Thirteen more graves were dug on Friday. At one site, a red plastic bag was wrapped around a rock in a makeshift memorial to a dead youth.
Karen said some victims died from exposure, others from napalm attacks by Iraqi troops who have pursued the Kurds.
All the refugees complain of hunger, although those who have made it to Iran believe they now have hope of survival. In this town, humanitarian groups such as the Red Crescent Society, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross, have begun distributing bread.
Several international medical organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the French group Doctors Without Borders are treating injured refugees and distributing medicine.
To supplement the aid, many refugees have piled their goods and gold atop rickety vehicles hoping to sell them for cash to buy sugar or vegetables.
″But soon that money will be gone,″ Kamal Taha, 23, a Kurd who sold his family’s video cassette recorder.
Everywhere were stories of misery.
A man who was burying his two daughters died when he stepped on a land mine left from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, according to witnesses.
A 5-year-old boy who walked for 10 days to get to Iran had his foot crushed by a cinder block that had held up his family’s tent.
Said his father, Hamid Ali: ″He was so brave for those days, and now this happens. It is like what is happening to all Kurds.″