Brussels — Tomorrow in Geneva, Iranian and Iraqi officials meet to negotiate political and military disputes. Thousands of Iranians and Iraqis are watching the talks in the hope that their leaders won't forget a key humanitarian issue: reuniting families divided by the bitter Gulf conflict. When the shooting started in September 1980, and the frontier crossings slammed shut, many Iranians and Iraqis suddenly found themselves stuck in the wrong country. In some cases, their governments expelled them to the other side, suspicious of their ancestral ties to the enemy nation.
Now, with an end to the Gulf war apparently at hand, these people want to go home.
Mahmoud lives in a tiny apartment in a suburb of Brussels. Born in the town of Faw, at the southern tip of Iraq, he holds an Iraqi passport. Mahmoud's father, also an Iraqi citizen, was a boat pilot on the Shatt al Arab, the waterway that forms the southern border between Iran and Iraq.
When the war began, Iraqi police discovered that Mahmoud's father had Iranian ancestors, and forced him out of the country across the border. Ever since, he has lived in Iran.
Mahmoud's mother has been stranded in Iraq, unable to get an exit visa. For eight long years, the son has played messenger between his parents.
Mahmoud's situation is not unique. According to Iranian figures, 50,000 Iraqi citizens are presently living on Iranian soil. (That number doesn't include the thousands of Iraqi Kurds who sought refuge in Iran earlier this year after Iraq used chemical weapons against the Kurdish-inhabited town of Halabja.)
Iraq began expelling its nationals of Iranian origin in November 1979. Mass deportation began after an assassination attempt against Iraq's minister of foreign affairs, Tareq Aziz, in April 1980.
Officials accused Iraqis of Iranian origin of being behind the attempt and of stirring up trouble. Iraqi officials then insisted that those expelled were merely residents and not full-fledged Iraqi citizens.
One of those deportees interviewed describes his situation as ``Kafkaesque.''
``I'm Iraqi,'' he says. ``Though my ancestors were Iranians, I don't speak Farsi, and the Iranians deny me citizenship. But when I go to a Western embassy to get a visa, I'm told that the validity of my Iraqi passport has expired and that I should first refer to an Iraqi Embassy to renew it. I was a clerk in Baghdad; I have never been involved in any political activity. All I want is to be allowed to return to my home.''
Born in the southern Iranian city of Ahvaz, Tarek is a member of a tribe, the Bani Kaab, that has also been torn apart by the war. Tarek is an Iranian citizen who studied in Paris. Like most inhabitants of the Iran's oil-rich region of Khuzestan, he is an ethnic Arab. Iranian Arabs have long maintained close ties with their kin across the border.
``Don't misunderstand me,'' Tarek says. ``I'm loyal to the Iranian government, and most Iranian Arabs fought the Iraqi invasion. But they have relatives in [nearby Iraqi regions]. All those family links were severed when the war broke out. My uncle, for example, is in Basra and I haven't seen him for years.''
Anissa, a young Iraqi living here, recalls the prewar time when she and her parents would cross the international border every week to visit relatives in Iran. ``About half of my family is Iranian,'' she says. ``Every Friday we would meet; the men would fish in the Shatt al Arab, while the women would prepare the picnic.''
Like most Iranians and Iraqis living on the banks of the Shatt al Arab, Anissa hopes that a peace treaty between Iran and Iraq will lead to the reopening of the border.
She believes that one of the Geneva negotiators' priorities should be to reopen Iranian and Iraqi consulates in Basra and Khorramshahr, which could sort out the problems of families split by the war.
``The day [Iran and Iraq] accept the reopening of their border posts, that will mean there is a real and lasting peace,'' a Western diplomat says.
But diplomats in Tehran and Baghdad say the issue is likely to remain touchy. Throughout the war, they say, both sides have tried to use divided families to gather intelligence on events behind the battle lines.
``The problem with those cross-border families,'' an Iranian official said recently, ``is that as soon as you allow them to reunite they start to exchange information about what goes on in the two countries. So neither us nor the Iraqis are enthusiastic [about] letting those people freely cross the border.''
[A UN spokesman said the Iraq-Iran war front was calm on Tuesday, despite claims by both sides of troop movements violating their cease-fire, Reuters reports.
[Iraq said Monday the Iranians, acting after the cease-fire took effect on Saturday, reinforced their positions across the front from the Iraqi 4th Army Corps.
[The official Iraqi news agency INA said the Iraqis had protested to UN military observers.]