Diyarbakir, Turkey — They are called Kurds. But they might be modern-day Gordians. It was on the Anatolian highlands, in what is today Turkey, that the ancient Gordian civilization tied a knot that would not be undone until Alexander the Great cut it with his sword.
Now, the Kurds are creating a new Gordian knot for Turkey.
Thousands of Kurds are flooding into refugee camps here, claiming to have been driven from their homes in Iraq by the use of chemical weapons.
The horrors to which they claim to bear witness are impossible to confirm. The United States Senate was sufficiently convinced to vote economic sanctions against Iraq in retaliation. The US State Department harshly condemned the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. And the human rights organization Amnesty International charged that Iraq is systematically trying to ``eliminate'' large numbers of Kurds.
The reason? The Iraqi Kurds supported Iran - and even fought for it - against their own government during the bitter eight-year-long Gulf war. With a cease-fire in that conflict now holding, it appears that President Hussein has unleashed his forces to exact revenge on the Kurds.
That marks the latest sad chapter in a history of dashed hopes, betrayal, and treachery against the Kurds. They are an ancient, non-Arab people, often caught in the conflicting crosscurrents of nationalism and war in Asia Minor. Many of the estimated 20 million Kurds spread across five countries nurture a vision of an independent ``Kurdistan'' encompassing their traditional homelands in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, the Soviet Union, and Syria.
But for the Kurds flooding into refugee camps here, that dream seems further away than ever. And for Turkey, the Kurds are a troubling presence that may well put its powers of patience, diplomacy, and tolerance to a most severe test.
Turkey has, for years, had its own problems with Kurdish separatism. It does not recognize the Kurds' language or culture, referring to the people as ``mountain Turks.''
Now, an influx of tens of thousands of embittered Kurds from Iraq could inflame separatist sentiments inside Turkey. Moreover, it could complicate relations with Iraq, and Iran, which supported them militarily.
The situation has focused extraordinary attention on Turkey. How it handles the influx of Kurds could have diplomatic repercussions among Turkey's NATO allies, as well as Europe and the Arab world.
With so many opportunities for complication and mistake, Turkey is moving swiftly to take control of the situation. Yet it is also avoiding entanglements with other countries or outside relief agencies, apparently to keep a free hand in dealing with the Kurds.
According to official figures, some 60,000 Kurds have fled here, and are now kept in 16 locations. Turkey is working at top speed to establish encampments and to provide medical and other services.
The effort is impressive. In two weeks, refugee settlements have sprung from the dusty flatlands of Turkey's southeast. Clinics, canteens, communal water taps, electric lights, toilets, and washing facilities are completed or under construction. Crushed-rock roadways cut a neat gridwork through rows and rows of white and green tents.
Some 10,000 Kurds have been settled in a camp outside Diyarbakir. Many of the men, disarmed when they crossed the border, still wear the distinctive green uniforms of the peshmargas (guerrillas) that fought against Iraqi troops. And when they speak of the homes they left behind, they refer not to Iraq, but to the ``freedom areas'' - the building blocks of a nascent Kurdistan.
In this camp, there is a mixture of sullenness and anxiety, and of grieving at a loss common to refugee camps everywhere.
``These people had houses, and goats, and land where they came from,'' says 32-year-old guerrilla leader Akram Mayi.
Gesturing to a woman boiling water on a wood fire while a small child sits in the dust next to her, crying, he says, ``Now, you see how we are forced to live.''
It is, to be sure, an uncertain existence - the more so because of Turkey's ambivalent attitude. Indeed, Turkey has not even officially recognized them as refugees.
``We are not calling these groups refugees - yet,'' says Hayri Kozakcioglu, regional governor. ``The reason is just because the word `refugee' has very different legal meanings and understandings throughout the world. These groups haven't yet expressed their wishes about staying here. We understand they may go back to Iraq. So we call them Iraqis who are staying here awhile.''
``And we are not calling [the places where they stay] camps. We are calling them temporary residential places.''
Indeed, there are reports that some Kurds have been forced out of Turkey to seek sanctuary in Iran - a charge Ankara denies.
Indeed, Turkish officials have been at pains to be open about their handling of the Kurdish influx. The entire southeastern provincial areas, save for sensitive military installations and the security zones along the border, have been opened to foreign journalists. The government has laid telex, telephone, and telefax lines to Diyarbakir, and has made officials available for interviews.
It is because of this openness that complaints of the Kurds have surfaced. Some people have complained about the Spartan diet, centering on bread and rice, and the security lights ablaze around the periphery.
``The food is very bad here. And there is no sleeping. No washing facilities. No bathing,'' Mr. Mayi says. ``We need the help of the Red Cross. We want them to come here.''
Turkey has allowed a few nongovernmental aid groups to conduct small-scale operations here. But it has not asked for large-scale foreign relief.
Indeed, it insists that it is coping well with the situation. A Monitor photographer, however, witnessed a demonstration against Saddam Hussein at a camp which escalated into a mass disturbance, with Turkish troops firing warning shots to restore order.
Despite the efforts - and accompanying costs - the Turkish government is playing down the need for outside help.
``Mostly, we are using the state's facilities to keep the spending figure low,'' says Mr. Kozakcioglu. ``Well, maybe we've delayed some work in some villages. But we have enough supplies and food.''
Farther south, near Kiziltepe, workers have, in just two weeks, built a camp that is expected to house 6,200 Kurds. A local official proudly displays the cinderblock kitchen and toilets that have been constructed, while two electricians nearby struggle with an octopus of electrical wires that will bring lights to every tent.
``It has been hard work,'' he says, ``very hard work.'' Yet, he, too, plays down the cost - or the need for outside aid.
The reason is simple, a Western diplomat says. Outside aid, he says, comes with strings attached - legal restrictions and obligations on the treatment of refugees, and scrutiny. United Nations involvement, in particular, would vest the Kurds with a legal standing - and, perhaps eventually, a claim to permanent resettlement. It would also prevent deportation of Kurds back to Iraq.
Iraq has further complicated the situation by declaring an amnesty for refugees who want to return - undercutting Kurdish claims of persecution.
``Turkey is very sensitive to human rights issues,'' a diplomat says. ``It has European aspirations, but it has to deal with Middle Eastern problems. And these two things are not easy to combine. I guess the Turks must be warring between the temptation to get rid of these people as quickly as possible, and the temptation to make a good impression on the world.''
``For the sake of the region, for the sake of peace in this area, we must do something with them,'' says Governor Kozakcioglu.
``For now,'' says Mayi, the guerrilla, ``our decision is to stay here.'' But he also makes clear that a longer-term goal - independence - remains. ``We need our freedom. We need to be like all the peoples in the world. We need real autonomy. And we want peace.''