US Pullout Sparks Riots In Iraqi Refugee Camps
Refugees worry that lightly armed UN force will fail to protect them
SAFWAN, KUWAIT-IRAQ BORDER — A SANDSTORM howls around the tent, as United States Maj. Tom Grubbs sits down wearily on a pile of food cartons, exhausted by all the questions to which he had no answers. His face is drawn and dusty from the swirling sand and the hot wind that seems to blow continuously in this border region of southern Iraq.
``I don't know when I'm leaving. No, I don't know when the UN is coming in here,'' he says, as he peers through the tent flaps at the morning queue for water.
Major Grubbs heads a unit of the 404th Civil Affairs Division, which runs a refugee camp known as Hotel Calcutta. It gained its name from the conditions and the former offices of an Indian trading company located inside the camp that is home to thousands of Iraqis who fled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Army.
This desolate, windswept camp is full of frightened and panicky people, for whom the US military's departure from southern Iraq, now just hours away, is a countdown to the slaughter they are convinced will follow Saddam's resumption of control.
Tens of thousands of US troops have already left southern Iraq heading for Saudi Arabia, and, finally, home. But for many their joy of departure is tinged with guilt at the uncertainty they leave behind.
That's what Grubbs feels, anyway. For him, the next few days will be a test in managerial skills on how to exit the camp without causing a riot. So far, there is no sight of the men in blue berets, the newly constituted United Nations observer force. More importantly, he says, there is no sight of men from the UN High Commission for Refugees who will have to care for the 15,000 refugees who rely on US troops for shelter, food, and water.
The UN force appears to be slow in getting off the ground. While the US withdrawal was well under way, debates were still going on in the UN about its composition and exactly how the force will operate in the eight-mile-wide border strip of the new demilitarized zone.
Protection of the refugees is the main concern. Talks began yesterday in Baghdad between Iraqi officials and Maj. Gen. Gunther Greindl of Austria, who heads the UN force.
The US troops are leaving a yawning power vacuum behind them. Although the area will be a UN demilitarized zone out of bounds for the Iraqi Army, sovereignty will still be in Iraqi hands. Hence, the area will be administered and governed by the regime in Baghdad. The prospect of a return of Saddam's police force, intelligence services, and apparatchiks is generating a wave of panic here and in the nearby refugee camps.
Food is another concern, for as yet no agreement appears to have been reached between the UN agencies and Baghdad about helping the refugees. Despite the creation of the demilitarized zone, the UN refugees' commission will still need the permission of the regime in Baghdad before operating in the camps.
All around town, the people of Safwan show their sentiments at such a prospect in slogans reading, ``Save us from Saddam's blood men.''
On Saturday, a demonstration was mounted outside Hotel Calcutta camp by men, women, and young children holding placards saying, ``Please save us.'' For them, the Gulf war cease-fire meant an end to registration as refugees, and that meant no food for the stragglers still arriving from Baghdad-controlled Iraq.
Few have confidence in the UN forces to protect them. ``The UN will just take notes and send reports, they won't protect us,'' says Mustapha Jaffer, a former art director in a Kuwaiti advertising agency. Another camp resident, a professor of mathematics, said that 1,440 UN troops are not enough to protect the refugees.
In the border town of Safwan, American civil affairs units prepare to hand over control to the incoming Iraqi officials. At the local health clinic, which has been operated by Americans since the end of the war, US doctors prepare to hand over their clinic to Iraqi doctors and officials.
Many residents express concern that there will be fighting between pro- and anti-Saddam forces. Others question whether Baghdad officials will be able to resume governing the area in view of rising tension.
US military police officials say riots in the town are becoming a daily affair. Townspeople and anti-Saddam refugees attack those suspected of being Saddam supporters. Last week, a suspected sympathizer had to be flown out of town by helicopter after being severely beaten.
``I just hope the UN guys are bringing tanks and guns,'' comments an American military policeman who patrolled nightly in Safwan. ``They're going to need them to handle the kind of riots we've been seeing in Safwan every night.''
However, the UN Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission is a monitoring force, and as such will arrive lightly armed. ``Our government will come back and do whatever they like,'' says a local schoolteacher here. ``I can't imagine the future.''
As a fluent English speaker, the school teacher was used by the American doctors as a translator with patients. Now, he's feeling vulnerable and says people are talking about him in the town as ``an American agent.''
``My only sin was to speak English,'' he says.