The Race Against Time to Save Kurdish Refugees

TURKEY-IRAQ border, April 10 - The Kurdish refugees here are strung along three sides of a high bowl flanked by higher, snow-capped peaks. By day, from a distance, the aspect is one of a mountain littered with bits of old cloth; only the smokey pall from the family fires suggests that there are people there - by the tens of thousands. At night the fires, through the smoke, evoke a candlelight vigil in an outdoor amphitheater. Then if you look carefully at a distant ridge line, some of the lights move in a file, the flashlights of the newly arriving in this Valley of Sorrow which could soon be a Valley of Death.

This site along the border near the Turkish village of Cukurca is just one of several with a combined total of perhaps 600,000 refugees from Iraq, and growing. When Secretary of State James Baker visited here April 8, no relief supplies had been distributed other than biscuits donated by the local Turkish population. The Turkish Red Crescent cares for the very sick at a local clinic, but in the camp there were almost no medicines, as there was not yet an international supply line.

The result is not a camp, but an encampment. There is no census or registration system for new arrivals. There are no latrines, no camp administration. Much of this results from the astonishing lack of a field officer from the United Nations; nor is there a medical supply channel from the International Red Cross and the League of Red Cross Societies. With proper drugs, the Iraqi refugee doctors could make a good dent in the medical caseload. They are instead barely having an impact. Given the lack of in ternational presence, the refugees are concerned that Saddam Hussein will attack them along the border.

Meanwhile, they wait:

Women in bathrobes and slippers who did not take the time to change clothes before fleeing Saddam's men. An old blind couple, led out of Iraq by their 10-year-old grandson. A family of 19 sharing three blankets. A widow and her three children, without the strength to cut firewood.

The terrain is so steep that the refugees try to scrape a small level spot using knives, pans, and sticks. If they arrive too late in the day, they simply hunker down under their blankets for the long night.

These people are mostly Kurds. However, there are more than 12,000 Assyrian Christians. There are also Chaldeans, Turkomans, and other minorities. Those with relatives abroad plead to join them. Indeed, the US should lead the way in accepting some of them.

But for now, the urgent priority is to save their lives, and there is very little time. One hopes that the US airdrop is a welcome sign that the administration now understands the severity of the refugee problem. Airdrops, however, are only the leading edge of what must be done. By air and truck, massive amounts of food, tents, and relief materiel must be brought in.

Most of the materiel can be procured in Turkey. But some items such as tents and blankets should be brought in by the US military from its stockpiles.

As of April 10, only $4 million to $5 million had been made available to the Turkish government, and the UN agencies were just beginning to receive cash in serious amounts. More money has now been pledged, but it is not yet generating delivery of relief to the refugees.

The refugees around Cukurca constitute only one of many groups of at least 30,000 people. The other sites are all equally difficult to access for relief shipments. There are also the Iranian and Syrian borders, the former with larger numbers than on the Turkish borders and with a frontier now apparently closed by Tehran. European governments should take the lead in surveying this sector.

All in all, this is one of the most complex relief tasks ever mounted and will cost hundreds of million of dollars, but this is after all a fraction of the cost of the war.

To win the race against the Kurdish refugee problem will require US leadership of the kind we saw on the military and diplomatic fronts of Desert Storm. In turn, the US must galvanize the United Nations agencies.

Initially, the international effort should focus on putting a representative at each refugee encampment along the border, making arrangements for immediate local procurement of urgently needed relief supplies, and delivering the material to the refugee sites and to affected Turkish villages by road or helicopter, with airdrops as a last resort. To get relief to the far-flung and remote encampments and to those in Iraq requires something of the scale of the Berlin Airlift, though this time most of the ef fort will be with overland transit.

This relief effort will require extraordinary work by the US and the UN. To engage the government into life-saving speed, the president should appoint as coordinator a distinguished private individual with interagency powers. We must cut through our own and UN red tape with all possible speed. At the UN, a wide mandate for the special coordinator, with full backing of the secretary-general, is needed.

If the Kurdish refugees are not saved, the war may well be best remembered for the the tragedy inflicted on them.

Editors' note: Since Mr. Rosenblatt's visit to the border area last week, international relief efforts for the refugees have increased, and the US military is starting to move some refugees out of the mountains into secured camps in northern Iraq. However, the refugees' relief needs remain acute.

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