SIRANBAR CAMP, IRAN — When Kurdish fighters loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein swept through the town of Sulaymaniyah, Soran Omer received a blunt lesson about the new rulers of northern Iraq.
He was detained for four days because he worked for a Western relief organization. When he was finally released, the warning he received was clear: "Saddam Hussein does not allow foreign relief agencies," he was told. "Do not come back."
Such is the grip of fear that the Iraqi leader and his security forces have on Kurdistan, Mr. Omer fled the town and joined the exodus of tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds.
As many as 40,000 Iraqi Kurds have crossed east into Iran since fighting began Aug. 31. They calculate that it is better to live in a refugee camp than under the control of Saddam or his allies.
The handful of camps here sprawl across open plains, under the watchful gaze of Iranian soldiers who set up their own tents on the fringe. The refugees have little food, water, or help. They fear for the the future, bitterness about their situation, and anxiety for the families and friends - and brother Kurds - they left behind.
There are also rumors that Iraqi intelligence agents operate at will in their town, disguised as Kurds and wearing their traditional dress. Most say they will never go back while Saddam or his Kurdish allies control the town - those who worked with foreign relief agencies or the vanquished Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) say they could be killed.
Refugees swarm a visitor, proferring laminated ID cards that list them as staff of the UN or other agencies.
Iranian troops have built up their own presence along the steep hills of the border, in case the Kurdish conflict spills across the frontier into Iran. "What can we do from here? We are afraid," said Delshat, who showed a PUK-TV card.
The Iranian Red Crescent has been the first to aid the refugees. Workers wearing white bibs marked with the red crescent shout into megaphones to organize distribution. As the day wears on the bibs turn dirty brown with the dust.
A senior Iranian cleric visits the camp, and, wearing a white turban, exhorts the refugees to trust in God, and in Islam. The call to prayer goes out from speakers near a government tent at 1:05 p.m., but few Kurds heed its call. Most are too busy waiting in long lines for water at the only gushing hose.
"At the first of the crisis, we invited the UN and others to help, but there was no response," said Abbas Haj Ali, the government coordinator for the camps. "We want help."
An interior ministry official, Ahmad Husseini, warned that the refugees face "a serious crisis" if the UN does not act quickly enough to assist the refugees. Iran already hosts up to 2 million refugees, mostly from Afghanistan.
There was little evidence of the UN in the camps Sunday, though the World Food Program and Refugee Agency have made assessment missions. WFP supplies are in the country. UN officials in Tehran say they have released $3.6 million in emergency funds. But Tehran is some 15 hours away by car, and little help has made it to the remote camps so far.
Instead, the refugees must wait. "So many people are trying to build their future, and now we've lost it," said Ari, a university student from Sulaymaniyah. "What is the crime we have committed? Only because we are Kurds; for this we must suffer.
"I just want to listen to music, in a taciturn world," he said. "That's all I want."
WHO ARE THE KURDS?
One of the largest ethnic groups in the world without its own country, the Kurds have often played the role of pawns in the violent political chess games of their host nations.
Dream of a Kurdish state
The 1920 Treaty of Sevres carved up the Ottoman Empire after World War I and called for an autonomous Kurdish state. Though Kurds have ever since agitated for that state, the region of "Kurdistan" has been divided between Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.
Saddam, the US, the Kurds
In the early 1970s, with Saddam Hussein in power, the Kurds agreed with the shah of Iran to destabilize Iraq. The US "guaranteed" the deal, but when Iran made a separate peace with Iraq, the US looked the other way.
Saddam quashed the Kurdish rebellion.
The Kurds have not forgotten the US betrayal, which reinforces their motto: Except for mountains, Kurds have no friends.
Kurdish relations with Iraq have always been stormy. In 1988, Saddam's forces used poison gas to kill 4,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja. Kurdish villages across northern Iraq were smashed to rubble. The UN declared it attempted genocide.
After Saddam's 1991 defeat in the Gulf war, President Bush promised American help if the Kurds in the north and Shia Muslims in the south rose up to topple the Iraqi leader.
The Kurds rebelled and took control in northern Iraq. When Saddam fought back, the US did not intervene. More than 1.5 million Kurds fled to Turkey and Iran, again feeling betrayed.
Warring factions: PUK, KDP
By 1994, Kurdish dreams of autonomy had collapsed. A parliament that had united the Kurdistan Democratic Party with its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, fell apart and the two sides battled until the US brokered a cease-fire last autumn.
The division caused the warring factions to look for outside help. The PUK turned to its nearest neighbor, Iran. In response, the KDP asked Baghdad to join forces to oust its Kurdish enemies from all of northern Iraq.