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Turkey braces for refugee flood

450,000 Iraqi Kurdish refugees flooded Turkey in 1991. Another Gulf war may spur a second exodus.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 2003


There were all sorts of reasons to run.

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It was March 1991 when the announcement came: Saddam Hussein's army would descend on northern Iraq to fight against Kurdish guerrillas, and local leaders warned civilians to get out of harm's way.

Then there was the rumor that Mr. Hussein would drop a chemical weapon on Sulaymaniyah, as he had three years earlier on the Kurds of Halabja.

That's when Miran and his family tumbled into the car and headed for the mountainous border with Iran, a 10-minute drive that took seven hours inside the crush of refugees trying to escape. They spent two weeks out in the open, struggling to stay warm, and scrambling for water to make formula milk to keep Miran's baby sister alive.

"People were dying, crying, shouting, mothers looking for their children and brothers for their brothers," recalls Miran, an Iraqi Kurd who lives in Ankara. He asks that his last name not be used out of fear for the safety of his family, who still live in northern Iraq.

"We thought it was the end of the world. When you lock that door and leave, you don't know if you're ever going to see your home again."

That was in the messy aftermath of the Gulf War, when Kurds who rose up against the Iraqi regime were met with the helicopter gunships and ground troops of an angry Hussein. Today, the map of Iraq is significantly different, as is the kind of war the Bush administration would like to wage against the Iraqi regime. But Turks, Kurds, aid agencies, and neighboring countries fear that such a war could spark another refugee crisis - one that would reopen a whole host of related political and economic problems.

Many Kurds say another war in Iraq will be a new humanitarian disaster. For Turks, the possibility of an influx of Iraqi Kurdish refugees raises other concerns, from the high cost of aiding desperate people to the political risks of allowing thousands of Kurds into restive southeastern Turkey. Iran and Syria harbor similar unease about the effects on their own Kurdish populations.

Indeed, anxiety over an unpredictable outcome of a US-led war against Iraq is a key concern that binds Turkey with some of the countries it invited to the antiwar conference it hosted in Istanbul late last week, including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt.

Yesterday, the US sent a State Department delegation to discuss plans for dealing with refugees and other humanitarian issues that might arise from a war against Iraq. "It's an issue that's definitely on our screen, and of course it is a concern," says a US official. "We recognize that it's one of Turkey's concerns about an operation, and it has been part of the military discussions as well."