Stateless Bedoons Are Shut Out of Kuwait

Thousands trapped in bleak desert camp, as Iraq and Kuwait trade charges

IN most countries recovering from occupation by a powerful enemy, people like Sabah Ibrahim al-Khalaf would be considered heroes.A noted artist and former clerk in Kuwait's Interior Ministry, Mr. Ibrahim made drawings used on underground leaflets by the Kuwaiti resistance forces after Iraqi troops overran Kuwait last year. He also transmitted information to exiles abroad through a home satellite dish. But the Iraqis discovered it, arrested Ibrahim, and put him in jail in southern Iraq. Ibrahim was finally freed from prison in March along with hundreds of others, during the uprisings that followed the Gulf war. He walked through minefields and desert for 10 days to reach Kuwait's border, expecting that his long ordeal was finally over. Five months later, Ibrahim is still trapped along with nearly 1,200 other refugees in this desolate refugee camp just inside Kuwait, enduring 130-degree summer heat and ferocious sandstorms sheltered only by a scrap-board shack. Kuwaiti authorities have barred his entry because he is a "Bedoon," which literally means "without."

Nomadic roots Bedoons are nomadic tribes that traditionally have roamed within the Kuwait and Iraq region without regard for the borders drawn early this century by the British. Lacking statehood, Bedoons nevertheless are distinct from the Bedouin tribes of northern Africa. Bedoons born to formerly nomadic tribesmen now live primarily in settled communities near Kuwait City. But Bedoons are denied any nationality under the emirate's restrictive citizenship laws, and Kuwaiti authorities also claim many Bedoons are Iraqis, because their ancestors used to roam about the region heedless of borders. But Ibrahim says he only wants to return to the only home he has ever had. "I am 45 years old, born in Kuwait, and I served my country in the armed forces," he says, showing visitors an identity card with a picture of him in uniform. "I did what I could to help when the Iraqis came, and then was taken to Iraq. Prison there was awful. And this is what I get," he says, tears welling in his eyes. He also displays colorful drawings made on the back of cardboard scraps from United States military field rations, which he and thousands of other refugees ate in March and April during the time US forces controlled the border area. An American nurse brought him the colored pencils. Ironically, his drawings are remarkably similar to artwork made by ethnic Kuwaitis held as prisoners of war in Iraq, now on display in Kuwait City to mark the Aug. 2 anniversary of the Iraqi invasion. Drawings made on bed sheets, Muslim rosaries made of date pits, and crude stone carvings are among the displayed items brought back as the prisoners were freed after the war. The exhibition seeks to draw attention to the plight of nearly 2,500 people the Kuwaitis say are still held prisoner in Iraq. As the Gulf emirate marked the invasion anniversary, the issue of the missing was paramount on their minds. But the question of the Bedoons is not, and Kuwaiti officials see no contradiction between the two. "We're now debating what to do about these people because a decision has to be made about how to define citizenship," says Ministry of Information official Khalid al-Alanzi. "Every time I go to the border, I hear new stories of people being held there who claim they should be allowed back. But we know many of them are really Iraqis." Kuwait recently made a formal call for international pressure to force Iraq to release any remaining POWs. But Iraqi authorities blame Kuwait for refusing to take back many prisoners, partly because of the narrow definition of just who is eligible to return. Kuwaitis divide themselves into two main groups, between those who can trace ancestry back to 1920 and those who cannot. The latter, known as "naturalized Kuwaitis," have no right to vote, although all Kuwaitis enjoy rights and privileges routinely denied non-Kuwaitis, including Palestinians and Bedoons.

Accused collaborators Complicating the situation is the fact that Bedoons comprised 70 percent of the pre-invasion Kuwaiti armed forces and police, because (not unlike the US) the military afforded good opportunity for employment and social advancement. Thousands of Bedoons have long lived in communities near Kuwait City, especially near the village of Jahra where many keep goats and sheep. As military personnel, Bedoons were particularly vulnerable during the occupation as the Iraqis either forced them to join the semi-professional "Popular Army" or, at very least, to sign in each day under a means of control established by the occupying troops. Kuwaiti authorities now cite these sign-in sheets as evidence of the Bedoons' collaboration, especially for those either taken prisoner to Iraq. Or, as in the case of many refugees, those who happened to be visiting imprisoned relatives when the war broke out are accused of collaborating. In June, nearly 3,000 people fled from the refugee camp back into Iraq after they heard news reports that "all who had joined with the Iraqis would hang." Those who remain, including Ibrahim, say they have nothing to fear from the Kuwaiti authorities - all they want is to go home. "I have two brothers and other family in Kuwait City, but they do not come to help me because they too might be captured," the artist says wistfully, sitting cross-legged on a woolen blanket inside his hut as sand and dust blew around outside. "I don't know what else I can do to convince them," he says. "I did nothing wrong for my country." Some foreign observers suspect that the government hopes the passage of time will encourage most of the remaining refugees to depart back to Iraq. In the meantime, the 1,172 camp residents (including many children, some unaccompanied by adults) receive food, water, and medical care from the Red Cross. Housing and sanitation are key problems, however. Hundreds of tents brought by US Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole last spring blew away in the strong desert winds, so the refugees make do with ramshackle huts of boards and corrugated metal. Garbage and other debris blown about by the high winds litters the camp area, which is surrounded by barbed wire and within sight of the last Kuwaiti border checkpoint. Several miles to the south, dozens of oil wells set afire by the Iraqis continue to burn, filling the horizon with dense smoke. After the war there were actually three camps near Abdaly, including one administered by the US military, which was then occupying southern Iraq, and later replaced by a United Nations peace-keeping force. With a peak refugee population of more than 15,000 in April, the larger refugee question was resolved only when Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to accept thousands of people (including Iraqi civilians) either cast out of or denied access to Kuwait. But the hapless Bedoons still in the bleak desert camp remain trapped.

Redefining Kuwait Their fate is also caught up in an ongoing resurgence of Kuwaiti identity as the emirate tries to come to grips with the tumultuous events of the past year. This includes a rejection of Palestinians within Kuwait, largely because of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat's pro-Iraq position during the war, and despite evidence that many Palestinians aided the resistance and individual Kuwaitis in the fight against Iraq. Having been fired from their jobs and with their children denied access to government schools, thousands of Palestinians are essentially being deported. Each day hundreds driving vehicles laden with possessions pass by the Abdaly camp on the international highway that ultimately takes them to Jordan. As one group leaving the emirate passes close to another desperately trying to get back in, both have become the legacy of circumstances beyond their control as Kuwait seeks to redefine itself in the wake of the Gulf crisis.

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