Kurds Rebuild Old Villages In Defiance of Iraqi Policy
But when UN monitors leave, Kurds say they will too
QALA DIZA, IRAQ — AMID the blustery winds and snowdrifts that isolate this mountain village for days from the outside world there is a glimmer of rebirth.
The town of 90,000, dynamited into rubble in 1988 by Iraqi troops, has seen hundreds of its inhabitants return with the departure of Iraqi forces from the north. The fortunate live in cinder-block huts covered with plastic canvas. But most families seek shelter from the cold winds in the ruins of old buildings, with often little more than plastic sheeting to separate them from the sub-zero temperatures.
The decision by tens of thousands of Kurds to eke out a living in the ruins of their old villages has seen some 2,000 demolished villages across northern Iraq rise from the rubble and reverse an Iraqi policy to crush Kurdish culture and traditions.
Qala Diza is the largest of more than 4,000 Kurdish villages that were destroyed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces between 1976 and the Gulf war in an effort to break the Kurdish rebel movement. And in a campaign known as the Anfal, started by Saddam in 1987, tens of thousands of Kurds were removed from the mountains to government-controlled collective villages.
A report by the United States Senate Foreign Affairs Committee characterized the Anfal as "a systematic Iraqi program to destroy every village in Kurdistan."
The 4 million Kurds in northern Iraq, who have been under an Iraqi-imposed economic embargo for the last three months, now live in a security zone set up by the US-led coalition north of the 36th parallel.
The zone was created after last April's aborted uprising to encourage about 1.5 million refugees who fled to Turkey and Iran to return home.
Many Kurds, temporarily freed from the grip of the Iraqi government, have returned to resurrect their devastated towns, often moving back to the twisted remains of their old homes.
"I had to come back to my own home," says Mustafa Ahmed, who left in 1988 and fought for the Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq war. "My parents were born in the house we used to have here."
A small hospital has been built with British assistance; six schools are planned; and a town council is trying to combat crime, which is skyrocketing in northern Iraq.
International organizations like the United Nations have assisted in rebuilding Qala Diza. But many Kurds say they need more help from Western agencies.
"The UN only gave me some lentils and sugar once in December," says Orcheed Sabir, who was standing with his three children outside his one-room house. "We were happy to come back here, but we don't have anything. We eat lentils and bread every day."
Qala Diza families live on bread, rice, tea, and lentils. The price of oil and sugar has shot beyond the reach of most households. Before the embargo, a one-kilo bag of rice cost half a dinar (10 cents on the black market). Now it costs eight dinars.
Many families are also unable to find kerosene fuel, the primary source of heating oil.
"We've had no kerosene for the last two months. We have no way of keeping warm," says Qala Diza resident Zahra Khider, standing in plastic sandals beside a frozen puddle, as three of her five children cling to her skirt.
The embargo has also crippled the few businesses in Qala Diza.
"Nobody buys anything I sell because it's too expensive," says Muhammad Ahmed, whose wooden donkey cart is stacked with black market cigarettes, batteries, biscuits, shoelaces, and small vials of a liquid he says will kill bed bugs.
The coalition planes that monitor Iraqi movements are scheduled to leave Iraqi airspace in June. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the leading agency for refugees in the north, will close its operations in April and the remaining UN organizations in June. If these agreements are not renewed, many Kurds say they will abandon their efforts to rebuild Qala Diza.
"If the UN leaves, the Iraqi government will come back and we will have to flee to the mountains," says Ramazan Jalal, who returned to Qala Diza 10 months ago. "If we stay, they will kill us and destroy the village again."
The people of Qala Diza, where the bodies of some of the 180,000 people Kurdish leaders say have been missing since the mid-1980s were found beneath the rubble, have long memories of Iraqi atrocities. And it takes little to create fear and panic.
As a group of men gathered in the market around a wooden cart stocked with rifle butts, bullets, and knives, one of them pointed to a white Volkswagen that had been abandoned in an alley for a few hours.
"Don't go down that road," he warned. "The car has Baghdad license plates. There may be a bomb inside."