Kurds Caught Between Turks, Saddam, Their Own Factions

The old Kurdish woman vividly remembers the mid-winter evacuation from her village in northern Iraq. The cold sticks in her mind, as well as the surprising, abrupt eviction from her home by fellow Kurds.

"We hear you can die once, but we died many times," Amina recalls about the flight of women and children from their village of Tily last December. They spent two nights in the snow and crept along treacherous alpine tracks.

"The way was so difficult for the mules that we had no choice," she said. "We had to leave them at the top of the mountain."

The Kurds of Tily have been buffeted by myriad conflicts that result from a decades-long struggle for a homeland of their own. On the one hand, they are caught between the battling Turkish Army and Turkey's separatist Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) - whose 12-year conflict is increasingly waged in northern Iraq.

On the other hand, they have been forced to flee Tily to the safety of this valley town of Shiladiza, because of fighting between the PKK and a Kurdish militia from Iraq. PKK rebels came to Tily, and told everyone to leave.

The United Nations has provided food, blankets, stoves, and other help for the displaced Kurds. Like many of the 140,000 people that the UN estimates are displaced in northern Iraq, Amina has been forced to move many times.

Saddam's palaces useful

Others displaced by this multifaceted conflict crowd into refugee centers, or camp out at one of the several looted summer palaces of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein nearby. Built in the most picturesque spots in Iraq, the palaces have now been stripped of their pink marble tiles. Pro-Kurdish graffiti decorate the once-opulent state rooms.

Displaced Kurds now do their laundry in Saddam's carefully designed waterfalls. Scratching chickens on one balcony enjoy the best view in the country.

Tily and eight other tiny villages perched among the virtually inaccessible peaks that line Iraq's border with Turkey were chosen by the PKK as a last stronghold against the Turkish Army this winter.

The US State Department considers the PKK to be a "terrorist insurgency," and by December, remnant PKK units in northern Iraq had been surrounded by Iraqi Kurdish forces.

Caught in the battle were Amina's Mizory tribe, who have always considered this area to be part of their birthright. To be forced out by fellow Kurds - even Turkish Kurds who claim to be fighting for an independent Kurdish state - shocked them.

Amina tells their story with her hands working at red prayer beads, and her eyes tearing. This is the eighth time she has been forced to leave home because she is a Kurd.

A PKK unit came one wintry afternoon, she says, and by nightfall the residents were forced out. All their belongings were left behind and burned by the PKK. The men already had joined Iraqi Kurdish forces, so the women had to plead on their own.

"I begged the PKK commander," Amina says. "I said, 'You fight for a big free Kurdistan, but now you are destroying it! How will this further our cause?' "

For Amina, the scenario was all too familiar. She was first forced to leave Iraq in 1945, she says, when the Iraqi Air Force bombed Kurdish areas. Her family fled to Iran, where many people starved. They returned to Iraq in 1946.

Then in 1975, many Kurds were forced by Saddam to move to southern Iraq. In 1980 they were moved again, to the town of Arbil under strict Iraqi control. In 1983, more than 5,000 Kurdish heads of family, including Amina's husband and sons, were rounded up by Iraqi forces and disappeared.

Remnants of the family fled to the mountains, where they lived until Saddam's 1988 Anfal campaign forced them to Iran. Saddam's campaign destroyed 3,000 Kurdish villages in northern Iraq and has been labeled a genocide against the Kurds by human rights groups.

The Kurds finally returned after the Gulf war. Since then, northern Iraq has been under the protection of a US-led military coalition, but the Kurds have known little peace.

No place seems safe

Even hidden villages like Tily have been subject to the fury of the war. One year ago, for example, Turkey launched a massive six-week cross-border operation into Iraq to root out PKK bases here.

Turkish jet fighters bombed Tily then, residents say, destroying a number of huts and wounding three. A no man's land has been created in border areas, demarcated on the Iraqi side by checkpoints on access routes. But they can't stop the Turkish war planes, which were in action again last week. "Both of them are firing on us," says Jabali, a bearded Iraqi guerrilla from Tily. "We are willing to go back to our village, but ... Turkey and the PKK are making it impossible."

Jabali points north over this sloping spring-green valley toward a gap in the mountains that leads to another range, and to his village. He made a secret visit 10 days earlier, at night, but found the place a deserted, burned-out ruin.

"When I saw our village, I remembered the effort it took to build it," he says. "I swore I would never go back, but I will. I love my land too much. How can those people serve the Kurds when they are doing this?" he asks.

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