Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Life & Leisure News Article | Reuters.com

Life & Leisure News Article | Reuters.com: "Iraqi Kurds Coming from Iran Face Uncertainty
Wed Aug 4, 2004 02:41 PM ET


By Seb Walker
HAJ OMRAN, Iraq (Reuters) - At a mountainous border crossing point between Iraq and Iran, Daoud Khuder waits to meet relatives he has not seen for 14 years, since they fled the country to escape Saddam Hussein's army.

As the convoy bringing Iraqi Kurd refugees from Iran appears and Daoud catches sight of his brother's family, the emotion of the occasion becomes too much for the 62-year-old former Kurdish militia (peshmerga) fighter.

"My brother swore he wouldn't return until Saddam was finished -- I never had the chance to see him again before he died in Iran," said Khuder, tears rolling down his cheeks as he embraced young nephews he had never met.

"I'm so happy they are back, but it also makes me sad because if they don't get money or help there will be problems."

For the 32 Kurdish families returning to Iraq in the convoy -- the second since the program was initiated by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) just before June's transfer of sovereignty -- returning to their homeland brings mixed feelings.

"I wanted to come back because I never felt I could call Iran my home, but I'm apprehensive about our future -- we have very little money," said Khuder's eldest nephew Dehil, a 32-year-old laborer.

Saddam is gone, but as Iraq's ethnic and religious communities jostle for power, the issue of Kurdish returnees has become politicized -- and the international community does not want to be seen taking sides.

In years gone by, Iraqi Kurd returnees would have received money and other assistance to rebuild their lives. Now each family gets $20, a kerosene stove, two water containers, some blankets and a tent.

They are provided with transport to the destination of their choice -- but only if this is above the so-called "green line" separating Kurdish territory from the rest of Iraq.

REFUGEE POLITICS

Thousands of Iraqi Kurds fled to neighboring Iran to escape campaigns of persecution by the former government. Many returned during the 1990s but 61,000 are still there, according to Kurdish officials.

The UNHCR does not promote returns to Iraq because of continuing instability and the lack of services in the country. Kurds accuse the U.N. of dragging its feet on facilitating Kurdish returnees for political reasons.

Under the latest scheme, the UNHCR has agreed to organize voluntary repatriations for just 2,000 refugees over the next 6 months through the Haj Omran crossing-point.

"They told us this was just an experiment," said Shakir Yaseen, director of the Refugees Registration Committee.

"We said Kurdistan is becoming a big laboratory for experiments -- first chemical weapons and now refugees."

Yaseeen, whose organization is funded by the local Kurdish government, complained that the small scale of the current scheme meant families were forced to return illegally -- making it difficult to register them.

"They will cause us a lot of trouble because the numbers are so big," he said, adding there had been twice as many unofficial returns as official ones since the scheme started on June 23. "Our borders are open. People are just coming back anyway."

There is already a problem with internal refugees in Iraq's Kurdish zone -- under Saddam's "Arabization" policy thousands were displaced from strategically important areas like Kirkuk and their properties given to Arabs brought from the South.

Kurds have been trying to reverse this process by moving refugees back to Kirkuk to change the demographic structure of the oil-rich city -- more than 100,000 Kurds now live in camps in and around Kirkuk.

Some families returning in the convoy from Iran said they were originally from Kirkuk and were coming back to take advantage of schemes funded by Kurdish political parties to resettle Kirkuk Kurds.

"Kirkuk is Kurdish and it's our legitimate right to go back," said Bakir Ahmed, 53, who was forced to leave Kirkuk in 1988 along with his mother, father and four brothers.

Ahmed's family of seven has now increased to 25 members.

"We've been told our family will get $3,000, some building materials, and a piece of land if we go back to Kirkuk," he said, adding that they had received letters from one of the two main Kurdish parties guaranteeing the financial aid.

Ahmed's youngest brother, Mohammed, who has spent more than half his life as a refugee, said he was doubtful they would find a simple solution in Kirkuk.

"The last decade or so has been a bad time and we're still not settled yet," said Mohammed, 26, as he climbed onto a refugee bus bound for the northern Kurdish stronghold of Sulaimaniya.

"It's like being on one long continuous journey.""

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