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Bracing for a flood of Kurdish refugees
Berkeley human-rights expert near the Iraqi front says ‘humanitarian crisis’ in that region is likely

| 02 April 2003



Many Kurds have begun to leave their homes in anticipation of an Iraqi incursion or chemical-weapons attack, or the chaos of a full-fledged northern front offensive. Human-rights observers anticipate that the number of refugees will increase dramatically as the war proceeds.
(c) 2002 Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch

When Eric Stover last visited Iraq, he was carefully documenting dental records, remnants of clothing, and other remains of murdered Kurds exhumed from unmarked graves, many killed by single gunshot wounds to the head.

More than 11 years later, Stover, now director of the Human Rights Center at Berkeley, is back in Iraq. This time, as war rages about him, he is working to prevent the further loss of innocent life.

In a series of recent e-mail and telephone dispatches to campus, Stover described the plight of Kurds fleeing Iraqi-controlled areas for encampments that are dangerously ill-prepared for the influx.

“Thousands of civilians have already fled Kurdish cities for fear of a chemical-weapons attack,” he said. “Once a northern offensive begins, it’s possible that thousands to tens of thousands more will arrive.” (At the Berkeleyan’s presstime, U.S. and Kurdish forces had yet to launch a sustained offensive against Iraqi troops in the north.)

Stover is working with Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human-rights organization, to monitor possible violations of the Geneva Conventions on all sides of the conflict, assess the state of preparations for housing and feeding of civilians sure to be displaced if the war reaches their homes, and warn of human-rights disasters in the making.

Stover’s work in the field of human rights over the past two decades has necessarily taken him to areas of conflict. For example, as former executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, he investigated mass graves in Bosnia in the 1990s. He also has investigated war crimes in Rwanda, Argentina, and Guatemala.

“The potential for a humanitarian crisis is always present so long as the war continues,” said Stover, an adjunct professor since 1996 in Berkeley’s School of Public Health. That same year, he also became head of the campus’s Human Rights Center, part of International and Area Studies. The center conducts research on international human rights and humanitarian law.

In the current conflict, Stover is based in Arbil, a Kurdish city near the front line of Iraqi-controlled territory. When he recently visited two encampments set up nearby to house displaced civilians, he found a mere 10 tents to accommodate a potential flood of thousands of people escaping the battlefront. In addition, the encampments lack functional sanitation facilities, setting the stage for possible spread of disease.

Stover said many of the people abandoning their homes have found shelter with Iraqi Kurds in Kurdish-controlled areas. Others have fled to caves or tented camps in the mountains of northern Iraq, where they are coping with freezing winter rains or snow.

Stover well understands the fear Kurdish people have of an Iraqi attack. In December 1991 he led a delegation of forensic scientists to Iraq to help investigate the cases of Kurds who had “disappeared” during Saddam Hussein’s brutal forced- relocation campaign in the late 1980s. Tens of thousands of Kurds were reportedly killed by the Iraqi government after they were driven out of their oil-rich land, but the exact number remains unknown, since many of the dead are believed to be buried in Iraqi-controlled territory. In 1992, Stover testified before Congress about the mass killings in Iraq.

Since returning to Iraq two weeks ago, Stover has joined Hania Mufti, the London director of the Middle East and Northern Africa division of Human Rights Watch, in interviewing displaced people about why they fled Iraqi-controlled areas, and documenting any human-rights abuses they may have experienced.

Stover related the account of one 23-year-old Kurd, Falah Hassan Kamazan, who fled the northern city of Kirkuk after members of Hussein’s Ba’ath Party came to his house and told him to report to the city police station — where he was to receive a uniform and be sent to the front lines. Kamazan managed to escape with his wife through the back door of his home, and paid smugglers to take them across the front line. From there, Kurdish relief workers transported him and other internally displaced people into the Kurdish-controlled mountains in Diyana.

Stover also reported that while U.S. and British soldiers work hard to distribute humanitarian-aid packages in southern Iraq — despite delays from underwater mines and sandstorms — Iraqi Kurdistan has been left to fend for itself.

“The U.S. soldiers who are arriving here are preparing for a northern front and are not necessarily tasked to provide humanitarian aid to the Kurds,” Stover said. “Virtually all foreign U.N. personnel and relief workers left when the war began. Humanitarian aid will be an uphill battle without their return to northern Iraq.”

Stover and Mufti have also been interviewing high-level Kurdish and opposition leaders about military plans for a northern front; their degree of commitment to the Geneva Conventions; and how they plan to deal with prisoners of war, avoid civilian casualties, and prevent reprisal killings.

The area around Kirkuk is a particularly risky flashpoint for inter-ethnic violence. This is where an estimated 120,000 Kurds, Turkomans, and Assyrians were driven out by Iraqi forces sent to gain control of the region. In their place are resettled Arab families who face retaliatory attacks if the city falls.

“Imagine what Kurds and other displaced ethnic groups would do if they returned to find a resettled family in the homes they were forced to leave,” said Stover. “There doesn’t appear to be any plan [on the part of] the U.S. and coalition forces to deal with the likely violence and potential revenge killings by the returnees.”

Stover plans to stay in Iraq at least until April 18, although his ability to leave will depend upon whether the border to the country closes, among other factors.
“More than 1,000 U.S. paratroopers have landed at Harir airstrip just outside Arbil, and there are heavy U.S. air strikes taking place in Kirkuk and Mosul, not far from the front line,” he reported several days ago. “Things are definitely changing here.”

“For decades now, the Iraqis have suffered unspeakable crimes,” he continued. “It is incumbent upon all sides in this war — the Americans, British, and Iraqis alike — to take all measures necessary to prevent more bloodshed of innocent civilians.”