Witnessing war: UC Berkeley scholar in Iraq to document conditions of displaced civilians and spotlight potential humanitarian disasters
BERKELEY - 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 with single gunshot wounds to the head.
(Courtesy of Jane Scherr)
More than 11 years later, Stover, now director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, is back in Iraq. This time, as war rages about him, he is working to prevent the loss of innocent life like the kind he has investigated before in countries throughout the world.
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 the northern offensive begins - which could be any day now - it's possible that thousands to tens of thousands more will arrive."
Stover is working with Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organization based in the United States, to monitor possible violations of the Geneva Conventions on all sides of the conflict, investigate the preparations for housing and feeding civilians who are sure to be displaced if the war's frontline hits their homes, and warn of human rights disasters in the making.
Based in Arbil, a Kurdish city near the frontline of Iraqi-controlled territory, Stover said he had visited two encampments set up along the frontline for displaced civilians, but found a mere 10 tents for what could be thousands of people escaping the battlefront. In addition, the encampments lack functional sanitation facilities, setting the stage for possible spread of disease.
"The potential for a humanitarian crisis is always present so long as the war continues," said Stover, an adjunct professor since 1996 in UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. That 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.
Stover said many of the displaced people have found shelter in the homes of 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 assist the Kurdish government in the investigation of Kurds who had "disappeared" under Saddam Hussein's brutal Anfal campaign of forced relocation in the late 1980s.
Some 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 government-controlled territory. In 1992, he testified before Congress about the mass killings in Iraq.
Since returning to Iraq two weeks ago, Stover has joined Hania Mufti, the London director for 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.
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. At the station, he was to receive a uniform and be sent to the frontline. Kamazan managed to escape with his wife through the back door of his home, and paid smugglers to take them across the frontline. 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. (United Nations) personnel and relief workers left when the war began. Humanitarian aid will be an uphill battle without the return of U.N. personnel to northern Iraq."
Stover and Mufti have also been interviewing high-level Kurdish and opposition leaders about military plans for a northern front; their plans to adhere to the Geneva Conventions; and how they plan to deal with prisoners-of-war, avoid civilian casualties and prevent reprisal killings.
A particularly risky flashpoint for inter-ethnic violence lies in Kirkuk and nearby villages, where an estimated 120,000 Kurds, Turkomans and Assyrians were driven out by Hussein's forces to gain control of the oil-rich region. In their place are resettled Arab families that 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 from the U.S. and coalition forces to deal with the likely violence and potential revenge killings by the returnees."
Stover's work in the field of human rights over the past two decades necessarily takes him to areas of conflict. For example, as former executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, Stover investigated mass graves in Bosnia in the 1990s while serving as an "Expert on Mission" for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. He also has investigated war crimes in Rwanda, Argentina and Guatemala.
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 frontline," Stover reported. "Things are definitely changing here."
"For decades now, the Iraqis have suffered unspeakable crimes," Stover continued. "It is incumbent upon all sides in this war - the Americans, British and Iraqis - to take all measures necessary to prevent more bloodshed of innocent civilians."