Iraq: Fear on the front line

Originally published
Kurds in northern Iraq are once again at risk from conflict, but hope for a change of regime in Baghdad.
By Chnoor Meho in Erbil, northern Iraq (ICR No. 02, 6-Mar-03)

Television and radio here are broadcasting announcements offering amnesty to any of Saddam Hussein's supporters if they defect. All professional people - doctors, nurses, police, firemen and fighters - are on 24-hour call. When we go out, the only topic of conversation is the war: "What's the latest information?"

Kurds are very, very apprehensive about the prospect of war. The children are terrified, even though they have no personal experience of Saddam's cruelty, of his terrible chemical attacks. Kurdish media have been telling us to line our rooms with plastic sheeting and keep a large tank of clean drinking water in the house. We bought crates and crates of bottled water and we tried to buy gas masks, but there were none left - not even for the children.

There is no more plastic sheeting.

Erbil market is like a graveyard. People are only shopping for the daily essentials - bread, milk, chicken, things like that. All other shops have closed because they have no customers.

We are scared that what has happened before will happen again, that the nightmares will come back. We are scared that Saddam will use the war as excuse to attack us again.

Everyone has rucksacks packed with a little clothing and food in case we have to leave in a hurry. In the past we ran to Iran for safety. But this time we will head to the mountains, hoping that the Iraqi army will not reach us there. Those who can afford to have already rented rooms in villages in the mountains.

Over many decades, we Kurds have been betrayed by both America and the United Kingdom. After the Gulf war of 1991, the United States left us like a flock of sheep with a wolf walking in our midst. When Saddam sent his tanks into Erbil in 1996, under the eyes of American planes, America did nothing. Again Kurds died.

This time we are hoping that the Americans will finally get rid of Saddam. We pray that any attack will be so quick that Saddam has no time for atrocities.

We have no other option. Kurdistan is liberated, but it is poor. For the moment we are safe and we have some freedom. There is no more torture, harassment or abuse unless you live near the border with Saddam's Iraq, from where Iraqi soldiers still cross into the liberated area to raid villages. But we are desperately poor. When I married in 1989, we were rich. We had two good incomes, a good house and good car. My husband was a primary school teacher. Today he is unemployed and earns what little he can driving a taxi.

At the moment our family is caring for a guest - our 76-year-old neighbour. She is one of many Kurds who will have difficulty caring for themselves if we are attacked again. Her husband, a primary school inspector, died last year. For a while she had a small pension. But this has stopped now because the regional government does not have the funds for this type of luxury.

When the American-backed opposition was meeting here last week, Turkey closed its border with northern Iraq. We don't really know what went on at the meeting, but we do know that the closure of the border had a dramatic effect on the prices of oil and gas. They rocketed.

The Kurds see none of the proceeds from the oil that Saddam is allowed to sell. Without the help of my sister in Britain, who sends us $100 to $200 a month, we could not survive. We will worship anyone who saves us from Saddam. They will be our saviours.

I have lived in fear all my life. It is our dream to see Saddam and his barbaric regime go. Nobody wants war. We will pay a big price. But we see no other way.

Chnoor Meho is a mother of four and teaches in a secondary school in Erbil. She asked that her name be changed for her own protection.