Iraq + 1 more

Iraqi men despair at Saudi refugee camp

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By Mariam Isa

RAFHA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Tears roll down Mohamad al-Asaidi's cheeks as he describes his feelings after living for 12 years in an enclosed Saudi refugee camp set up after the 1991 Gulf War.

"It's like life imprisonment. I have lost my childhood, my manhood. It's like we are living in infinity - some people die of grief," said Asaidi, 26, a Shi'ite Muslim from southern Iraq.

Asaidi is one of 33,000 people who fled to the camp at the northern Saudi town of Rafha, after Iraqi troops crushed a 1991 Shi'ite uprising sparked by U.S. calls for Iraqis to overthrow President Saddam Hussein.

Although most of the refugees have now been resettled in other countries, 5,200 remain in the barren desert camp, which is ringed by barbed wire and security fences.

About 1,800 are single men over the age of 19. Many have begun to despair of ever living a normal life.

"So many of us cry before we go to sleep and when we wake up in the morning. We have done nothing wrong. We deserve better than this prison. Everything is dark for us," Asaidi said.

Camp psychiatrist Hisham Zamka said although he knew of only five suicides in the history of the camp, many others had tried to take their lives.

He believes that the refugees under most pressure are the single men, who cannot marry, study or work. Older men, along with their wives and children, are more able to cope with the isolation and lack of activity.

"We are helping them, and they are living well, but this is a big problem," he told Reuters.

GILDED CAGE

Exact figures are not available, but the Saudi government has spent billions of riyals to feed, clothe, house and provide medical treatment for the Iraqi refugees.

There are schools for the children and every housing unit has a television, with heating in winter and air-conditioning in summer. The refugees get fresh food every day and the Saudis have built a small hospital with 64 staff.

In addition, men get 300 Saudi riyals ($80) in pocket money every three months, while women get 350 riyals.

Camp officials rotate the 300 jobs available to refugees as cleaners, teachers or drivers every six months, but this does little to relieve the monotony.

"I have no work. I sleep to escape. Or I watch television and read newspapers," said 33-year-old Akir Hameed. His methods of coping were echoed by many other young men in the camp.

Samer Haddadin, the Rafha representative of the United Nations refugee agency, says it is undoubtedly one of the best serviced refugee camps in the world - but that none of this alters the psychological trauma of being a refugee.

Foreign countries stopped taking refugees from Rafha late in 1997, and there has been no sign they will change that policy, he said.

Last year Saudi Arabia offered to integrate the 2,000 Rafha refugees who said they wanted to remain in the Muslim world, if other countries took the rest.

So far, there have been no takers.

"Our camp is forgotten. We are losing our energy. There is no hope, no clear way forward. Our youth is destroyed," said Ali al-Hachan, 31.

NIGHTMARE

An art exhibition created by some of the camp's 2,000 children under the age of 15 sends the same sombre message. One gloomy watercolour shows an old man trudging up an empty road winding through a rocky, overcast landscape.

Another shows a child screaming after she wakes from a nightmare in a cell-like room, with a violent storm blowing through a broken window.

Many of the refugees hope they will be able to return to Iraq one day, but very few are optimistic that a U.S. attack on Iraq will make this possible.

Most still feel deeply betrayed by the fact that Saddam's army was allowed to crush their revolt, after President George Bush senior encouraged them to try to overthrow their government.

"There is mistrust between us and the United States - they promised to help us in our uprising but they broke that promise," said Najim Kamel, 31.

"That is the reason why we are here."

U.N. officials say there could be up to 600,000 new refugees if U.S. and British forces attack Iraq.

"We are waiting for the chance to return home. But I am worried there will be many victims if there is another war," said Ali Yacoub Mohamad, 43.

Kathin al-Shamri, a 64-year-old poet who has overall responsibility for his countrymen in the camp, says there is little to hope for.

"Saddam is one problem," he said. "If there is a war, there will be two problems - like a woman with twins."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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