This is a departure from my normal content, but given the situation faced by our Kurdish allies upon the sudden withdrawal of US support, I thought I would post a few pictures from 1991 when I was involved in the creation of emergency refugee camps for the Kurds in Northern Iraq. My goal is not to delve into the current situation, but to give you a glimpse into the people I was surrounded by for about six weeks in the spring of 1991.
To set the stage, our civil affairs unit had been in Desert Storm the months prior to this. After the completion of our mission in Kuwait City during and following the ground war, we redeployed to Saudi Arabia and began preparing for our trip home. However, our mission in Kuwait City had been fairly high-profile and we had attracted some attention by people in the UN, the US military, and the US State Department. So when the Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein’s government – a rebellion actively encouraged by the United States – was repelled by Iraqi forces and their helicopters, we were diverted from our trip home and instead flew to Incirlik AFB in Turkey, convoyed along the Turkish-Syrian border, entered Iraq near Silopi, Turkey and set up in Zakho, Iraq.
As is often the case in situations of privation, the very young and very old bore the brunt of the humanitarian crisis as the Kurds retreated to the mountains. The UNHCR and an international coalition mobilized to create a “safe zone” for the Kurds, which involved creating a “no-fly” zone for Iraqi helicopters and pushing Iraqi forces further to the south. We then brought the Kurds down from the mountains via ground and air transport, and set up a camp that eventually held a few tens of thousands of refugees.
I had been given a mission to head into the mountains with a small team as part of this effort – a mission I was looking forward to. A day or two before I was to leave, an advance party of 900 Kurdish men were brought down from the mountains to help begin set up of the thousands of UN tents that had been dropped in our area. Someone needed to put them to work, and I must have been standing in the wrong place at the wrong time because I got selected for the task that day. The same thing happened the next day (another 900), and based upon the fact that the camp was slowly taking shape without any disasters someone decided I was doing a good enough job that I should keep doing that and my team could be assigned to someone else. And that is how I served for a few weeks as the work boss for thousands of Kurdish men, while leaning heavily on my interpreters and other coalition members.
In the recent coverage, I was taken by the power of this picture. There is something deeply human and timeless about the terror the young mother in the middle is experiencing. One can imagine such a scene from many centuries before. And as I looked at it I got to thinking about some of my own pictures from that refugee camp in 1991.
I didn’t take many pictures during those weeks. I didn’t want to make the refugees feel like they were in a zoo, or I was on some sort of adventure travel experience. But from time to time I’d snap a picture (pre-mobile phones), and thought I’d share a few here. I was particularly interested in the children, who in turn were curious about me and the other soldiers, particularly if we had candy. They were fearful when they first arrived, but quickly adapted – as children do – and seemed to find the camp exciting. Their parents and grandparents, on the other hand, were more concerned.
Since these pictures were taken 28 years ago, many of the children you will see have children of their own today. Maybe you could take a moment and focus on one child as you look at these images.
A transport truck bringing Kurdish refugees into our camp
Children and a bike
This little girl was gathering kindling outside a latrine in the camp.
I was walking downhill on this road and walked past an elderly man heading the opposite direction up the hill, with what likely were his possessions in a sack. It struck me how one could see the burdens he was carrying in both a symbolic way and in a real way.
Young mother with child
Children looking up at me. I was likely in a truck when I took this.
I became good friends with Ahmed, one of my interpreters. At some point we thought it would be funny for me to wear traditional Kurdish garb around the camp. So he located what certainly was someone’s finest outfit, I put it on, and we walked around the camp.
To say this was a HUGE hit among the Kurds would be an understatement. They thought seeing an American soldier dressed in traditional Kurdish attire was hilarious. They wanted me to engage in all sorts of traditional Kurdish activities, as I am doing with these ladies who made some sort of awesome bread over a fire using sticks. It was a lot of fun, and added some color to what was an otherwise drab situation.
Me in the Kurdish garb, and my interpreter Ahmed, standing outside the tent I shared with a few other soldiers for six weeks.
One of the things about huge refugee camps housing tens of thousands of people is that every tent looks the same, so kids would commonly get lost. When this happened, I would grab a soldier with a loudspeaker on this back (the guy to my right in this picture), and put the little kid on my shoulders to help people see him more clearly. I would let him wear my cap and we would then broadcast his name while walking the area. They were always re-united with their family within a couple minutes. It turned out they weren’t that far from home.
A boy with his little brother. I wonder where they are now?
If you’d like to read a story connecting something that happened in this camp and how to form good technology partnerships, you can read this post.
Thanks for reading, and good luck to the Kurdish people.