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Story Publication logo January 27, 2003

Angst in Exile; Refugees Want Saddam Out -- But Many Fear War, Distrust U.S.


The following article ran as part of a thirteen-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 23-February 15, 2003.

On a stretch of empty desert just south of the Iraqi border, some 5,000 suffering Iraqis have been waiting 12 years for the United States to make good on its promises.

During the Persian Gulf War, U.S. planes dropped leaflets exhorting Iraqis to rise up and topple Saddam Hussein. In the chaos at the end of the war, the Iraqi people responded, seizing 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces and purging many local leaders allied with Saddam. Then Saddam brutally struck back, making helicopter attacks in regions of the south and north where U.S. and allied forces had pledged -- but did not deliver -- aerial protection. Some 33,000 Iraqis fled south across the Saudi border. They were processed into refugee camps by U.S. forces and given the promise of resettlement. Many did get the chance at new lives, including some now in St. Louis.

The 5,103 Iraqis who remain at Rafha Camp weren't so fortunate. For them, the limbo of the Gulf War continues, even as President George W. Bush prepares for a second run at Saddam.

Camp officials and residents said the visit Friday by two Post-Dispatch journalists was the first by American media in the history of the camp. The refugees seized the moment, spilling out wrenching accounts that they said they've waited more than a decade to tell.

"This is the first time I've ever spoken with an English-speaking foreigner," said Ahmed al-Asady, 25, one of many young men here who have taught themselves English in hopes of winning a shot at resettlement.

"I will write down this date," al-Asady said. "It is a very important day for me."

Al-Asady finished high school here six years ago and has had few options since, in a setting that offers no access to university training and just 300 jobs at the school, clinic and other camp facilities.

"We're desperate and we're angry," al-Asady said, grabbing a reporter by the arm.

"For 12 years, we've had this crazy situation. For 12 years, we've had no work, nothing to do, no freedom."

Many here are deeply suspicious of current plans for war, or opposed outright. Some think the Americans will again betray their hopes. Others think that the United States is more interested in Iraq's oil than its people. Everyone fears what a war might mean for family members still in Iraq.

"We don't want a repeat of 1991, when the United States aborted our efforts to overthrow Saddam and destroyed so much in Iraq," said Karim Saad, 40, who worked before the 1991 war as a water truck driver. "Every Iraqi wants to get rid of Saddam and his regime. No one wants Iraq destroyed by American missiles and bombs."

Refugees are isolated here but not completely out of touch, not with the satellite dishes that sprout from many of their homes. In a setting with so few other diversions, these are people who lap up television reporting, from CNN and al Jazeera to BBC, domestic Saudi channels and even Fox News.

They're well aware that the United States is focused, like a laser, on the country that is just six miles to the north.

But if the fate of Iraq's people is so important, they ask, then what about them?

"A lack of political will"

The United States stopped taking refugees from Rafha in 1997, partly in hopes of pressuring other countries to do more. At that point, 12,500 Rafha refugees had been resettled in the United States -- including several in St. Louis. That was about the same total as the rest of the world combined.

U.S. processing of refugees worldwide slowed to a crawl following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The State Department's Bureau of Population, Migration and Refugees reported in November that the government had processed just 1,800 refugees from the Near East and South Asia in the 2002 fiscal year, down from 12,000 the year before.

More than a year ago, the Saudi government offered to resettle 2,000 of the Rafha refugees within Saudi Arabia itself, on condition that the rest of the world take in the rest. So far, there have been no takers, officials say, as most countries wait for the United States to take the lead.

A senior U.S. diplomat in Riyadh said the administration at the moment was focused less on the existing refugees than on the possibility of more, from a new war. Saudi Arabia has said it would be willing to take in more -- unlike Jordan, Turkey and Kuwait, all of whom have said they would not allow a repeat of 1991, when tens of thousands of Iraqis poured across the border.

The diplomat said the United States hoped to take care of any displaced people within Iraq itself, where U.S. military forces plan on assuming at least temporary civil control in the wake of a war.

As to the failure of the administrations of both Bush and former President Bill Clinton to help resettle the refugees still stuck in Rafha, this diplomat was unusually blunt. "What it was," he said, "was a lack of political will."

Living in isolation

The Rafha camp is "like a gilded cage," says Samir Haddedin, local administrator for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, "but a gilded cage is still a cage."

By some measures, the Rafha camp is the best equipped in the entire world. Each family here has a three-room concrete-block house, air-conditioned in summer and heated in winter. They have ample food rations, excellent medical care and well-staffed primary and secondary schools. The entire cost is funded by the government of Saudi Arabia, in a display of host-country generosity unique in the world.

All that the people of Rafha camp lack is everything else that makes up a normal life.

"We are grateful to the Saudi government," says Ahmed al-Asady, the self-taught English speaker. "They have given us teachers, food and housing. We ask them to give us one thing more: our freedom."

The refugee camp sits 12 miles north of the town of Rafha, a transit point on the border road that parallels the Iraqi border along the way to Jordan. Until three months ago, refugees at the desert camp had no access even to the half-dozen streets of Rafha. Saudi officials now permit small groups, several dozen at a time, to spend a supervised afternoon in the town.

Yet camp residents still chafe under other restrictions, including a nightly 10 p.m. curfew that has been in force for nearly a decade. Residents have limited access to computers through the school but no access to the Internet. A teacher and one other resident have been jailed since last summer, charged with using school computers to record testimony on camp conditions. Residents say there have been a dozen or more suicides since the camp opened; the U.N. office has recorded only one, plus four or five attempts, but says the level of psychological stress is undeniably high.

The lack of educational opportunities is particularly oppressive. A round-faced man named Ali said he graduated from the high school five years ago, dreaming of becoming a doctor. With no access to advanced study, however, "that dream is an impossibility," he says.

Older men talk of a lost decade. "We came as young men, and now we're in our 40s," says Najeab Hashim, one of the camp's elected representatives. "When will we have the chance to marry, to raise a family?"

International workers here say that the women in Rafha camp suffer even more, confined for the most part to their homes. Many have grown to adulthood but remain unwed because, given the complicated tribal traditions of southern Iraq, their parents often feel there is no suitable match from men in the camp.

And what of the children? Nearly 1,000 of the residents were born here, children who have known no life at all beyond the dusty roads, barbed-wire fence and desert horizon of Rafha Camp. They have had no experience of city life, they have seen no forests or rivers, and most of them have had no contact with anyone beyond their fellow refugees.

The secondary school has a room devoted to several hundred drawings by students. About half show the geometric designs of traditional Islamic art, with elaborate calligraphy spelling out some of the 99 names of Allah. But the walls also display poignant glimpses of worlds unknown, of mountains and elephants and snow.

"The children here are so isolated," said Salim al-Rashi, 28, an English teacher. "They can't even tell the difference between camels and cats. One day a herd of camels passed by in the desert, beyond our fence. The children were excited, shouting to each other, 'Look at the giant cats.'"

Questioning U.S. motives

If anyone championed a war on Saddam Hussein, it would figure to be Iraqis in Rafha Camp, so close to home and presumably poised for repatriation once Saddam is gone.

Some of the residents do support a U.S.-led invasion, even suggesting that they would eagerly sign up to work as interpreters and guides for U.S. forces.

"We call President Bush 'Uncle Bush,'" said Farouk al-Asadir, one of several dozen men in the camp who crowded into a makeshift classroom to press their concerns on the visiting journalists. Al-Asadir said several hundred residents staged a monthslong hunger strike in 2001. They'll do it again, he vowed, if Saddam survives the current crisis.

"We would be so disappointed if Saddam isn't overthrown," al-Asadir said. "We want a solution, finally, of all our misery."

Yet in conversations across the camp, talk of war leads inevitably to skepticism about U.S. intentions and staying power, colored by painful memories here of 1991.

"We know that it was the Americans who began the popular uprisings after the 1991 war, and it was the Americans who crushed them," said Ahmed al-Delami, an elected representative of refugees at the camp.

Al-Delami says he was a reluctant soldier in Saddam's army, among the many who surrendered to U.S. troops at the end of the Gulf War and then sought refugee status for fear of what might happen if he went back home.

Al-Delami said he had never been a supporter of Saddam. "Just so you don't misunderstand," he said, "you should know that Saddam had my father executed, in 1971."

Refugee leaders who joined al-Delami in a meeting with the Post-Dispatch pointed to Saddam's history of close collaboration with the United States, stretching back to periods in the 1970s and 1980s when U.S. policy tilted toward Iraq despite Saddam's known and repeated abuses of human rights.

"America is the problem, the same as Saddam," al-Delami said. The other leaders nodded their agreement, in the presence of the Saudi general who commands this camp.

"You pretend to be humanitarians, but you are against us," al-Delami adds. "No honest Arab, and no honest Muslim, would believe that America is coming because it truly wants to help Iraq."

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