Long columns of trucks wait at the Jordanian border
to carry their loads of supplies into war-torn Iraq. When Iraqi drivers wish
to enter Jordan, they now wait up to 18 days to be allowed in. The al-Karama
border is a land of waiting, but not just for the truck drivers. There have
been others waiting to enter Jordan for far longer. The refugee camp situated
in this bleak area is called No Man's Land camp because it literally is just
that: an area of land caught between the borders of two countries with nowhere
else to go.
"If you leave me here, I will die," said the elderly Merza Shahawaz
as he was groaning from the pain in his kidneys. "Please help me."
In his tent covered with plastic sheeting inside the camp, his wife was helping
him sit up. He cannot sit without her holding him up.
"I ask you to help me. I plead for humanitarian people to help us now,"
mumbled the 66-year-old man in dire need of dialysis. His family sitting nearby
shed tears as they brushed flies away from their faces.
His 42-year-old son pleaded, "We are all dying slowly here. You see us
with your eyes, I ask for help. He is dying in front of his family's eyes but
nobody is doing anything for him. We don't want our children's fate to be this.
Death is better than this life. If our children grow up like this, it means
they are dead."
It is one example of the suffering of so many in the camp of over 700 people.
Kurdish-Iranian refugees have a long history of
suffering. Having left Iran under persecution from the government over 20 years
ago, some of them were members of the Kurdish peshmerga militia who fought against
fundamentalist Islamic rule and were lucky enough to escape with their lives.
Many of them fled to Iraq, where the regime of Saddam Hussein placed them in
the al-Tash refugee camp, located 80 miles west of Baghdad, which held over
12,000 Iranian Kurds.
Many of these refugees, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in spring of 2003,
said they were threatened by armed groups and told they had to leave. Several
refugees I interviewed in No Man's Land camp said they were instructed to leave
al-Tash by the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. Palestinians, Iraqis, Jordanians,
and Syrian refugees were also in the mix.
At the time of the invasion the Jordanian government agreed to provide temporary
protection for Iraqis fleeing the fighting and chaos in their country. But when
the Iranian-Kurds from al-Tash camp reached the Jordanian border, they were
denied access. Others were denied access because they lacked valid passports.
Already burgeoning with refugees from Palestine and Iraq, the government of
Jordan felt it had reached its limits and denied access to future refugees.
While the local Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization with help from
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), CARE International,
and other organizations has been working to assist the refugees, it appears
as though it is not enough.
A tattered sheet tied to a chain-link fence that surrounds No Man's Land camp
flittered in the wind. It read: "We Iranian Kurd refugees have gone on
hunger strike because we have been paid no attention from UNHCR and they use
demagogy policy toward our just issue and have not tended to our demand which
is resettlement in third countries. Dying once is better than daily death."
On the other side of the fence a tarp provides shade for 21 men who were on
hunger strike, demanding more assistance from UNHCR.
Omar Abdul Aziz, is 39 years old. He was living in al-Anbar at al-Tash camp
near Ramadi before he came here. "We used to live 23 years at al-Tash camp,"
he explained. "After the war the horrible security came. Due to the fact
that the occupation forces didn't control the borders, Iranian intelligence
came into Iraq and began raiding al-Tash, so we had to leave."
The soft spoken man, weak with hunger nine days into the strike, sat on a mat
while he talked. "I am on hunger strike because UNHCR didn't do anything
for us. This is not the right place for women and kids to live in, and we have
an unknown future. We have no solution here, only moving from camp to camp,
from desert to desert."
Flies buzzed languidly about the faces of the downtrodden men in the tent as
Aziz continued. "We don't want to go to Iraq because it is unstable
and it is not our country. What has happened to us is due to the illegal American
invasion of Iraq. We ask the American people, appealing to their humanity, to
evacuate us from this horrible situation. We are the orphans of the international
community. The international community has kept their mouths closed about us,
and especially the Americans."
Others spoke of spending over two years in the horrible conditions of the camp
where snakes, sandstorms, and scorpions are a daily reality as they languish
in tents seeking shelter from the scorching desert sun.
"We are depressed and we are dying here," Zaman Shakary told me.
The frustration of the 45-year-old man was vented in anger toward UNHCR. "Condoleezza
Rice goes and shakes hands with Barzani, but does nothing for us here. I have
given an order that if I lose consciousness 10 times I will continue my hunger
strike if UNHCR does not respond and help us. Humans cannot live this way."
Most of the refugees were asking for resettlement, but not necessarily to another
refugee camp. "We are asking for resettlement in another country. I have
been on hunger strike for nine days, and my demands are that if I die it is
for life, I do not live for death," said Suwady Rashat. The 43-year-old
added, "I want to tell the American people that the Iraqi government deprived
us of what we need, and it is because of the invasion which has not truly benefited
Nearby sat a 6-year-old boy with a lost, sad look on his face, antagonized
by flies. "I am here because my father is on hunger strike for nine days
now," he told me. "Please, someone needs to help us here."
Another man in the camp, Hassan Sadiq, lived in the U.S. for a year before
the recent invasion. He returned to Iraq just before the invasion, then fled
to No Man's Land Camp as chaos engulfed Iraq. Prior to his time in America,
Sadiq had fled Iran because of his human rights advocacy against the regime
there. He had initially spent time in the nearby Ruwaished camp another
refugee camp an hours drive into Jordan where he went on hunger strike
for 36 days in protest of UNHCR, who according to him, were not doing enough
to assist him from being extradited back to Iran.
"Now UNHCR wants to close this camp and put us back in Ruwaished. When
I was there, I was under constant threat of being extradited back to Iraq. Now
I'm concerned they will transfer us back to Ruwaished, which is nothing but
a jail in the desert." His situation is reflective of many others in the
camp. "I would like to say to the American government that I remember George
Bush says he is fighting for freedom. But by God, here I need freedom and they
have forgotten us. The U.S. has been ignoring us since 1974. The American government
is responsible for us being here, because we are displaced because of the war."
The camp was fraught with health problems without enough clean water
or medical care, diarrhea, minor respiratory problems, sore eyes, and dehydration
abound. Many people tell me they have trouble breathing when sandstorms hit,
which is several times each week.
In another tent, a man told me his 13-year-old son was killed on the road by
a passing truck. His wife aborted her fetus when fighting broke out near the
Iraqi border several months ago. There have been problems in the camp, aside
from the aforementioned health and depression symptoms. The hunger strike was
aimed at UNHCR for not doing enough to help them; however, UNHCR recently managed
to move the entire camp into Jordan.
On May 29, with the assistance of the Jordanian
Hashemite Charity Organization and CARE International, UNHCR moved the 743 residents
of No Man's Land camp to the Ruwaished refugee camp. The long struggle to obtain
permission from the Jordanian government ended with the agreement that UNHCR
would vigorously pursue further solutions for the refugees, who were moved in
Jaqueline Parleviet is the senior protections officer for UNHCR in Amman, Jordan.
"The hunger strike ended because of the move," Parleviet noted. "All
of the refugees I spoke with were happy to be moved. The problems and resistance
we encountered inside the camp went away when we moved them."
UNHCR is now pursuing the solutions of either voluntary return or resettlement
to another country for each refugee in the Ruwaished camp, which is now filled
with about 880 refugees. Yet Ruwaished camp, while at least sitting inside a
country, still remains a dismal place. There are no trees in sight of the wire
fence enclosed spot in the middle of the desert.
While there are some improvements residents can leave for short shopping
trips in nearby Ruwaished, CARE international is providing some vocational training
and schooling, and the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization is providing
food, stoves, water and other necessities the mood remains quite bleak.
Rahma Shaban left Palestine in 1948. Under the intense midday sun, she told
me of having to leave Iraq because of the horrible security situation after
the invasion. "Baghdad is a great place," she added, "but I must
have security for my children." Other refugees blame the new Iraqi government
for there difficulties. "I can't blame Iraqis for our problems," said
Donia Baltergy. "I blame these Iraqis who came with the invaders."
She began to cry as she continued to discuss her situation in the camp. "It's
difficult for us to live in this harsh place," she said, holding her hands
out while she pled, "We've been sitting here for two years. They don't
let us go out, they don't like for us to talk to the press, they don't give
us rights to do anything."
Like the former No Man's Land camp, the Ruwaished camp is plagued with
sandstorms and scorpions, and the residents continue to endure health problems
and cope with ongoing depression. There was little hope for change when I visited,
and many refugees expressed discontent toward UNHCR and other organizations
for not doing more to assist them.
According to Parleviet, some of the Somali and Sudanese refugees were resettled
in the U.S. and Australia, along with 387 Iranian Kurds previously moved to
Sweden. "We have cases pending now for the UK and Ireland," she added.
Yet despite small instances of success, the refugees recently relocated from
No Man's Land are now united with 133 other displaced people in the middle of
the desert, close to one of the worst conflict zones on the planet today.
Discontent toward what has become of Iraq, the country most of these people
love and had to leave, continues to be vented at the U.S. Standing in front
of a small brown tent used to teach women health classes, Rahma Shaban exclaimed
through tears, "The Americans said they were coming to help Iraqis. Now
we see their lies, proven by the fact that they have done nothing but cause
us pain, suffering, and erased our future and the futures of our children."
And until their situation is changed, these feelings will most likely persist.
This article originally appeared in Left Turn magazine.