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July 13, 2005

No Man's Land Along the Iraq-Jordan Border


by Dahr Jamail

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.

Hunger Strike

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 Iraqis."

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.

Dismal Place

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 three convoys.

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.

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    Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Dahr Jamail writes about the effects of the US occupation on the people of Iraq, since the mainstream media in the US has in large part, he believes, failed to do so.

    Dahr has spent a total of 5 months in occupied Iraq, and plans on returning in October to continue reporting on the occupation. One of only a few independent reporters in Iraq, Dahr will be using the DahrJamailIraq.com website and mailing list to disseminate his dispatches and will continue as special correspondent for Flashpoints Radio.

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