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With the Kurdish Refugees: What a Pair of Slippers Say

AT first sight the snow-capped mountain at the Turkish-Iraqi border seemed to emerge from a fairy tale. Like the misty peaks in fables, it retreated as you approached. The larger it loomed the more unattainable it became. But when I saw the horrors spread over the slopes near Ararat's summit they seemed portrayals of hell or the apocalypse. "My wife gave birth to triplets yesterday," a young Kurd said. "They are dying of starvation, come, look!" But you don't look. Someone else, realizing you have come to write of their suffering, says he buried his mother and daughter, dead of starvation and the march through the rain.

In a momentary silence you listen to the tremendous hum of hundreds of thousands of people ranged across the slopes - wailing children, screams, gunfire, shouts; disaster, rage, shame.

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Children play, and witness all: the crippled, those burned with napalm, people out of their minds. For some reason the slippers that Kurdish women wore caught my eye. The women wear these slippers at home or to visit their neighbors in Iraq, where summer comes early. But on the mountainside, these slippers sank in the freezing mud and fell off their feet.

The women say they had abandoned their homes, dressed as they were, fearing poison gas the moment the bombing began and they saw Saddam's planes and helicopters. Others thought they'd be able to go right back home after a brief attack.

Whatever the reason, the hungry and cold Kurdish women on the mountain's snowy hill wore slippers - a sign, if nothing else, that the Kurds were not prepared for the catastrophe that befell them.

To say, with President Bush, that the Kurdish tragedy is the result of years of internal strife, is to ignore what these slippers mean: Hundreds of human beings dying every day from hunger and cold; family members lost in the panic; fathers, forced to abandon their children.

The terrible stories in the camps are the result not of many years of internal strife, but of an unexpected external intervention - something sudden. When I asked whom they held responsible for their plight, at first everyone, young and old, male and female, Kurds and the handful of Christians who had also fled their homes, named Saddam Hussein. For these people struggling to survive under primitive and unsanitary conditions, to curse Saddam is a way to derive strength from a powerful rage that keep s one alive. In cursing Saddam a way has been found, not to comprehend events, but to avoid understanding them.

When you talk not about hunger, cold, and death, but about the causes of the disastrous exodus, you sense the Kurds immediately crowding around you are desperately asking this question themselves.

A 70-year-old clan leader I talked with spoke of why the Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq failed. The Kurds had been unable to establish order in the regions they held. There was no regularized form of cooperation among the clans. They did not know how to operate the tanks, planes, and helicopters they seized from the Iraqi military. Their army lacked the necessary modern organization and discipline.

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But he had also thought the world and America would support the Kurds. That America had until recently supported them against Saddam, encouraging them to revolt, was something the Kurds fighting to live on this high mountain peak spoke of carefully, sometimes in anger, sometimes in a whisper. Why this support was cut off was another question, one acquiring a dimension of mystery.

In these high plateaus where to avoid death by starvation, people leap at each other's throats as they storm trucks distributing bread, you immediately perceive when these questions are asked how profoundly abandoned the Kurds feel.

The pitiless rain that gave no pause during the first four days of their flight made most of them feel the whole world, and God, had forgotten the Kurds.

During the journey to these camps on the Turkish-Iraqi border, in a Kurdish grocer's shop at a town called Sirnak whose population is mostly Kurdish, I saw this sign on the wall: "May God grant you twofold whatever you wish for me!"

When one considers the Kurd's endless ordeal, it is an ominous sign.

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