Refugees Since '91, They Dream of a New Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Hassan Falah ran away in the night. With his wife and young child, he grabbed what he could and fled his home in southern Iraq, terrified he would be executed by a vengeful Saddam Hussein.

Falah had taken to the streets, along with tens of thousands of other Iraqis, thinking that Hussein's defeat in Kuwait had weakened the regime and that the United States would step in to support their uprising. Neither proved true: Iraq's military crushed the rebellion. And so he ran.

It was 1991. At the time, Falah was studying to become a physicist. Instead, he became a refugee.

He lives here now, in the mind-numbing Saudi desert; not the desert of lore and poetry, but a barren, flat plain that stretches into nothingness in every direction. In his 30s, he lives in a warren of windowless cinderblock bunkers with 5,000 other refugees, each with nothing to do but wait. They are Iraqis, forgotten and unwanted. The U.S. led a coalition that liberated Kuwait from Hussein, and their lives became collateral damage of that war.

"Can you imagine anyone living here in the desert for 12 years?" Falah said in a near whisper, as if the question itself was obscene. "There is nothing here, just eat and sleep. It is an animal's life."

The Rafha refugee camp is a prison -- not in name, but in function. Its residents are rarely permitted to interact with the outside world. They live surrounded by fences and guarded by Saudi air force personnel. No one in. No one out. They can't work, though they are given free food and a small allowance each month. No one wants them.

With the U.S. contemplating an invasion of Iraq, the Rafha camp is a reminder that the impact of war is often measured not only in death and destruction but in losses that stretch across years, across generations. There are about 1,500 children living in this camp, and many were born here. This is the only life they know.

With a new war, there would no doubt be more men, women and children forced to flee their homes. Although U.N. officials have estimated that 600,000 might become refugees, no one can be sure how many would run or where they would go.

One thing is certain: They would be unwanted. Jordan has said it would not allow refugees inside its country. Iran is not eager to absorb huge numbers. Turkey does not want an influx of Kurds from northern Iraq to swell the ranks of its own restive Kurdish minority. And Saudi Arabia, which has had to contend with violent incidents in the camp and foot the bill for the care of refugees, also says it would not let any more cross over.

"We are planning to prevent anybody from coming inside the border," said Saudi air force Gen. Amer Mutairi, the camp commander. "We are not willing to take any more refugees. Maybe we will put up tents inside Iraq."

The men and women of this camp have another story to tell: one not only of lost years but also of betrayed faith. At least that is how they describe it. They had faith in America, faith that the greatest power on Earth would liberate them from Hussein.

"When we started an uprising in Iraq, the U.S. was against us," said Jabar Jabri, a 60-year-old who dresses in flowing desert robes and waves his fist as he fires accusations. "The U.S. was against the uprising. It was for the regime."

Now they ask one question, over and over. As one of them put it, "We are so tired, we have no life here, please tell us: Is Bush serious? Is he going to get Saddam?"

That was Ali Hachemi, 31. He was a soldier living in southern Iraq when he joined the rebellion.

"This camp is a tomb," Hachemi said, sitting on a small wooden bunk beside a makeshift desk in a space more closely resembling a storage area than a bedroom. "You understand. It is a tragedy."

They want Hussein out, but their message has one catch that they want Washington to hear. There is arguably no group of people with more to gain from a change of regime in Baghdad than these families. But even here, on dusty roads filled with men strolling idly because there is literally nothing to fill the time, a U.S. occupation of Iraq is intolerable. They would rather stay here, they say, than see American troops run their country.

Bravado? Perhaps. But that sentiment is repeated over and over, and could reflect one of the most important uncertainties facing war planners in Washington: How will the Iraqi people respond?

The answer here is: Get rid of Hussein and the people will be thrilled. But: "If they occupy our country, we will fight them more than Vietnam," said Awad Obidi, 34, raising his voice and waving his hands in the air. "If the [U.S.] Army stays in Iraq, there will be problems."

Not all the refugees who fled Iraq in 1991 found themselves trapped in camps. When the dust settled, the Saudi authorities had taken in about 35,000. They set them up in concrete camps intending that their stay would be temporary. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, set up a field office here, and delegations from many developed countries made the trip to entertain requests for relocation.

Saudi and United Nations officials say that 25,195 refugees resettled in countries such as the U.S., Canada and Australia, while others returned to Iraq. But in 1997, the relocation program stopped, says Jamal Yacout, a field assistant with the U.N. agency at Rafha, the only remaining camp.

"At this moment there is no country making an offer," he said. "UNHCR is trying to find a durable solution."

Solutions are difficult to come by. It is not simply a matter of finding a place to go. Many refugees are intent on going home. For many, life in the U.S. or Canada would represent defeat rather than freedom.

"I do not like to travel," said Hamza Zamily, 43, an English-language teacher at the camp. "I'd like to go back to Iraq when Saddam leaves."

Falah, the former physics student, would have left long ago if he could have. He spent years running from wars, only to find himself trapped in this camp.

He first fled the city of Basra in 1985, when Iranian troops attacked during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. He returned months later when the situation was calmer. In 1988, he got married and started studying at the Basra University College of Science.

In 1991, when it looked as if Hussein was about to fall, when all of Falah's friends and neighbors were doing the unthinkable, chanting anti-government slogans in the streets, he picked up an assault rifle and ran to a prison to liberate the inmates. There was a gunfight; people on both sides died. But the prison was emptied.

These were mostly political prisoners, and their freedom was meant to be another blow to Hussein's grip on Iraq. But it didn't turn out to be: Iraqi forces crushed the rebellion in the south, which was led by Shiite Muslims who felt persecuted by Hussein's Sunni Muslim regime. Falah fled with his family.

They first went to the Iraqi side of the border with Kuwait, where they slept guarded by U.S. soldiers for a month, he said. Then they were relocated to the Saudi desert for what was supposed to be a short stay.

Several years ago, his brothers and parents were granted entry to the U.S.; they live in Michigan, Falah says. He was denied access, though he says he doesn't know why. Falah has six children. The Saudis provide him with four concrete rooms, food and the equivalent of about $100 a month. What he wants is his freedom.

"We want the world to hear our voices," he said in careful English. "Is America serious this time? If Saddam is taken down, we will return to our country. We like our country very well."

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