Thousands of Iraqis have begun fleeing northern areas of the country after fierce government counter-attacks against rebel-held areas which left hundreds dead and wounded and caused panic among large sectors of the population.
Many of those escaping are now trying to make their way across the Tigris River into Syria where a single refugee camp, which during the Gulf war housed fewer than 40 Iraqi refugees, now has more than 1,000 living in it, with the numbers growing daily.
Some of those who escaped the counter-attacks earlier this week yesterday described the situation in rebel areas of northern Iraq, where government artillery and helicopters have begun stepping up random attacks on civilian areas seized earlier by Kurdish rebels. The refugees were speaking to a group of three reporters allowed into the camp by the Damascus authorities.
Daoud, a house painter aged 26, who arrived here with his wife and small child, said: “The latest bombardment began at 5am on Tuesday morning and that was when I decided to leave. Life was no longer supportable for my family. Missiles fell on the next-door house to ours and in many other places nearby.” In common with all the refugees, he refused to give his second name for fear of reprisals against family members.
Like many of the Iraqis arriving at al-Hawl, five miles from the Iraqi border, at the rate now of more than 100 a day, Daoud is a Christian whose area in the “liberated” town of Dahok had been hit regularly by long-range Iraqi artillery and helicopter gun-ships. The town has a population of about 150,000 and is in an area where the government has been stepping up its resistance to the rebels.
“The refugees who are arriving here are exhausted, shattered and terrified by what they have seen,” said Abdullah Arrai, the camp administrator. “Now that the situation in the north is worsening, they are coming in ever greater numbers. Many are also trying to flee to Turkey and Iran where the route is more mountainous and the journey therefore safer.”
Many refugees spoke of the fear of mass reprisals against ordinary civilians if the pro-Saddam forces were to regain the upper hand in the north. “We were afraid that there would be killing everywhere if the government began to come back against the organizers of the uprising or those who had lived with it,” said Yoram, a student teacher who also fled after Tuesday’s bombardment of Dahok.
According to the refugees, the rebels have control of all towns in the north with the exception of Mosul. But they are now facing a determined government counter-attack.
“On Monday, I watched from the window as two government helicopters attacked Dahok. I saw one of them shot down from the ground, but the other was firing missiles. It was very frightening,” the manager of a Christian cultural center said. He had crossed the Tigris in a small canoe to Syria.
The sudden arrival of Iraqi refugees in Syria is seen as proof among the mass of claims and counter-claims of the difficulties now facing the anti-Saddam rebels in the north in the face of Iraq’s heavy weaponry.
The picture painted yesterday by the refugees, none of them members of the Iraqi resistance, although all claiming to be sympathetic to it, left a less rosy view of life in northern Iraq than that normally given by more partisan opposition spokesmen and Kurdish figures directly involved in the fighting.
The refugees praised the rebels for releasing food and for trying to look after the tens of thousands of deserters, but said that supplies were short and were becoming more difficult to obtain. There was also no water or electricity in many areas.
“I could not imagine remaining another day,” said Fuad, a blacksmith.