Western Relief Officials Say Iran Needs Help Fast
ZIVEH, Iran (AP) _ Deluged with about twice as many Iraqi refugees as Turkey, Iran can no longer cope and desperately needs the kind of relief that is pouring into Turkey, Western aid officials say.
″If food is not moved in here quickly, we will be unable to maintain life in these camps,″ David McDowell of Save the Children said Wednesday at this refugee camp near the Iraqi border.
Efforts to bring in international relief for the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, mostly Kurds, who have fled to Iran have also been slowed by the country’s tense relations with the West and Iranian red tape.
Save the Children’s British chapter is providing food for the refugees on an initial budget of $300,000. Not much compared to the millions of dollars spent in Turkey so far by numerous international aid organizations.
″Frankly, I’m surprised that more American groups aren’t here,″ said Eric Weintz, director of projects for the Connecticut-based AmeriCares, the only American aid organization in Iran. ″This is where the trouble is.″
Most refugees in Iran are living in squalid camps, where tents double as latrines, and eating only bread, said John Hicks, another Save the Children official.
Vegetables, sugar, tea and meat can barely be found; when they are, Iranian merchants demand inflated prices.
Aid officials say hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Kurds have died for lack of food, shelter or medicine while struggling to reach Iran.
Western officials and Kurdish refugees generally give Iran high marks for its treatment of those fleeing Saddam Hussein’s army after a failed rebellion.
While Turkish border guards fired on some refugees seeking entry, Iranian troops allowed them over their border and set up camps, albeit sparse ones.
Iranian Kurds have mobilized to donate blankets, food and shelter.
In addition, the Iranian government provides most of the camps with bread and has begun digging latrines and taking other critical steps to improve hygiene, Hicks said.
One example is Ziveh, a camp of about 60,000 Kurds close to the border where most refugees have received tents and blankets from the government.
″It is remarkable to see the transformation,″ Hicks said. ″They’ve done a really good job there.″
While scores of planes have landed in Turkey packed with supplies for refugees along that nation’s border with Iraq, only about a dozen planes with aid have landed at the Iranian airport of Oroumiyeh.
Iranian officials blame what they call a ″Western prejudice″ against their country.
President Bush said on Tuesday: ″We want to help there, but you’ve got to be a realist. I mean the Iranians ... still have strained relations with the United States of America.″
Iran has sent confusing signals to the West, saying one day it can cope with the refugees on its own, then appealing for help.
Twelve years of Islamic revolution have created an almost impenetrable bureaucracy and a suspicion of the West.
For example, Weintz, an American, was not granted a visa until he arrived in Oroumiyeh with a planeload of medical supplies.
McDowell, Hicks and other aid workers have to beg permission from numerous ministries every day to visit refugee sites.
″It might be too much of us to think that 12 years of shackles can be tossed off in a few weeks,″ McDowell said. ″When you stop and think, the Iranians have indeed come very far just to allow us here.″
At Ziveh and in other camps, Kurdish refugees say they are happy they are in Iran and not in Turkey.
″The Turks treat us like dogs. At least we are here with Muslim brothers,″ said Imad Mohammed, a 37-year-old vetrinarian from Baghdad who lives in an army tent with 22 other people.
Many refugees said they believed their only hope was with President Bush, who they refer to as Haji Bush, a respectful Arabic term for an elder man.
Bush’s proposal to establish temporary encampments in northern Iraq protected by allied troops was greeted enthusiastically.
″Even if it is better here than in Turkey, I still want to go home,″ said Hussein Elham, a 39-year-old photographer from Kirkuk. ″But I will only go home if Haji Bush protects me.″