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War on Truth  From Warriors to Resisters
Books of the Month

The War on Truth

From Warriors to Resisters

Army of None

Iraq: the Logic of Withdrawal

Published on March 19, 2003

To help these refugees, see the sample letter to
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (pdf. file) (doc file)

Interview conducted by
Laura Covello
New York City

"Just imagine, 12 years, you're going to spend in a tent. In a place maybe one mile square.
It's like a graveyard."—'Hassan', a former Iraqi refugee

A full-scale war in Iraq will create mass destruction and unknown numbers of casualties. The United States government has promised to rebuild Iraq and liberate its people.  Yet the rebuilding process from the first Gulf War has never been completed.
The current war plans seem certain to lead to far higher numbers of refugees than last time.   Yet thousands of refugees from that war are still in a camp in the desert.
In March 1991, immediately following the first Gulf War, there were two uprisings in Iraq, by Kurds in the north and by Shi'ite Muslims in the south.  These rebellions were incited by President George H. W. Bush's famous speech calling upon the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein and, it was widely reported, by CIA and other covert activity in Iraq.  The United States, far from aiding the rebels as promised, gave the Iraqi government permission to use military helicopters in the southern no-fly zone and also allowed the use of tanks and munitions against the rebels and civilians.  The Kurds managed to win some autonomy for themselves; the Shi'ites were massacred.  
Some 33,000 survivors of the rebellion were sent to a refugee camp in the Saudi Arabian desert.  About 6,000 still remain there.  This is a phone interview with two former refugees, Hassan and Tariq.
'HASSAN':  I have a friend who just came from the same camp in Saudi Arabia.  The people there gave permission for him to speak to anyone, to organizations, anyone, to help these people come to U.S.

Traprock Peace Center:  You were in this camp?

'HASSAN':  I was there.  I spent several years there.

TPC:  When did you go there, and why?

'HASSAN':  After the war between the United Nations and Iraq in 1991.  The war started the 17th of January and ended February 28th.  The president, Bush the father, he sent a message to the Iraqi people to be against the government in Iraq, that he would help us to do our government in our way.  We followed this message he sent to us.

TPC:  Tell me about the Shi'a uprising.

'HASSAN':  We did our uprising against the government in Iraq.  Fourteen of the eighteen Iraqi states were in the people's hands.  But the countries around Iraq—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait—they are afraid of another Islamic government, like in Iran.  And the United States, everyone, is so concerned about oil.  So the U.S. let Saddam, the government in Iraq, use helicopters against us.  And they did very big [military] things against us.  And we, the people, we are students.  We have no idea how to fight.  We don't even know the name of the guns they are using [on us].  
After this war between Saddam Hussein and the people of Iraq, the American military made a [refugee] camp between Iraq and Kuwait, and another between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. 
Some U.S. congressmen came to this refugee camp in Kuwait.  And we told them we need a free country, to follow democracy.  We want to make a new government, to be part of the family of the world, be part of the picture of the world.

TPC:  What happened?

'HASSAN':  Then they opened a camp in Rafha, in the north of Saudi Arabia, in the desert [for all the refugees].  Some people were chosen to go to America or Europe by the United Nations.  After that, after three or four months, they gave the camp to the Saudi people.


TPC:  What is the camp like?

'HASSAN':  It is the desert.  You put two tents together, three or four people live together, or maybe one person has one tent.
Water is from tanks, very bad water.  There is a report on the water—it is very dirty, and the salt is very high.  There is no soap or shampoo.  There is no phone, there is no mail, there is nothing.  At night, candles or [kerosene] lamps.
No one can get out, no one can get in.  It's like a jail.  If you are not in your tent when they say, they shoot you.

TPC:  Shoot you?

'HASSAN':  They killed a lot of people.  They sent a lot of people to the government of Iraq.  I was there; I saw this.  They killed more than fifty people.  They sent three or four thousand back to Iraq.  And they get killed there, or put in jail, because they are against the government in Iraq.
TPC:  Who made the decision to kill the refugees, the Saudi government or the guards?
'HASSAN':  It was the guards.  But the problem is, when you have a history, you have knowledge, you speak two or three languages, you have university degrees—and you are being guarded by guards who cannot even write their names. 
The know there are different groups of Muslims?  They [the Wahhabi guards] hate our group. 

TPC:  You are Shiites?

'HASSAN':  We are Shi'a.  So you can't pray, you can't practice your religion.

TPC:  Who is in the camp?

'HASSAN':  When I was there, there were more than 30,000 people.  Do you know how many people are there [still]?  More than 5,000.  They [are] women and kids, old people and young people.
I lived with them.  They are very nice, very educated, and they have a very good feeling for other people.  So it's very bad to keep them in a graveyard.
The people there were students or graduated.  Engineers, doctors, economists.  The women too.  But the children, they only know the camp.  They have no real knowledge about anything. 
They are very good people.  Very nice, very soft.  The life is very bad.  To live like that is very hard; it makes you closer to God.  My God touched my heart with his finger. 
TPC:  You say there was no phone or mail.  Did you have any contact with the outside world?
'HASSAN':   In this camp, there is nothing.  No tv, nothing, they have no idea about life now.  To them, it is still 1991.  They don't know about the Internet.  They don't know what's going on.
All the kids, if you show them a picture of an elephant and tell them it's a dog, they're going to believe you, because they don't know.  They don't know what an elephant is, or a dog.  That's very sad.  I know this, because I was there.

TPC:  Is there a school for the children?

'HASSAN':  They put bad ideas in the children's minds.  They teach them things we don't believe.  They teach them to be Wahhabi.  They teach them that to be Shi'a is bad.  They are against Islam, against all religions.  They are against all the good things in life. 
It's not right to leave people in this situation.  There is just tents, there are no houses, nothing.  Just imagine, 12 years, you're going to spend in a tent.  In a place maybe one mile square.  It's like a graveyard.
They treat these people very bad.  I don't care about the food.  They say they give us one banana, two bananas, fresh meat.  We don't need this.  We need to be free. 
We are from the first civilization in the world—Iraq is Babylon and Sumerian civilization.  They taught the world the to write.  Is this the result for them?  To be in a jail, to be in a camp?

TPC:  What should happen?

HASSAN:  First, we need to protect them, to keep them from being sent back to Iraq, and to keep the Iraqi government from getting to them.    We need to talk to people with power to protect them.

TPC:  What kind of protection?

There are negotiations between the Saudi and Iraqi governments to send these people back to Iraq.  That's very dangerous; I'm positive, 100%, they're going to get killed.  So we need to do very fast action to help these people, to help these people to go to other countries. 

TPC:  You said over 3,000 people were already sent back to Iraq?

'HASSAN':  The United Nations—who said they were running the camp, but they were not—put the names of all the people in the camp on a disk, their ages, their knowledge [degrees and backgrounds].  They did this because many countries prefer to accept educated refugees, with specialized knowledge.  But the Saudi people, they give this disk to Iraq intelligence.  And the intelligence service in Iraq, they have a contract with the managers of the camp.  They came and asked for refugees by name and took them away.
I had two cousins with me.  One is now in Australia, the other one they sent back to Iraq.
TPC:   Do you know anything about your cousin who was sent back?
'HASSAN': I have no idea what happened to him.  I talked to my uncle in Iraq just two days ago.  They have no idea about him.

TPC:  So you have family still in Iraq?

'TARIQ':  Just last week I talk to my family.  I don't tell them where I am.  Just out of my country.  Because if the [Iraqi] government know I am here, they put my brothers in the jail.  They put them in the jail when I left, about eight months, all my family. 

TPC:  All your family?

'TARIQ': Yes.  And they killed my father.

TPC:  I'm very sorry; will you tell me what happened?

'TARIQ':  When I left, they don't know where I went.  They took my father and put him in the jail.  They ask him where I am and he says, I don't know.  They hit him and they use bad things, electric wires, everything. 
They let him out [after several months], but every time there was something in the news, some problem in Iraq, they took my father or my family and ask them everything about me.
After two years, they know I am in the camp, and they ask my father, can you get him [to come back]?  He said, I can't.  And after that, they give him some chemical, something bad, cyanide, something like that.  They give to many, many people in Iraq.  After that, he is sick maybe three months.  After that, he is dead.
'HASSAN':  They took my father in 1974.  He was an economist; he said the economy was bad.  They also took my mother and put her in a jail.  She had three heart attacks [there].
The situation there is very bad, because nobody can say anything.  Let me tell a story—this is not a joke.  When I was in school, I had a friend who told me that the night before, he had a dream he passed the line from Iraq to another country.  It was dream.  He told me this laughing, hey, I went to another country in my dream.  And after week, they came and put him in jail for seven years.   Do you  know why?  Because he had idea, dream, to pass the line to another country.
Everyone knows about Hitler.  Saddam, he killed more than a million Iraqi people.   Just because these people don't want the Baathist party, they don't want Saddam Hussein, to be the government. 
TPC:  So if keeping the refugees from being sent back is the first priority, what needs to happen next?
'HASSAN':  To open their files.  To talk to different countries and get them to accept these people.  These countries accept so many other people, why not these people?

TPC:  How did you get out of the camp?

'HASSAN':  It was a UN program.   They closed the program [in 1997].  I think there are some people in the UN who are trying to get another [program started], but still there is no result.
The people in the camp have tried many things to get the UN to pay attention.  They don't eat, they don't drink, they reject all the food—

TPC:  A hunger strike?

'HASSAN':  Yes.  And a lot of people get depressed; they think: I should kill myself; it's better than having the government of Iraq kill me. 
'TARIQ':  Just...please.  When I left the camp, some children and some women come to my tent and they said, please, please, tell everyone about us.  Please describe everything about us.  Because no newspaper, no media, go to them.  Nobody knows.

[Note: Names have been changed to protect identities.]

To help these refugees, see the sample letter to
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (pdf. file) (doc file)

Page created March 19, 2003 by Charlie Jenks