UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Kurdish families displaced by Saddam holed up in prison
DAHUK, 24 December 2003 (IRIN) - Muhammad Salim lives in a prison - literally. But he has done nothing wrong and is not a criminal. There are no guards or barbed wire or even bars left at the prison, but he's still trapped.
"I can't see any way to escape," he told IRIN in the northern city of Dahuk. Muhammad's home, like that of nearly 200 displaced and impoverished families, is the sprawling and collapsing prison built in the early 1980s on Dahuk's outskirts.
The complex, nicknamed The Castle or Nazarki (the place where the sun doesn't shine) by locals, was originally a barracks for Saddam Hussein's troops, but from 1988 it became a notorious prison for Kurdish opponents of the regime. It was then that Muhammad was arrested in his nearby village of Baliqah and taken to the prison. Later, he was moved to a "collective village" near Arbil, where he and his family were confined behind secure fencing by guards who shot anyone trying to escape.
When the Kurds rose against the regime in 1991, he fled to the Turkish border before returning to Dahuk to search for work and a place to live. By that time, the prison where he had once been held had been bombed and abandoned, and with nowhere else to shelter he moved in with his family, never imagining that 12 years later he would still be there.
Today, he supports 16 family members on a meagre and intermittent salary he receives as a (Kurdish) peshmerga soldier. If he is lucky he gets about US $60 a month. Unable to find other work, he has been forced to stay in the former prison - this time locked in by economic hardship.
"I dream sometimes that I'm arrested by Iraqis and there is no way out of this place, and then I wake up and it's real. There are no soldiers, but I still can't leave the prison," he said.
Muhammad, aged 50, said he wanted to return to Baliqah, but Saddam Hussein's Anfal campaign of the late 1980s against the Kurds destroyed his village along with about 4,500 others in the north.
First the Iraqi troops burnt the houses, then moved in bulldozers to level what was left. The road to Baliqah, where he once owned land as a farmer, was ruined along with its houses which had stood on it. Still, he considers himself lucky.
Relatives who were arrested with him were later killed in the prison, their heads smashed with rocks by guards. Now, the same courtyard where those atrocities were perpetrated is the only place where the hundreds of children living in the prison can play. Life is tough, and with winter almost here, it is set to get tougher.
Twenty-nine-year-old Kawy has three children and a husband struggling to find work. If he's lucky he gets a few days labouring every fortnight.
Like Muhammad she has lived in the prison since 1991 when she returned from the Turkish border, where she and her family had been sheltering. With blankets for doors, plastic sheeting serving as window panes, and sharing one bathroom with two other families, conditions are bleak.
"I don't want to live here one hour more," she told IRIN. While her two oldest children go to school, buying books and pens is a problem. So, too, is sickness, with the children always falling ill in the overcrowded and unhygienic environment. If her husband, Hakim, has been unable to find work, there is no money to take the children to hospital or pay for medicines. With snow sometimes falling around Dahuk in winter, she worries about having money to pay for power or kerosene to keep her children warm. She says she has no warm clothes for them to wear this year.
She said in the early 1990s they received some assistance from the UN and NGOs, but of late there had been nothing. "Life is very, very difficult, but nobody gives us any help." When she first moved in she hoped they would soon find a proper house to live in and never imagined that more than a decade later they would still be sheltering in the former cells. And for Kawy and the other families around her, the regime change in Iraq makes no difference. "If Saddam Hussein is in Baghdad or not, it doesn't matter, my problems continue," she said.
In the dusty courtyard, 73-year-old Abd al-Wasi told IRIN that his village of Nasrah, in Dahuk Governorate, had also been destroyed by Saddam's troops, forcing him and his family to move to Dahuk city, and from there eventually into the prison, because he had no money for rent. "I would like to return to my village, but there is nothing but ruins left and nobody is helping us rebuild it," he said. He still has a family of four to look after, including a physically disabled daughter, but is unable to find any work, relying on his son, who lives outside the prison, to give him money.
Nearby Isma'il Khorshid flicks prayer beads and stares through thick glasses beyond the high mud- brick prison walls. "One day I hope to escape, but for now I have been detained - by economic adversity," he said.
Themes: (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs
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