More than 10 million landmines have been scattered in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1975. Fifty percent of these were made in Italy. During the Iran-Iraq war, vast areas like Haj Omran and Penjwin were mined by both sides. After the Anfal campaign in 1988, Iraqi troops heavily mined the remnants of destroyed villages and booby-trapped them to prevent access by villagers and Kurdish fighters. The last round of mining started during the Gulf crisis in 1990 when Iraqi troops laid hundreds of thousands of mines near the Turkish border to hinder a possible allied attack from Turkish territory.

As a general rule, UN agencies are not allowed to repatriate refugees to heavily mined areas unless extensive physical preparations are carried out as part of a political settlement. Despite their awareness of the problems and presence of mine fields, allied forces and the UNHCR decided to repatriate Kurdish refugees. Prior to any UN-sponsored demarcation of minefields, Kurdish sapper teams started to work in heavily mined areas. Some international NGOs are training Kurdish sapper teams and demarcation experts, but landmines are still an enormous hazard and obstacle for the rehabilitation of rural settlements, arable land and pastures.

In a May 1991 Memorandum of Understanding, the Iraqi government and the UN agreed on the deployment of 500 UN guards in Iraq. In late 1991 the UN guards were the first to leave when Iraqi artillery shelled Kifri and Kalar, two towns on the front line between Kurdish and Iraqi forces south of Suleimaniya. Thousands of refugees who had returned from Iran were forced to flee again. In July 1992, the UN guards in Rania abandoned their post after rumors spread of an Iraqi attack. Their secret retreat at dawn prompted a mass flight of Rania inhabitants, though an attack never occurred.

Since August 1991, Turkish air and ground forces have attacked Iraqi Kurdish territory on a regular basis, destroying rebuilt villages and killing or wounding dozens of Iraqi Kurds. In March 1993, the Iranian army launched attacks against Kurdish villages and refugee camps on the Iraqi side of the border. Pishdashan village, in the Pishder area north of Suleimaniya governorate, was totally destroyed in April 1993 in an Iranian air attack, only a few months after it had been rebuilt following its 1977 destruction by the Iraqi government. NGO personnel working in the area had to ask the UN guards to go in and at least record the damage. Although the village lies north of the thirty-sixth parallel, in the no-fly zone, allied forces did not react. In the case of the Turkish air raids, Ankara’s warplanes take off from allied bases. Furthermore, every allied control flight in the no-fly zone includes Turkish officers.

How to cite this article:

Ronald Ofteringer, Ralf Backer "How Safe Is the Safe Haven?," Middle East Report 187-188 (March/April 1994).

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