Idaho soldiers see how Kurdish refugees live

The Idaho StatesmanMarch 1, 2006 

— Kirkuk, Iraq --There's not much soccer played at the Kirkuk soccer stadium. The bleachers are empty except for laundry hanging to dry. A red car is parked on the upper deck with someone living in it. Satellite dishes sprout like mushrooms from the cheap seats.

The stadium, which looks to be about twice the size of BSU's Bronco Stadium, has become home to Kurdish refugees returning to Kirkuk after being driven out during the reign of Saddam Hussein.

Soldiers from the Idaho National Guard's 116th Brigade Combat Team occasionally patrol the refugee camp, making sure insurgents aren't launching rockets or mortars. The soldiers also check to see that refugees are getting food and water. On one recent visit, Idaho soldiers with Bravo Company passed out coloring books and crayons to refugee children.

Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saddam kicked thousands of Kurds out of Kirkuk and moved thousands of Arabs into the region in his "Arabization" program to weaken the Kurdish opposition.

Now those Kurds are returning.

Entire neighborhoods are sprouting up. It's common to see large rectangular chalk lines and cinder-block houses in various stages of construction.

But many of the returning refugees have no jobs and no money, so they're squatting at the soccer stadium and nearby dirt fields.

Outside the stadium, they live in United Nations tents pitched between rectangular, flat-roofed cinder-block houses. People cook on kerosene burners. Their trash goes into holes dug in the hard, red dirt. Sewage ditches run between tents, some of which have electricity and satellite dishes. One tent had a stone wall built inside it.

Some of these people have lived in the stadium and "Tent City" for two years.

'They want to find someplace else to live'

A group of men gathered and spoke through Ben, an Iraqi interpreter working for the soldiers.

The men told the soldiers there has been some theft and fighting at the stadium, but no murders. During the election, which ended Jan. 30, insurgents fired rockets at the stadium and detonated a bomb in an attempt to discourage the Kurds from voting.

The attacks killed a man and a boy.

The men said refugees' basic needs are being met. They've tapped into the city's water system, and the government brings them food.

"They want to find someplace else to live because the stadium is not supposed to be a place to live," Ben said. "The government must do it. No one else can do it."

One man said he rented a house in Kirkuk but was driven out by Saddam. Now that he's returned, he said, he feels that the Iraqi and Kurdish governments have neglected him.

He said he's waiting for the government to give him money so he can build a house.

Kurds build makeshift homes at soccer stadium

Refugees have attached makeshift homes to the stadium, inside and out.

Outside, near the entrance, they've bricked in square living spaces. Women poke their heads out of open windows.

Inside, a running track rings the red dirt soccer field. Beyond the track are clusters of square, stone-and-brick huts built at ground level against the walls of the bleachers.

A Kurdish man with light brown hair and fair skin has "Arem" crudely tattooed on his knuckles and tattooed designs on his forearms. Arem is his name, he said, and he tattooed himself when he was in prison.

He was jailed for refusing to join Saddam Hussein's army, he said. Now he's trying to find a place to live in Kirkuk.

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