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Plight of Shiite refugees shows no improvement

Only five months after the end of the bloody uprising in Iraq that resulted in the exodus of over one-quarter of Iraq's population to various neighboring countries, it seems as if the world has forgotten about the plight of the refugees. They have suffered from the same problem as nearly all people around the world classified as "refugees" -- as long as they have enough food, drink and medical supplies to carry them to the next day, they must take second priority to other world events.

Of course, not all of the Iraqi refugees have been treated so negligently. Under pressure from the allied forces, the Iraqi regime has granted the Kurds a safe haven in the north of Iraq where no Iraqi troops are permitted to enter. As a result, many of these people have returned to their homes in Iraq, albeit with limited food and water.

But the Shiites, the same Shiites who, along with the Kurds, were urged by President George Bush to revolt against their dictator, have been forgotten in the deserts of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Why was there such a discrepancy between the treatment given to the Kurds and that given to the Shiites. Why have the Kurds been returned to their homes, while the Shiites sit helplessly in squalid camps?

The reason has been explicitly stated time and time again by various American public officials: the Shiites, being a majority in Iraq, constitute a threat in that they may form an anti-American government much like that of Iran. In other words, the man once called "the modern-day Hitler" must remain happily in Baghdad while millions of his people lie crammed in tents abroad because 10 years ago, people ascribing to the same religious faith as these poor souls revolted violently against a pro-American government which had done them so much wrong. One's sense of justice must truly be contorted to consider this fair treatment.

Only a few weeks ago, I went to Iran to visit the refugee camps, and, hard as it is to believe, I found no terrorists, no fanatics, nobody vowing to kill me because I am an American citizen. On the contrary, I found normal, everyday people. I saw children playing soccer with a tin can they had taken from the market. I watched fathers unload flour and rice from Iranian trucks in 110-degree weather (One even asked me if Tony Dorsett still played football), and I saw mothers cooking lunch for their children. It may come as a shock to some, but these Shiites looked and acted just like the other people I know.

Of course, many did not feel they were being treated as such. Some told me that Bush's "plan" was to leave Iraqi government in place while the people of that country lived like animals. When I asked one person if he was receiving enough food and water to live, he told me he was fed about as well as a pig in an American zoo, and treated no better.

Indeed, the comparison of the camps to a zoo was repeated quite a number of times. They constantly referred to their position as that of animals in cages, and some even refused to have their pictures taken, saying that all the Americans wanted to do was laugh at them, just as they laugh at monkeys and gorillas. There is

a definite anger and frustration in the camps, and nearly all want this unbearable situation to be resolved.

It is easy for one to be judgmental after hearing these things and say that there are many worse off in this world than Iraqi refugees. But one cannot underestimate the severe psychological effects of the situation in which these people have been placed. Iraq is a rich nation, and nearly all the refugees had nice air-conditioned homes in Basra, Amarah, Najaf or wherever else in the south they came from. They were accustomed to three meals a day, with meat at every meal.

The refugees' situation before the war

is similar to that of an average American citizen. Imagine taking middle-class Americans, forcing them from their homes, throwing them into the middle of a desert with eight people sleeping in the same tent. Imagine that they have all lost their jobs and are being fed by an outside source.

Can anyone argue that the result of such a situation would undoubtedly be frustration? Would any reasonable person ignore the plight of these people, arguing that they are not going to die of starvation tomorrow? Can one-quarter of a nation's population be put under these conditions without the least objection, simply on the grounds that basic medical supplies are available? I think not.

The fact that many of the refugees who had earlier revolted against Saddam are now returning to Iraq is a clear indication of how frustrated the Iraqi Shiites are. When those who were intending to return to Iraq were asked it they feared retribution by Saddam's Republican Guard, they all responded in essentially the same manner: that it is better to die as men than to live as animals.

At the core of the refugees' frustration is a deep anger with the West and, in particular, with Bush for watching their suffering with absolute indifference. They point to Voice of America broadcasts which urged them to revolt against the man who had caused them so much suffering, and the subsequent inaction of the American army as it claimed it could not interfere in Iraq's internal affairs.

They often asked me why the United States sent B-52's over Baghdad and troops into Panama if they truly believed in the principle of non-intervention. Having just emerged from a country where the press is tightly controlled, the Iraqi refugees are woefully ignorant of geopolitics and cannot begin to understand why anybody would want them to revolt but not want them to succeed.

In all fairness, however, the refugees were not only disappointed with the United States. They were shocked to hear that many of their Arab and Muslim brethren who were so concerned for their welfare during the gulf war fell silent when Saddam began to turn his tanks against them. They feel alone and abandoned by all who they once believed to be friends, and this feeling of loneliness only adds to their general sense of anxiety. "It is one thing if George Bush betrays us," said one refugee, "but when our own brothers support an oppressor, we are truly at a loss to explain why this has been done."

What terrifies these people the most is their inability to see any end to their suffering. Having completely lost hope in the Western powers, the refugees see nobody who is both willing and able to remove Saddam from power, especially after they had tried and saw with what force he was able to suppress them. (Incidentally, a large majority of these people had joined in the Iraqi uprising, although a significant number chose to leave their homes because they feared the communal punishment which Saddam often practices upon disobedient villages.)

This feeling was summarized a 65-year-old woman who told me that "I could handle this if I knew I could return to my home before I died. I want to see my friends again. I remember how we all used to drink tea together in the afternoons. Sometimes we would then go to the Tomb of Ali [one of the world's holiest shrines for the Shiites] and pray in the evening there. Afterwards we went home to our husbands. I want to return to Iraq."

As the refugee children asked newcomers about the fate of their parents, I became convinced of that oppression, whether against Shiites, Sunnis, Catholics, Jews, Kuwaitis, Palestinians or any other religious or ethnic group, cannot be met with silence. All abuses of human rights must be denounced, and those responsible for such heinous crimes must be brought to justice. Only by practicing such a philosophy can any individual or any country even approach what may be termed moral consistency.

Suffering is very real to those who endure it, and to ignore it in favor of some sort of twisted ideology -- whether it be radical pan-Arabism or New World Orderism -- is extremely unjust to the millions of people alive in this world. We cannot continue to make distinctions between Kuwaiti lives and Iraqi lives, or between African lives and European lives. All human life must be protected from oppression, and any violation of the human rights of any individual must be denounced.

Until the people of the world realize that oppression absolutely and unconditionally violates every principle mankind has ever created, Saddam Husseins will continue to appear. So long, that is, as they kill the right people. Politically correct killing, you might call it.


Haider S. Hamoudi, a junior in the Department of Physics, is circulation manager of The Tech.