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Marines reach out to refugee camp

11 May 2004 | Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald

The Kurdish refugees living here have little potable water, virtually no sanitation system, no electricity and limited access to medical equipment.

Marines set out to change all that.

Members of the 1st Marine Division civil affairs team visited here May 11 in hopes of helping to repair the camp's substandard infrastructure.  During the trip, Marines, sailors and soldiers delivered assorted medical supplies and two 30,000-gallon water storage units.

This was one of the first of many trips to the camp, according to Navy Capt. John M. Williams, a public health officer for 1st Marine Division's civil affairs teams.

"This camp is one of the division's high priorities in Iraq," Williams said. "They have almost nothing and need immediate help."

The camp, stretching across one kilometer of barren Iraqi desert, is home to nearly 6,000 Kurds who left their Iranian border-town home at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980.

"At first, Saddam Hussein took us in and treated us as refugees," said Askar Shakari, camp council member and local teacher. "Then he treated us like prisoners, and were forced to live here."

The war lasted until 1988 when both sides agreed to a ceasefire developed by the United Nations. Nearly 1 million people were killed during the brutal conflict and the effects of the war linger today.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees set up the camp, which originally sheltered more than 50,000 refugees. Since then, the number of people living here has dwindled.

"Some have been moved to other countries," Shakari said. "No one wants to be here anymore. We want to return home. Twenty-four years is long enough."

But getting everyone home is easier said than done. Up until last year, the United Nations was working to get the refugees out of Iraq.

After a truck bomb destroyed the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in August, the UNHCR personnel working at Al Tash were subsequently pulled out, leaving the people here to their own devices.

Shakari said his people are tired of living in such squalid conditions.

"We have no sanitation, not enough water and no electricity," he said. "We have a medical clinic but can't get any supplies or medications regularly."

That's where the 1st Marine Division came in.

"We went to the camp to assess their needs and see what we can do for them," said Williams, of Marshfield, Wis. "We realize the people want to return to their home, but there is no master plan for that right now. While that gets figured out, we want to help them as much as possible so they at least have good living conditions."

The division's Marines delivered a truckload of basic medical supplies such as bandages, gloves, sterile dressings, vitamins, antibiotics and pain medicines.

"The medical supplies were given to us by the nongovernmental organization Freedom and Peace Trust which is based out of Boston," Williams said.

The boxes filled the clinic's empty shelves, which are rarely fully stocked.

According to Dr. Rana Faransso, the clinic is equipped to handle the most basic of illnesses and injuries.

"There are five doctors who work here," she said. "We can only treat small things like gastrointestinal disease, common colds and chest infections. We can also deliver babies. If someone needs more, they have to travel to the hospital in Ramadi."

Ramadi is almost an hour away by car.

The lack of water in the camp greatly affects the health of the refugees.

"Each tribe here gets one hour of water every 15 days," Shakari said. "It's just not enough."

Williams agreed and said the division is prepared to assist in the matter.

"We also delivered the water bladders so the people can store fresh drinking water for longer periods of time," he added.

Lt. Col. Michael A. Martin, fuel and power representative, oversaw the water bladders' delivery.

"This is just a temporary fix until we can figure out something more permanent," said Martin, of Atlanta.

Shakari and his people are grateful for the division's assistance and hope for more help in the future.

"When Saddam Hussein was removed from power, the people here thought their prayers had been answered," Shakari explained. "But we've seen little change since then. We hope that the Coalition keeps coming here because the children need it. They are the ones who need clean water to eat and bathe with. They are the ones who need medicine."