The Broader Picture / Starting again, after Saddam

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The Kurds are rebuilding the village of Yakmala for the second time. In 1969 the Iraqi army beseiged it and then bulldozed it, alleging that the settlement in the highlands of north-west Kurdistan was a guerrilla base. In 1988 the troops returned. This time on the orders of Saddam Hussein. They gassed the villagers first, and then bombed the site. Men who survived were taken away to prison camps in the south. They have disappeared. The systematic destruction of Yakmala was part of a plan hatched by Saddam to exterminate Kurdish civilisation in the north. The complete success of his scheme, which claimed an estimated 180,000 lives, was thwarted only by the start of the Gulf war.

Now the Kurds are back at Yakmala. One hundred families are hard at work laying the foundations for rough, stone houses they hope will become permanent homes. Throughout the north, the Kurds are enthusiastically reconstructing their society. It is summer and there is fruit in abundance and meat, if expensive, in the markets. The Kurds elected their own government this year; they have their own defence force.

In towns like Dahouk, people relish the return of something like a normal life. Saleh, a 65-year-old merchant, has reopened his grocery. A year and a half ago he was forced to flee with his family to Turkey. His mother died of cold and dysentery on the way. But he lost none of his grandchildren. His eight-year-old grandson was told that: 'Those who walk are heroes,' and he did for 14 days. The boy now beams whenever the talk turns to that terrible trek across the mountain. Saleh returned to find his house had been looted by Iraqi soldiers. But he is recovering from the ordeal: 'Life is difficult,' he says, 'but not as bad as before'.

The Kurds were the greatest pool-table manufacturers in the Middle East and the carpenters are back in Dahouk carefully laying the red baize on the tables inside their tiny lock-up workshop. The television repairers are busy: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a key member of the coalition government, has set up a television station in Dahouk and sets that work fetch handsome prices.

Few, however, harbour any illusions. This slow reconstruction is secure only as long as the allied military continue to provide air cover for the north and as long as Western aid agencies remain. Saleh was overjoyed when he heard that the allies had decided to extend their protection of the Kurds last month for another six months. 'If they hadn't,' he said, 'we would all have fled back to Turkey.' 'English very good, very good,' said another man. 'George Major very good, very good.'

The aid agencies are critical to the efficient supply of food and medicine, and to the rebuilding of the villages. But Kurdistan is becoming increasingly dangerous for them. Baghdad shows no willingness to extend the memorandum, signed after the Gulf war, which gives relief workers the right to reside in the north. The agencies have found themselves targets of violence, apparently inspired by Iraqi agents among the Kurds. Recently, a bomb was found under a vehicle belonging to a British charity. It has since withdrawn several of its workers. The United Nations relief organisations have been sharply criticised by independent agencies for lack of co-ordination and commitment. The Kurds fear that the UN is about to withdraw. If they do, everyone else will follow.

Without Western aid, the situation in Kurdistan will rapidly deteriorate. Nobody doubts that Saddam will wreak a terrible vengeance against the Kurds if he is given the opportunity. And any renewal of hostilities between the West and Iraq will only increase his appetite for retribution. Will the second rebuilding of Yaklama be its last?