World turns its back as Kurds die quietly: Starved of medicines and with donors losing interest, tragedy is again threatening Iraqi Kurdistan. Julie Flint reports from Erbil

IN ERBIL hospital, once the pride of northern Iraq's Kurdish region, 24-year-old Peyman Mustafa is dying. She would not have been a year ago. Admitted with an infection that can no longer be treated, she developed first jaundice and then kidney failure. 'I stay in the ward most of the night just looking at her,' her doctor says bleakly. 'I cannot leave her and I can do nothing for her. I have nothing to give her.'

Runak Kamal, 22, is already dead, 10 days after graduating top of her class at Erbil University. She was admitted with a minor infection; she needed drugs that are not available. Nine-year-old Ardalan Nasreddine, who shared her ward, is not expected to survive. His cancer would have a chance of being cured if the hospital had what it needs to treat him, but it does not. Nor does it have more than emergency stocks of anaesthetics, antiseptics and dressings. Cleaners are about to be laid off because the administration cannot find pounds 150 for their monthly salaries.

'The real suffering is starting now,' Dr Chalak Barzingi, of the 400-bed hospital, says. 'We expect cholera in a month's time and we have no intravenous fluids. This is not medicine in the 20th century.'

A year after the Kurds elected their own parliament to fill the gap left by Baghdad's administrative and economic

blockade of the region, donors are losing interest in Iraqi Kurdistan. The United Nations has received only dollars 244m (pounds 167m) of the dollars 420m it wanted for the year and has cut its expatriate staff by half. Several non-governmental organisations, including the French medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, have been frightened off by a campaign of terror that has killed two aid workers.

'It's not a disaster, but it's a collapsing situation,' says Save the Children's Simon Mollison. 'I accept (Iraqi-controlled) southern Iraq was bound to be difficult, but this wasn't. A year ago we believed we were going where the arrows were pointing. There was hope.'

More than that, there was euphoria. The two main parties, Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democractic Party and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, had triumphed in their first free elections and shared power equally. With the international community fully behind them, they were confident good government would be rewarded just as bad government was being punished.

That confidence has gone. 'We have been given firm guarantees that the military protection of the Kurdish people will continue and there will be no dealings with the dictatorship,' Mr Barzani said after visiting Washington and London. 'But I do not understand the West's attitude to economic support.

'Our internal situation is good and we are drawing up the laws we need to govern. But this cannot continue if the economic situation is not good and the backbone of the economy has been broken. The present state of affairs cannot go on. Either people will start dying - or there will be another mass exodus.'

Under a deceptively calm surface, the deterioration in the Kurdish region is striking. There is more food in the market than there was last year, but prices are prohibitive for most people - especially since Saddam's withdrawal of the 25 dinar note decimated the local economy. With inflation reducing his 300 dinar salary to barely pounds 10 a month, Dr Barzingi has been forced to sell his refrigerator to live. The poor who have nothing left to sell walk behind harvesters picking up stalks of wheat - a shocking sight in this fertile region.

'It's very hard to see how a farmer makes ends meet,' says Mr Mollison. 'Everything is stacked against him: he's probably got to go 100kms for a spare tyre. And he's the lucky one because he's got access to a piece of land and therefore a productive asset. For want of a little bit of help, those who aren't taking one step forwards are taking two steps back. Everything is decaying.'

An engineering consultant sent to northern Iraq last month has warned that its battered, overloaded electrical grid may not survive the winter. Breakdowns are causing power cuts and UN sanctions make spare parts impossible to obtain. Roads have not been repaired, bridges are still broken. Schools are open, but not equipped. Recently re-established herds are dwindling because of cuts and delays in vaccination programmes. 'Foot and mouth disease has been sweeping through the area in the last month,' says Mike Jordan, an agriculturalist. 'In some places 60 per cent of herds are infected - goats as well as cows.'

Allied officers serving with Operation Provide Comfort, the rump of John Major's 'safe havens' protectors, are increasingly worried that political instability born of economic hardship will undermine their efforts to protect the Kurds. 'There is no area that is not threatened by the Iraqi army,' says a senior Allied officer. 'They can do anything they want, anywhere along the line. So much depends on the direction of the assistance programme. The organisational structure of the United Nations is totally ineffective. If non-governmental organisations go away, the aid programme stops and northern Iraq goes down the toilet.'

The UN's much-criticised 'winterisation programme' of 1991-92 looks almost good today. Kerosene for winter was delivered in March this year. And with most of the harvest in, Unicef, the lead agency, is still discussing how to keep the crops in the area despite the higher prices offered by Baghdad. Development aid is conspicuous by its absence.

'Donors could certainly have doubled the money without it being a big deal,' says Mr Mollison. 'It's not just money; it's commitment. There has been virtually no UN programme here since April 1992. The UN programme has collapsed because donors did not put the money in.'

Mr Barzani argues that the UN could do more with its money if it was tougher with Baghdad, the filter for its entire Iraqi programme and a source of endless obstruction. 'We want the UN to deal with us directly,' he says. 'Baghdad has no authority in our region. It has no legal right here because it was never elected, and it has no moral right because it has destroyed our villages. The UN is dealing with us as a part of Iraq. If we are part of Iraq, give us our share of Iraq's frozen assets.'

The Kurdish parliament needs more than money. It needs skills. Mohammed Tewfik, Minister of Humanitarian Aid and Co-operation, graduated as a mechanical engineer in 1978 and carried arms until 1991. 'We know how to blow up bridges, to stop tanks, to destroy power stations,' Mr Barzani says. 'Now we have a role we are not familiar with. We need your help.'

But donors appear reluctant to work with the Kurdish government, apparently fearing that a strong administration would unsettle neighbouring states with Kurdish populations of their own. Thus one of the European Community's largest projects in northern Iraq - a power line in the Sulaymaniyah area - has been entrusted to a Kurdish NGO rather than the regional government. 'Local NGOs are getting all the resources and seem to be setting up a parallel administration,' says a critic. 'The government has a very difficult job, but it's learning. Rather than build half a power line, the EC would have done much better to give the government spare parts.'

Despite their frustration, and the difficulties of life, most Kurds are still behind their government. 'I would not work for 300 dinars for even two days,' says Dr Barzingi. 'I am working because I want this process to succeed. If it does not, the first victim will be the Iraqi people. The second will be this government we bought with our blood.'

(Photograph omitted)

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