In the mountains, ‘survival of fittest’

USA TODAY
April 18, 1991, Thursday, FINAL EDITION
BYLINE: Tom Squitieri
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 5A
LENGTH: 695 words
DATELINE: HAJ OMRAN PASS, Iran-Iraq border

A hundred cries of pain can be heard at night in the frigid mountains that separate Iran from Iraq.

Without food, water, medicine or protection from rain or snow, more than 1.5 million Kurdish refugees from all walks of life have been forced into the grim realization that death surrounds them. In the crisp night air a hungry infant cries from the lack of milk. A mother who has held a child in her arms for three days wails in despair after realizing he is dead. People shriek in fear at the boom of another exploding land mine.

”It’s survival of the fittest,” says Kent Horlykke, of the Danish Red Cross. That means the weakest – often the children – are dying in the largest numbers.

Dru Apain, of Medecines Du Monde, knows too many children have died. For five days he has been at the border, trying to keep babies alive – or burying them when they die.

”All along the road, that is where we bury them,” Apain says. ”Many children; too many children.”

The dead are buried to prevent the spread of cholera or other diseases officials know are coming. Graves are marked only by the footprints of other, stronger refugees pressing on.

Apain is not optimistic that his days will soon be spent healing rather than burying.

”To stop this dying we need to be 40 kilometers (25 miles) inside of Iraq, to treat the children before they get ill,” he says. But that has been forbidden by the Iranian government.

The snow and rain provide only one good thing: fresh water. For barefoot children with little clothes, and adults with possessions strapped on raw backs, one night on the mountain can seem to last a year.

About three miles inside Iraq, where the no man’s land between two countries reaches an old Iraqi trench line, refugees Wednesday started digging graves.

”We do it here, in our country,” one Kurd said – meaning their children and friends would be buried in the land they hope some day will be an independent Kurdish nation.

A mile closer to Iran, in the thick snarl of refugees moving forward, a refugee points to his wife, huddled under a truck. A driving rain has created a quicksand of mud at her feet.

His tiny daughter has pus in her eyes and drool from her mouth. She coughs three times, briefly, quietly. Moments later she is dead.

The woman will not give up the child. Instead she wraps a worn, mud-caked blanket around the baby, falling to the ground in despair.

Carl Axel Danneus, a chain-smoking, Swedish doctor with the Red Cross said babies cannot survive more than three or four nights in the mountains, where nightly temperatures hit 10 degrees – before the wind begins blowing.

More than 400 children were brought down to Red Cross hospitals Tuesday for one night of treatment and warmth, to renew their strength. ”If they can get down here, they can survive. If not, they die,” Danneus said flatly.

But each day the Red Cross and other relief groups must get local government permission to visit refugees. On Monday and on Wednesday that permission was not given.

Danneus said the Kurds try to keep their dead children wrapped in cloth for eventual burial in their home villages.

”They obviously are dying a lot, even before they reach the border,” he said. ”And now it is too cold to survive many more days.” But there are other ways to die at Haj Omran Pass.

Children are also being burned to death when the plastic tents they are staying in ignite from fires that are brought inside to provide some warmth. Children have been hit by napalm and blown apart by land mines. Others are starving.

”Seventy percent of the children have diarrhea and gastritis. And of those, 50% are serious and at least 50 will die a day,” said Henri Metzger, a French health worker.

He said 15 others will die each day from land mines. ”The soldiers shoot their rifles to clear a field for their tents, but a refugee cannot do that,” he says.

The snow falls again as dawn reaches the mountain. For a few moments the fresh white coating provides a sense of serenity. Then some of the snow- covered lumps on the ground stir and rise. They are the ones that did not die in the night, and will try to live another day.