Focus on IDPs in Kirkuk living in poor conditions

Though the snow that fell recently on and around Soran Sabir's tent has now all but melted into the thick mud, water continues to trickle from the roof onto the blue plastic floor.

All that is left to show for the high winds that swept northern Iraq over the weekend is a gaping hole opposite the door, and the flame of the tent's single gas stove flickering in the cold draught.

"Several tents in the camp partially collapsed last night, and we were frightened the children would be crushed as they slept," Sabir told IRIN in Kirkuk, pointing to the heavy wooden dresser to the left of the entrance.

There are around 800 families in these three adjacent tent villages on the outskirts of Kirkuk, all Kurds who fled from the region, or were expelled, between 1988 and 1991. Some have been almost constantly on the move since, buffeted by the bloody conflicts that have pitted Kurdish groups against each other over the past decade.

"This is my fifth home in 10 years," Meliha Abdulrahman, told IRIN, adding: "It's far worse than what I had before, but at least I'm back where I grew up." She has barely left her tent for six months.

The elected representative of one of the communities cohabiting in the tent settlement, Dara Hama Hussein, is angry. "The Kurdish authorities had allowed us to build temporary houses on public land in Bayizan, but when Iraq was liberated they told us we would have to go back to where we came from," he told IRIN.

"They even promised to give 1,000 rials [US $100] to every family going back," interrupts Ezedin Abdullah Muhamed. "Nobody there has received anything." Except the old UN tents, that is, which most people here say they picked up at Chamchamal on their way southwest to Kirkuk.

With the men lucky to find one day of work a week as labourers in Kirkuk, the families are wholly dependent on Oil-for-Food rations now distributed by the local authorities for survival.

"We're not asking the local authorities or the Americans to build houses for us," Dara Hussein, told IRIN. "All we're asking for is for them to give us a patch of land and a chance to get on with construction work ourselves."

Esteban Sacco knows from experience that they should be taken at their word. Currently doing a pre-project survey of the tent villages for Arbil-based Qandil, a Swedish NGO, he met many of them a few years back while working on a UN-sponsored shelter scheme.

"These people are wizards. All they got from the UN was a double layer of bricks the same size as a tent, and a hole for a door", he said. "Within a week, they had built mud-brick houses lined with perfectly-edged white gypsum. The UN only permitted lighting in the streets outside, so they hoisted up wires and connected their houses to the mains supply."

Even this boggy wilderness outside Kirkuk shows the beginnings of civilisation. Most families have constructed stone kitchens next to their tents, complete with sink and stove. Others have rudimentary outdoor showers, floored with large grey pebbles.

But until the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) relaxes its attitude towards IDPs returning south of the green line that separates the Kurdish north from the rest of Iraq, these people's hopes of real progress are likely to have to wait.

"The CPA is paralysed by the possibility of political conflict in Kirkuk, as Kurds and Turkoman return to lands Arabised by Saddam Hussein," Buran Rashid, humanitarian aid coordinator at the Department of Health in Dahuk, told IRIN. "As a result, it sits on its hands and does nothing to help. But you can't just leave these people in tents."

Esteban Sacco agrees. "A lot of the families are living in conditions more cramped than humanitarian emergency standards, and they've been there for months," he told IRIN. "What is stopping Kirkuk local authorities doing like [Kurdish-administrated] Arbil and Sulaymaniyah and handing out plots for them to build on? Of course, these would be transit camps, not permanent settlements."

"Sooner or later, there's going to have to be a change of attitude," concludes Dr Rashid. "There are only around 25,000 returnees in Kirkuk city now. As soon as the weather improves, that trickle will turn into a flood."