10,000 Iraqi POWs grow bitter in Saudi desert camp

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- They are among the Persian Gulf war's forgotten victims, about 10,000 Iraqi soldiers who surrendered to the allies.

Nearly two years after the war, these men still wait in the Saudi desert about 170 miles northeast of Riyadh, prevented from leaving, afraid to go home, denied entry anywhere else.


Homosexual rape has become a frequent occurrence. At the Artewiyeh prison camp, since emptied, four men were murdered, possibly by Iraqi secret police infiltrators. More than 1,000 homemade swords were discovered during one search of the camp. So were several guns.

U.N. officials recently shut down Artewiyeh, which Abdulmawla Solh, the U.N. representative in Saudi Arabia, described as "not a human place to live."


The last of the inmates was moved Dec. 24 to a new, more pleasant facility near a camp just south of the Iraqi border at Rafha that houses most of 24,000 civilians who fled the fighting in southern Iraq.

Iraqi soldiers who surrendered believing that they would be offered new homes outside Iraq after the war have begun a series of hunger strikes and demonstrations, with two of them sewing up their lips, according to officials from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees here in the Saudi capital.

"They think by this protest they can pressure governments to take them immediately," said Mr. Solh.

Of the 10,000 military prisoners and 24,000 civilians, only 3,140 have been given the chance to resettle in other countries, the majority in Iran, Scandinavia and the United States, according to U.N. officials.

Iran, with which southern Iraq's Shiite Muslims share a religious kinship, has been the most accommodating, accepting 1,582 Iraqis so far and agreeing to take a total of 5,000. The United States has said it will accept 1,000 refugees and may take as many as 3,500. A total of 960 have been resettled so far.

But the majority of the prisoners, now officially considered refugees, waited for months at the prison-like Artewiyeh camp or at the refugee facility at Rafha.

That facility is considered among the best in the world, offering comfortable accommodations, television sets and $100-per-person monthly stipends, all paid for by the Saudi government.

It is the only refugee operation in the world financed by the host country, and the amount the Saudis have spent since the war on housing the Iraqis is equal to a third of the U.N. refugee agency's entire yearly budget for 18 million refugees, officials say.


But conditions in the camps, particularly at Artewiyeh, had deteriorated because none of the refugees are permitted by the Saudis to leave. Rafha residents can make short occasional trips into town, and all refugees are allowed special trips to the holy city of Mecca.

The problem of the Iraqis stranded in the desert was particularly acute shortly after the war, when international human rights organizations accused the Saudis of torturing some prisoners into signing repatriation agreements, then dumping them back across the Iraqi border, where as deserters they were likely to face almost certain death.

U.N. officials sent three strong protests to the Saudi government about the prisoners being sent back, most of them accused of murder, bribery and homosexual rape in the camps. After that, the United Nations was permitted to install representatives at both Artewiyeh and Rafha, and there were no similar incidents.

Instead, U.N. officials said, some camp residents have become so frustrated that they have sought voluntary repatriation in Iraq, something the United Nations warns against but in which it has cooperated nonetheless. About 700 have left for Iraq so far, and 200 more applications are pending.