IRAQ REPORT: ON THE GROUND - Red Cross

Mike Goodhand, head of international logistics for the British Red Cross, has just returned from a fact-finding trip to the Iran-Iraq border.

"The best guess is that most refugees will head for Iran. That's what happened in 1991, and it's the border closest to the main centres of population like Baghdad and Basra. The efforts being made by the Iranian Red Crescent to prepare for refugees are truly tremendous, especially when you remember that there's been no formal peace accord between Iran and Iraq. They're preparing sites for ten camps down the southern half of the shared border, and I went to the biggest site at Yazd-e-Now, which is about 15km from the border and 16km from the nearest town of Howeizeh in Khuzestan province.

It's scrubby desert, absolutely flat, and any wind whistles across it. There are no trees, no shade, and the daytime temperatures are now in the high twenties and are expected to go into the thirties in a month's time. The ten camps will be able to take up to 400,000 refugees if necessary, and the massive site I visited will take up to 250,000 in a group of five adjacent settlements of 50,000 each. They're already working on two of these and will start on the rest when they have a better idea of how many people are coming across.

There's a tarmac road from the town, electricity pylons have been put in, and they're digging trenches for pit latrines and identifying the nearest source of water. Their big dilemma is how much investment to put into it all when it's unclear how many will come and how long they will stay. What if you commit a whole lot of resources to it and no one turns up? What if you choose minimal preparation and get really caught out when 100,000 people suddenly turn up? And the third possibility is that people do come, but they go home again after three days, as they did in the big relief operation when the volcano erupted near Goma in eastern Congo.

Iran is so prone to natural disasters that the Red Crescent keeps emergency supplies for one per cent of a population of 66 million, and these are being used to set up the camps. This raises the question of what you do if, say, a big earthquake hits Tehran in the near future? The national society could be without supplies which have gone to refugees. It means that funds directed towards Iran from the new appeal by the International Red Cross will go towards replenishing stocks, which might not seem quite so sexy to some donors.

It's a genuine humanitarian operation supported by the Iranian government.

Its biggest concerns are money and supplying these camps with water in difficult terrain: people can last for a couple of weeks without food, but 48 hours is about the limit in these circumstances.

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