In the spring of 1991, in the aftermath of the defeat of the Iraqi military forces in the Gulf War (Desert Storm), a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions took place.

Once the truce was signed by the Iraqi military representatives and the Coalition nations led by the United States, the allies quickly looked to exit the region and bring their troops home. Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military, however, quickly turned on the Iraqi Shias south of Baghdad and the Kurds to the north. They used tanks that had not been destroyed in the war (many of the Iraqi tanks had been held in reserve far north of the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations and others managed to escape north once the truce was signed) and helicopter gunships that were permitted to fly according to the truce. This resulted in a huge refugee crisis that would see the implementation of Operation Provide Comfort.

Not long after the end of hostilities the Kurds, prompted by radio messages by the United States  and believing that Saddam Hussein’s regime was sufficiently weakened, rebelled and Peshmerga fighting formations attacked Iraqi military units in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. (Pinpointing the source of the “call for arms” to the Peshmerga is difficult to ascertain in an open source environment.)

The Peshmerga were initially successful in pushing the Iraqi army south towards Baghdad and out of many of the historically Kurdish areas. The success was fleeting as the Kurds had no anti-armor and air defense weapons. The U.S. and other Coalition nations did not come to the aid of the Kurds. This was because they were satisfied that the objective of the Gulf War had been accomplished, they did not want to get bogged down in a protracted struggle, and were worried of the political power vacuum should Saddam Hussein actually be overthrown.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters 1991.

The use of terror tactics, chemical weapons, and indiscriminate bombings by the Iraqi military on the Kurdish civilian population — and memories of earlier harsh reprisals — prompted a mass exodus of more than a million Kurds to the Iranian and Turkish borders.

To some extent, the Iranians were helpful to the Kurd refugees, and Kurds living just across the border in Iran provided some aid. (The Kurdish population lives in a region of the Middle East that spreads across four countries –- Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.)

However, things were much different for the Kurds who fled to the Turkish border. Over 600,000 Kurds headed towards Turkey (although estimates vary the number was more than half million). Many crossed over high mountains to reach the border but found it tightly locked down by the Turkish military. Refugees gathered in over 30 camps of varying size on mountainsides and in high mountain passes with no cold weather clothing, shelter, food, or water. It was not long before starvation, dehydration, disease, and exposure took their toll, especially among the very young and very old.