DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY -- For the two proud refugee leaders, resplendent in the baggy trousers and turbans of their military calling, recent events only served to illustrate their ancestral saying: "The Kurds have no friends."
"It's that time of year and Iraq is offering an amnesty to get us to go back home," the older Iraqi Kurd commenced his oft-told tale.
"And," chimed in his younger colleague, "that's when the Turks cut back the rations to force us out."
"But returning to Iraq means certain death," the older man insisted, describing the vicious circle in which Iraqi Kurdish refugees feel they have been caught since August 1988, when nearly 70,000 of them fled for their lives and were parked in three widely separated camps in southeast Turkey.
Amnesty International, in an urgent warning last week, expressed "serious concern" about the safety of the Iraqi Kurds -- both those still in refugee camps in Turkey and those who have returned to Iraq.
Amnesty said it had received reports that "pressure has been used by the Turkish authorities to coerce some Iraqi Kurds to return to Iraq under official amnesties." In addition, it said, "numerous reports have since been received of the 'disappearance,' torture and execution of Kurds and other Iraqis who have sought to benefit from such amnesties."
Amnesty called on the Turkish government to "protect the Kurdish refugees and other Iraqis from forcible return to Iraq," and it urged Iraq to "take immediate steps to ensure the safety" of those who return under amnesties and to "disclose their fate and current whereabouts." It also asked both governments to arrange independent monitoring of repatriations.
With their families, the pesh mergas -- "those who walk before death" as Kurdish guerrillas style themselves -- sought refuge in Turkey after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein punished their leaders' collaboration with Iran during the Persian Gulf war by using poison gas against their northern Iraq homeland.
Now an estimated 27,500 remain of those who arrived as dazed and terrified victims of Iraqi retribution against Masud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party, his guerrillas and their families.
Hayri Kozakcioglu, the Turkish governor who exercises wide powers in 11 southeastern provinces, bridled at suggestions that Turkey is forcing the Iraqi Kurds to go home against their will.
"That's not true," he said in an interview, "although if we wanted to, it would be very easy -- it would take just a day to bus them to the frontier."
But he was adamant that Barzani's men should stop trying to prevent contact with the envoys that Saddam Hussein sends to the camps to entice the refugees to come home.
According to refugee leaders, people in the camps are not taken in by reassuring telephone calls from returnees. Those calling claim they are being well-treated in nearby northern Iraqi Kurdish towns, but the Iraqi government reportedly has razed all villages in a border zone 18 miles or more deep, and refugees said they were convinced that those who returned actually were sent to the far southern desert.
Refugees said the real motivation for leaving Turkey lies in the camps' lack of amenities, their isolation and the ban on engaging in work. Statistics lend credence to such assertions, and the refugees' dwindling numbers are more a reflection of this growing sense of hopelessness than enthusiasm for Iraqi amnesties, according to Kurds, Western diplomats, Turkish officials and international relief workers.
Since the original mass exodus, no more than 4,000 Kurds have returned to Iraq. That includes a substantial number of pro-government Kurdish auxiliaries taken hostage to protect Barzani's fleeing followers after the poison gas attacks.
Through the intercession of Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the French president, 350 Iraqi Kurds were resettled in France, the only Western country to welcome them officially. Others, mainly Chaldean Christians, crossed clandestinely into Greece.
With unofficial Turkish encouragement, the overwhelming majority left for Iran, despite Barzani's orders to remain in Turkey. But Iran apparently has proven unattractive, judging by the number of desperate Iraqi Kurds coming back from Iran and seeking aid from the Ankara office of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees.
All three Iraqi Kurdish refugee camps -- here, near Mardin and at Mus -- have been off-limits to most outside visitors since January.
A foreign specialist on refugee problems said the most isolated camp, at Mus, "looks -- and is operated -- like a prison." The 12,000 Iraqi Kurds in the camp near Mardin are still living in tents.
Western countries contributed more than $14 million to have the UNHCR build a refugee village east of Ankara in Yozgat province before winter. But no sooner were the funds in hand in April than Prime Minister Yildirim Akbulut's shaky government abruptly canceled the project without official explanation.
There were reports that, because of strong local antipathy toward the Kurdish refugees, two key ministers from Yozgat had threatened to resign if the project went ahead.