Regime sucked life out of marshes
By Brian Scudder Adhba Wa Al Kahin, Gulf News, 21-04-2003
Basra - 'There is a place that is like the old marshes. It is three quarters of an hour away from here. Do you want to see it?' We had been driving for an hour in search of something that looked like marshland.
Basra's sprawl had turned into impoverished villages along the banks of the Shatt Al Arab, and then dissolved into groups of sun-beaten, concrete buildings surrounded by desert. Or what looked like desert.
We didn't realise that for the last 25km we had been looking at the corpse of marsh and wetland once 20,000 square kilometers in size. Until as recently as the 1980s, the southern Iraqi marshes, or Al Ahwar, was home to a unique ecosystem. The life of the tribes within it had changed little for 5,000 years.
Formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Al Ahwar comprised three interconnecting marsh areas: the Al Hammar, the Al Amara and Al Huwaizah marshes. They were a sanctuary for wildlife.
More importantly to the government of Saddam Hussain, they were also a sanctuary for political opponents, army deserters, Iranian infiltrators and an ancient and self sufficient Shiites people called the Maadan who had no need for central authority.
In a Baathist transport compound in the godforsaken town of Ad Dir, the Second in Command of the British Parachute platoon currently in residence showed us his area of operations.
Stuck to the bare walls of a room on the second floor were maps and satellite images of a huge territory to the north of Basra. This was the Al Hammar Marsh, a system of islands and waterways that once meandered all the way up to Al Nassiriya and the Euphrates. It was dead. All of it dead.
You could see the channels the earth movers had dug - draining marsh that refused to disappear even after the regime had dam-med the waterways upstream. Row upon regular row of dykes had taken away the marshes' life blood, leaving nothing more than grey shading on a map.
A little further north from Ad Dir are a couple of single story breezeblock houses belonging to Sheikh Qasim Alwan of the 2000-strong Al Maarada tribe. 'We are Maadan from a place called Majnoun,' he told us there.
"The government built dykes and put in pumps to take the water because they said there was a group that always fought the Baath in Majnoun. Over one or two years the marshes drained."
"They then ordered us to leave. That was 23 years ago. They told us to come here because it is next to the Shatt Al Arab but there are not enough fish and the government has done nothing for us. There is no water, no electricity and no food for the animals. There is no medicine and no schools for 360 of our children. The nearest school is 10km away."
Almost every male we spoke to from Sheikh Qasim's tribe said they had been arrested and tortured at some point since they left Majnoun. "Some people were executed by the police, others by the Directorate of Security," said another robed sheikh. "Everybody was tortured because we were against Saddam."
As if to prove the point, the sheikh shook off a sandal to reveal broken toes. "They tied our hands to our backs and prodded us with electricity cables. Sometimes they hung us from electric fans for three hours. I was imprisoned 21 times," he said.
While the government's predations against the Maarada were terrible, other groups were even less fortunate. Sheikh Qasim told us the persecution of his tribesmen started early in the '80s, and continued until less than a fortnight ago.
But the Iraqi government destroyed his island home because of the 10-30 billion barrels oil that lay beneath it - and because of the 1984 Iranian invasion of the area. It was only later that the regime's genuinely genocidal tendencies would come in to play in the marshes.
According to the London-based charity Human Rights Watch, plans for the total annihilation of Marsh Arab life were enacted in 1991.
Saddam Hussain, his son Qusay, and Ali Hassan Al Majid - the self same 'Chemical Ali' who was purportedly killed in a British bombing raid on his Basra home two three weeks ago - were all involved.
Human Rights Watch charges that after the failed Shiite uprising that followed the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, the government 'murdered thousands of unarmed civilians' in the marshes and instituted 'summary execution and indiscriminate bombardment and shelling'.
It imposed 'forcible population transfer'; 'arbitrary and prolonged imprisonment; 'torture' and 'enforced disappearances'; 'widespread and deliberate destruction of homes and property through bulldozing or burning'; the killing of livestock; 'laying of water and land mines'; 'denial of medical treatment' and 'economic blockade' - not to mention the possible use of chemical weapons.
This went on for a decade. From an estimated population of 250,000 in 1991, Human Rights Watch estimates 'fewer than 40,000 (remain) in their ancestral homeland.'
The catastrophe is almost complete. Ten per cent of the marshes survive and all that remains in the Al Hammar are the quickly-rusting remnants of Iraq's Third Division.
In the village of Adhba Wa Al Kahin, where salt flats are all that is visible for 23km to the north, south and west, Maadan tribesman Hassan Aziz said: "If we had electricity and schools we would still prefer our old way of life."
Even if the rumours are true that enterprising Iraqis are trying to flood some of the marsh areas, it will be nothing short of a miracle if that happens.