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Iraq: Ancient Life Of Marsh Arabs Is Gone (Part 2)

  • Charles Recknagel

A recent UN study has focused new attention on the destruction of southern Iraq's vast marshlands at the heart of the Fertile Crescent. The study calls the loss of the wetlands an ecological catastrophe comparable to the deforestation of the Amazon and the shrinking of the Aral Sea. The drainage of the marshlands is part of a deliberate policy by Baghdad since 1991 to remove cover for antigovernment rebels and it has effectively eliminated the "marsh Arabs" who since ancient times had inhabited the region. In the second of a two-part series on the loss of the Mesopotamian wetlands, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the humanitarian tragedy caused by Baghdad's policy.

Prague, 15 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since ancient times, the marsh Arabs -- known as Madan -- have lived from reed gathering, mat weaving, fishing, hunting, and raising water buffalo. They lived on islands constructed of reeds and used reeds to build their homes.

Now that way of life -- which historians say goes back at least 5,000 years to the earliest civilizations of the Fertile Crescent -- has all but disappeared. Over the past 10 years, the Iraqi government has almost completely drained and dried the Mesopotamian wetlands to eliminate them as cover for armed opponents of the regime -- and the Madan have fled.

Today, only some 30,000 of an estimated population of nearly half a million marsh Arabs are believed to still live in what little remains of southern Iraq's marshes. Some 95,000 have fled to neighboring Iran, where they now survive on international assistance. Another 350,000 or so are dispersed across Iraq, living as best they can without outside assistance because -- having crossed no borders -- they are not considered refugees.

RFE/RL spoke recently with the principal charity working with Madan refugees in Iran, the AMAR (Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees) Appeal. The London-based charity was founded in 1991 in response to massacres of civilians by Baghdad's forces, who crushed an Iraqi Shiite rebellion in the south following the Gulf War. The massacres forced thousands of refugees to flee to Iran and were followed by the systematic destruction of the marshes, uprooting hundreds of thousands more.

Jerome Le Roy, the director of AMAR, told our correspondent that the Madan have left en masse because the desiccation of the wetlands left them with no alternative. Le Roy explains:

"The Iraqi regime started to drain the marshes, bit by bit, portion by portion with dykes and dams, etc. Those people who remained in the marshes were the marsh Arabs and they were people with a very traditional way of life which was entirely centered around the water. They were, for example, farmers raising water buffaloes and cultivating crops and for them the absence of water meant complete disaster, the disappearance of their lifestyle."

He continues:

"They couldn't transport their food production to the next city to sell it because without any water they couldn't transport it by boat and there was no road and they simply had nowhere to survive in dried marshlands."

He says that the Madan fled into southwestern Iran until 1995, when Baghdad largely completed the draining of the border wetlands and sealed off the frontier. The estimated 95,000 Madan who escaped to Iran are still living today in refugee camps supported by international organizations and the Iranian government. Le Roy described their situation this way:

"They are benefiting from several different sources of humanitarian aid, which is good but not enough. They receive aid from UNHCR to a rather limited extent because UNHCR's resources in Iran are not very large. They receive aid from the Iranians themselves and they receive aid from us [AMAR]. We are spending a budget -- which is above $800,000 every year -- on four different programs: emergency supplies -- including food and clothes -- medical care, sanitation and we are doing an educational program with primary school for 3,000 refugees."

Le Roy says that the Madan, who are skilled wetland farmers, have had little success finding jobs on southwestern Iraq's dry land farms. A few get occasional work as day laborers. He says that leaves the refugees wishing to repatriate but afraid to do so.

UNHCR efforts to help some of the refugees return to Iraq in past years have proved unsuccessful. Le Roy says he believes that reports from those who went back have discouraged others from following.

"The UNHCR in Tehran has been trying to actually organize some returns and three years ago there were a few hundred refugees who decided to return with UNHCR support. For all practical purposes, this flow of returnees has dried out. We don't know exactly what happened, but I think that clearly the word spread among people that it was not a very good idea to return."

Refugees have told aid workers that they fear returning to Iraq under the government of Saddam Hussein and that they feel they have no destination now that their former lands have been destroyed.

Aid workers know little about the conditions of the hundreds of thousands of Madan who have been internally displaced in Iraq and do not qualify as refugees. Most are reported to have been placed in relocation villages and the amount of aid they receive from local authorities is believed to be minimal.

For those few Madan who still live in southern Iraq's remaining marshland, time is running out. Estimates of how much of the Mesopotamian wetlands can still support inhabitants ranges from 6 to 17 percent. But that area is shrinking as Baghdad's program to completely dry the wetlands continues. Le Roy:

"We have evidence that the drainage of the marshes is being continued as we speak. We have evidence from the satellite pictures that there are recently extended canals in the last remaining part of the marshes. So clearly what [we] are talking about is the last part of the execution of a plan which has been very carefully thought out. It is a 10- to 15-year plan to drain the marshes."

Satellite photos show that about a third of the Al-Hawizeh marsh that straddles the Iran-Iraq border still survives. The other two major marshland areas, Al-Hammar and the central marshes around Al Qurnah, both have only some 5 percent of their original area remaining.