Magazine article The Middle East

Iraq: Return to the Marshes?

Magazine article The Middle East

Iraq: Return to the Marshes?

Article excerpt

The morning of 20 January 1992 began much like any other for the Mohammed family in the marshlands of southern Iraq. Rising at first light, they roused their herd of buffaloes and drove the beasts snorting and protesting into the surrounding wetlands to graze. After a quick breakfast of bread and yoghurt, washed down with sugary tea, they readied themselves for a long day out on the water.

But on that day, one of the coldest on record, five-year-old Hanaa and her mother caught no fish and gathered no reeds. No sooner had they paddled past the last of their neighbours' floating reed houses than a squadron of government fighter jets emerged from the mist, guns blazing. They reduced the artificial islets to embers, and killed many of the buffaloes. Not content with shooting up a few villages as punishment for locals' alleged harbouring of defeated Shia rebels, Saddam Hussein soon dispatched his engineers to divert the Tigris and Euphrates rivers away from the marshes. The effects were disastrous. By the turn of the last century, the Middle East's largest wetlands had withered from a peak of 20,000 sq km to almost nothing.

"There were no fish, no grasses, so of course we couldn't stay," remembers Hanaa, now in her 20s and a mother of four. "The village just died."

Saddam's draining of the Marshes was internationally regarded as an ecological disaster

However, in March this year, almost 25 years since she and her siblings were pushed off their land and into the slums of a nearby city, Hanaa and some of her former neighbours will be making a triumphant homecoming.

Authorities in Baghdad are rebuilding these lost communities. They are keen to resettle properly at least some of the roughly 250,000 Marsh Arabs who have trickled back to the area since it was partially re-flooded more than 10 years ago. At a time when some 3 million other Iraqis have been displaced by Isis-fuelled violence, officials see this as a crucial step in righting the wrongs of a previous conflict.

"These are our marshes, they're a key part of our heritage, and we're doing everything we can to get the water to them to preserve them," said Hassan Janabi, the Minister of Water Resources. In July, Iraq's marshes were listed as a Unesco world heritage site.

Last summer, the Ministry sent in an excavator to dredge up tonnes of wetland mud and mould it into 43 islands. The soon-to-be-residents, all of whom lived here before it was drained, are building their own houses. Most turned to the old tribal sheikh for mediation in divvying up the properties.

Life in these picture-postcard villages could be tough and unforgiving. …

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