Grim Prospects for Basra Marsh Dwellers

Reporter finds local people struggling to revive their ancient lifestyle.

Grim Prospects for Basra Marsh Dwellers

Reporter finds local people struggling to revive their ancient lifestyle.

Our motorboat glided over an area that was dry land a mere month ago, attracting the attention of the marsh dwellers at the water’s edge.

Seeing our urban clothes, one of them mistook us for government officials and called out, “May Allah have mercy on your parents’ souls for releasing the water!”

The Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq are trying to revive an ancient way of life disrupted by the draining of the wetlands on which they depend. Until recently, they have had few reasons to be grateful to their government.

Their habitat was once the largest marshland in the Middle East, an area twice the size of the Florida Everglades that they believed to be the location of the legendary Garden of Eden.

The last 40 years have seen it shrink in size – at one point by as much as 95 per cent. The region has been exploited for water and oil and denuded by conflict, most dramatically under Saddam Hussein, who drained the marshes in retaliation for a Shia rebellion in the early 1990s.

Their habitat ravaged, some three-quarters of the wetland’s 400,000 inhabitants migrated to the suburban slums of southern Iraq.

After Saddam was deposed in 2003, the dykes and dams he had built upstream were destroyed. Under the supervision of Iraq’s new leaders, the marshlands were flooded again.

Thousands of Marsh Arabs returned to their old homes, where they tried to revive their ancient way of life as if the preceding decades of upheaval had merely been momentary interruptions.

The Marsh Arabs are thought by some historians to be descendants of the ancient Sumerian civilisation. They have lived for millenia by fishing and grazing buffalo in the lush delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

On a recent visit to the marshes, IWPR found its inhabitants struggling to survive in an environment whose partial recovery could easily be reversed.

The marshlands begin some 50 kilometres north of the port of Basra. The road runs past herds of cattle grazing on rich grasslands to the east and a vast tract of desert, dotted with ruined homes, to the west. There is no sign of the Iraqi state – no schools, police stations or mosques.

Ali Jassim al-Battat, a resident of the marshes, says the road was built after 2003 on what was originally an embankment, constructed by Saddam’s government. “The embankment blocked the flow of water, dried up the marsh and forced us to migrate,” he said.

Battat is in his early forties but his slow movements and sallow complexion make him seem older. Pointing to sand dunes and dilapidated huts, he said, “These were prosperous villages before the uprising... Only a few hundred people have returned since the water was allowed back.”

He grew emotional listing the names of the clans that once lived in the area - the Sada, the Hamadna, the Shaghanba, the Albu-Bukhit and his own tribe, the Al-Battat.

Leaving the road, we boarded a motorboat to venture deeper into marshland that had until recently been desert. In shallow waters, we saw surreal remnants of the conflict with Saddam.

Blackened reeds passed beneath us. According to Battat, the vegetation had been set alight on the orders of Ali Hassan al-Majid, the Saddam lieutenant better known by his nickname, Chemical Ali.

Chemical Ali led the crackdown on the Shia uprising that followed Saddam’s defeat in the First Gulf War. Shia rebels and deserters took cover in the marshland’s dense reed forests. Military helicopters reportedly used napalm to clear the area.

Further along, our boat approached a large, partially submerged iron mass - a Russian-made T-72 tank. Its barrel gulped in water and small waves broke lazily on its sides, scrubbing off the soot of war. “English warplanes hit the tank in 1991,” said Battat. “Back then, the marsh was so dry it was a battlefield for such vehicles.”

Many southern Iraqi villagers still regard all fair-skinned westerners as “Ingreezy”, or English – a throwback to the era of British colonial rule.

We passed a canoe, energetically paddled by two young women with tanned faces. The boat was loaded with bundles of green grass, gathered to be sold as fodder in a nearby town.

“This grass is now our only source of livelihood,” said Ghanim Ghazi, our boatman. “We can no longer farm here or catch fish because the water does not allow it. It is sterile.”

Experts say the rivers that flood the marshes today are too brackish and polluted to support life.

Battat sees the “undrinkable” water as a symptom of the official failure to rehabilitate the Marsh Arabs. As a father to 13 children, he says he wants better road and electricity links and improved access to education, healthcare and clean water.

“Water is the source of all our suffering,” he shouted angrily.

“The water tankers do not get to us, we have no electricity. Our young men are crushed by destitution and our children grow up like savages, without schooling.”

The Marsh Arabs say they were never compensated for cattle they left behind when they fled and nor have they received any state assistance, having now returned.

Ashur al-Shaghanbi, a tall man with the dark, weather-beaten looks typical of the marsh dwellers, recalls how Chemical Ali ordered the destruction of his neighbourhood.

“We fled to save our skins. We barely had time to take our children and fetch their clothes,” he said. Since his return to the marshes, Shaghanbi says he has seen visits by humanitarian teams but no sign of the housing they promised.

Satellite images taken in 2006, three years after the overthrow of Saddam, showed the marshes had been restored to 70 per cent of their size in the early 1970s, before the major drainage projects began.

In 2009, environmental officials said the marshes were shrinking again, and now covered only 30 per cent of their spread in the 1970s. Dams built upstream in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey are blamed for reducing the volume of water feeding the wetlands. A prolonged drought in Iraq has only made matters worse.

According to Alaa al-Badran, head of the union of agricultural engineers in Basra, the marshlands will continue to shrink, reversing recent gains. “Salinity rates will keep rising,” he added. “Once absorbed by the soil, salts are very hard to eradicate.”

Our boat pushed on, along reed and papyrus plantations where men and women from the same clan harvested fodder. A young girl, no older than three and with scruffy, blonde hair, sat alone in a boat tethered some distance from the adults.

Passing her, Battat remarked casually, “If she drowns, it won’t be a problem - we can quickly make up for her. We multiply like cats. You see, we have to rehabilitate ourselves - we cannot wait for help that may never materialise.”

Ali Abu Iraq is an IWPR-trained journalist in Basra.
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