Babylon & Beyond

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IRAQ: Tragedy strikes again for Marsh Arabs

May 13, 2008 | 11:32 am


Saddam Hussein’s regime killed Sabbar Uwaid’s wife and 10 other members of his family. But the aging tribal sheik says one of the greatest tragedies of his life was witnessing the destruction of the lush marshlands that had sustained his people for thousands of years.

For more than a decade, Hussein systematically drained the vast wetlands of southern Iraq in a bid to crush rebels who hid among the reeds. His forces bombed their villages and arrested and killed their families.

By the time U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003, barely 400 square miles remained of the marshes that once extended nearly 8,000 square miles across an area straddling the Iraq-Iran border. Uwaid’s tribe had depended on those marshes for centuries to graze buffalo, to fish and to grow rice. Without them, they were forced to uproot themselves.

Thousands of the region’s Marsh Arabs fled to refugee camps in Iran. Uwaid moved with about 300 other families to the sandy outskirts of the southern holy city of Najaf, where their dome-shaped reed homes and herds of buffalo make an incongruous sight.

“Here, we feel as if we are living outside Iraq,” Uwaid said. “We are used to the life of the marshes.... We still feel nostalgic for that life and we wish to return to it.”

Now the nightmare is repeating itself, Uwaid said. The people have been told that the land they are occupying sits atop an archaeological site and they will have to move. Southern Iraq is full of buried treasures, many of them dating to the dawn of civilization. But heritage officials are fighting a losing battle against antiquities smugglers and thieves (read more here).

Uwaid says his people would like nothing more than to return to the lush land at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which many scholars regard as the inspiration for the biblical Garden of Eden.

After Hussein was toppled, the Iraqi authorities began tearing down the dams that had diverted water from the wetlands, allowing parts to flood again. Some Marsh Arabs have returned to their old way of life, but Uwaid hesitates.

“It is not easy for us to return to our old place,” he said. “Land mines are planted there. The water is not covering most of the area yet. Nor are there rehabilitation projects yet to make the area suitable to be lived in.”

— Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf

Photo: Marsh Arabs water herds of buffalo on the sandy outskirts of the southern holy city of Najaf. Credit: Saad Fakhrildeen / Los Angeles Times