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In Iraq, a Long Way Back to Eden

A decade ago, Hussein's regime drained the marshes, and local Arabs' livelihoods, in the southeast. Now the wetlands are slowly being restored.

September 14, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MADAYNA, Iraq — In time, the marsh waters will creep to the front door of Rathia Jery's four-room mud house, then enter like an overbearing guest, taking over first one room, then another, and finally the entire abode.

Inshallah. If God wills it. On that day, she will praise Allah to the bright, dazzling skies.

Her house in Madayna village will drown and disappear. The land where she grows sunflowers and wheat will turn into soft, underwater silt.

"We want the water," Jery says. "The water is our origin."

She watched one home crumble under bulldozers in 1991 -- a grievous loss. That was when Saddam Hussein's regime launched its campaign to drain the famous marshes of southeastern Iraq, displacing the Marsh Arabs and forcing the fishing families to farm the dense clay soil that was reclaimed -- some would say stolen -- from the marshes. It was a hard, relentless struggle.

The massive drainage effort was billed as farmland reclamation, but officials said it was designed to flush out Shiite Muslim fighters who were in conflict with the regime. Irrigation Ministry engineers and bureaucrats were secretly aghast at the political scheme, knowing it would force thousands into hunger and deprivation. The regime burned the marsh reeds, which smoked for months.

About 400,000 Marsh Arabs, who had fished and hunted on the marshes using the same type of simple wooden boats for thousands of years, were forced out of their homes. By 2001, only 10% of about 2,000 square miles of marshland remained.

Now, the Irrigation Ministry has begun reflooding the marshes. Some of those busily engaged in bringing back the water are the same ones who figured out how to take it away.

Outside the cities of Nasiriyah and Basra, the green heads of new reeds are popping up in the wetlands where vast fields of them once flourished. About 20,000 people have come home.

But tens of thousands more Marsh Arabs are yearning to return, waiting for the water to come back to other areas. They have questions: How much marshland will be restored? Can the damage of 12 years under the desert sun be completely reversed? Can the burned reeds come back to life? Will the migratory birds return?

So far, there are no answers.

"No one knows how much will be flooded, and anybody who says he does know is lying," said Hassan Janabi, a once-exiled Iraqi water engineer overseeing the marsh projects for the Irrigation Ministry.

The United States, Italy and the United Nations are among the foreign countries and agencies that have agreed to contribute to the marshland restoration project.

Janabi said priorities included restoring the Abu Zarak marsh near Nasiriyah and redigging canals to revive nearby villages and provide water for farming. He said a recent survey of reflooded areas showed progress was already being made.

"I could see some wildlife. I saw birds, I saw some people fishing. I saw new vegetation coming up," Janabi said. "You really get the feeling of the marshes and the magnitude of the crime."

The late Wilfred Thesiger spent seven years in the marshes, describing the region in his 1964 book, "The Marsh Arabs." He wrote of a land filled with "the croaking of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine."

Before his arrival, Thesiger was warned that the Marsh Arabs "live like their [water] buffaloes. Their houses are half under water, filled with mosquitoes and fleas," he wrote. "If you try to sleep in one of them, you will probably get your face trodden on by buffalo."

Thesiger did find fleas and filth. And the mud-and-reed houses built on small islands were smoky. But he felt at home.

Abbas Chiad Emara, 60, remembers sleeping under the stars on a bed of reeds in the Shuwayj marshland near Madayna before the area dried up.

The waters have not returned here. He yearns for the soft slap of water against the hull of a wooden boat, the music of the waves, the birdcalls, the pulsing throb of the frogs.

His descriptions of that lost time are almost lyrical.

"I'd find a cool, quiet place in the marsh," he said. "The water was very clear and sweet. The reeds were high and strong. We would cut them carefully and lay our rugs over the reeds and we'd sleep on reeds with the water beneath us. When I awoke, I would see all the beauty around, all kinds of birds and fish. Everything was sweet and beautiful. You'd see the [water] buffalo swimming. And I was at peace.

"The last time I used a boat was before they drained the marshes," he recalled mournfully. "What's my feeling? Anger, only anger! But under Saddam Hussein, who could express anger? They'd be executed."

The Shuwayj marshland may still be dry, but north of Basra fishermen pilot their wooden boats exactly as Thesiger described -- setting the pole, then walking briskly along the gunwale from bow to stern. Fish once again flip like silver coins across the surface. A wooden boat with eight lounging fishermen glides lazily by.

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