mesopotamian marshes no longer “garden of eden”


Home, unsweet home in Iraq’s ancient marshlands

“Life in the marshes is extremely difficult,” said Badia al-Khayoon, head of the Marshes Revival Council. “There is no electricity or drinking water and certainly no employment.”

With the onset of winter, he added, families are suffering in their cane houses, which offer no protection against the icy cold.

Chances now of restoring the culture of these people who lived for 5,000 years in a location considered by some to be the Biblical Garden of Eden are looking remote.

According to local officials, only about 20,000 people have returned to the Mesopotamian marshes, which stretch in a complex maze of waterways spanning southern Maysan, Basra and Dhi Qar provinces, since the 2003 US-led invasion.

That represents a mere four percent of the 500,000 or so residents who once flourished in the area.

Marsh Arabs traditionally lived off fishing, raising water buffalo and cultivating crops such as rice, barley and wheat. They move from villages to village, some of which are floating, in wooden canoes which they also use for fishing.

But Saddam, ousted by the invasion and executed last December, ordered the marshes drained in 1992 to stop them being used as hideouts by Shiite guerrillas opposed to his authoritarian regime.

Many dams and canals ordered built by the dictator have now been demolished, allowing waters from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to flood back, fish and fowl to return and humans to settle once again.

But large dams upstream in Iraq and Turkey are preventing a quicker recovery of the marshes.

The area once covered 20,000 square kilometres (8,000 square miles), about twice the size of Lebanon, but engineers estimate that only around 60 percent of the wetland has so far been reflooded, with the waters still shallow.

According to Khayoon, the inflow is not yet strong enough to provide a source of fresh water for those returning from the towns and cities of southern Iraq and across the border in Iran where they had sought refuge.

Before the marshes were drained, according to Khayoon, the water was deeper and fresher and supported a unique intertwined ecology of humans, fish, birds, native invertebrates, plants and animals.

“But now the water is stagnant and there are not many fish or animals,” said Khayoon.

In a perfunctory nod to civilisation, many villages had before 1992 been given huge generators by the government to supply electricity, which, he said, are now rusted and useless.

“Families are living under cane-ceiling houses which do not protect against the cold,” Khayoon said.

“Most of the Marsh Arabs are unemployed and there are no job opportunities apart from collecting and selling cane — barely enough to satisfy their essential living needs,” he said.

Khayoon called on the Iraqi government to do more to help locals re-establish their way of life.

He said some 253 schools have been rebuilt in the marshes, most of them made of dried mud and stone with cane ceilings. They are recognisable amid the village huts only by modest plates bearing the names of the school.

“We cannot call three six-square-metre (32-square-feet) classrooms a school!” said Kadhim Ziyad, headmaster of Al-Ahwar primary school in Al-Chibayish marsh.

“We desperately lack equipment that the teachers and students need,” he complained.

Asad Mohammed, headmaster of Al-Attar primary school just outside Al-Chibayish, had similar problems. “Our school suffers from many difficulties, including lack of educational materials,” he said.

Hussein Jasim, 39, father of two students, pleaded with the government to provide support for the schools and to families in order to help students continue studying.

“We blame the government for our situation. They are not responding to our demands,” said Um Ali, 57, a mother of three sons, while collecting cane.

“Our village lies in a distant place from Al-Chibayish,” said Um Ali. “It is pitch black at night because there is no electricity. “We cannot afford fuel for a generator. We get so little money from collecting cane.”

Another marsh-dweller, Abu Sajid, 42, called on the government to create jobs by investing in paper, foodstuff and fodder factories.

Medical services, too, are inadequate.

“People here are in a desperate need of more medical care,” said Dr Nadhim al-Asadi of Al-Chibayish hospital.

“The only hospital here lacks paediatricians and gynaecologists.”

The mystique of Iraq’s marshes over the decades attracted many Western adventurers, including Britain’s late Sir Wilfred Thesiger who lived here from 1951 to 1958 and wrote a book, “The Marsh Arabs,” on their fading way of life.


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