Brit-Yank freelance journalist roving around the Middle East.
Currently writing about regional geopolitics for National Geographic and others.
he 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.”
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. Few had schools, even fewer had a health clinic, and none had electricity. It’s the memory of these less than idyllic conditions that appears to have persuaded many of the returnees to rebuild along the roads that Saddam’s army created through the marshes – where the amenities are superior – rather than chancing their luck out on the open water.
The new Ghubbah will be better laid out and equipped than its previous incarnation, local proponents of the plan say. With an entire island dedicated to “infrastructure”, notably a classroom and a water filtration system, it will boast facilities of which its former residents can be proud.
Many of them, particularly those who spent a decade in exile in neighbouring Iran, will just be pleased to return home. “Everything we do – from buffalo breeding to fishing – is connected to the water, so it’s good to live in the middle of the water,” said Haidar Hammeed, whose family have gone from one temporary lodging to another over the past few years. “It’s more practical.”
Coming at a time of conflict and low oil prices, which has seen the ministry of water resources’ allocation from the state’s capital investment fund cut from $1.7bn (£1.4bn) in 2013 to $90m (£73m) in 2016, some wonder if this is the best use of scarce resources. But the minister and local NGOs insist this is no mere aesthetic exercise.
Ever since the Marsh Arabs were pushed into exile, their unique culture has been steadily eroded by more socially conservative norms. Where once they sang and danced at weddings, “now they only serve food”, says Jassim al-Asadi, director of Nature Iraq’s southern operations and a native of the marshes.
Women once worked almost as equals in the marshes – during their years away their role has changed. In the new towns along the military roads, some women are no longer allowed to work, while more are now dressed in niqabs.
Ultimately, though, there might not be much Baghdad or the people themselves can do to preserve the marshes in the long term. Turkey has built at least 34 large dams on the Euphrates and Tigris and their tributaries, which have reduced the amount of water reaching Iraq and, at the same time, reduced rainfall has affected the north of the country.
The region’s unquenchable thirst might engineer what Saddam never did: a permanent destruction of the marshes.