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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 August, 2003, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Will man return to the 'Garden of Eden'?
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online

The Marsh Arabs of Iraq - made famous by travel writer Wilfred Thesiger, who died this week - saw their ancient way of life destroyed by Saddam Hussein. But now the dictator is gone, doubts have arisen that the former marsh dwellers even want to go back to the rushes.

British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger said that even as a boy he "recognised that motor transport and aeroplanes must increasingly shrink the world and irrevocably destroy its fascinating diversity".

The late author could never have imagined the role the internal combustion engine would play in the destruction of the Ma'adan - the Iraqi Marsh Arabs of the reed beds fed by the Tigris and Euphrates with whom Thesiger lived in the 1950s and about whom he wrote a hugely successful book in 1964.

Living in what some consider the region to have been the Biblical garden of Eden, the Ma'adan's simple way of life dating back 5,000 years which Thesiger had a "longing to share", was deliberately and ruthlessly extinguished by Saddam Hussein in less than a decade.

Thesiger said the marshes he knew in Iraq's south-east corner had "the stillness of a world that never knew an engine" - but in the 1990s this calm was ripped by mechanical earthmovers and attack aircraft.

Wilfred Thesiger
Thesiger's romantic vision of the marshes caught the world's imagination
The draining of these lands for irrigation projects elsewhere had been planned by the British rulers of Iraq long before Saddam's rise to power, and some dams had already gone up to aid Iraqi troop movements during the war with neighbouring Iran.

But the onslaught of the 1990s had nothing to do with diverting the area's watery lifeblood to benefit other Iraqis. The Sunni Muslim Saddam was punishing the Shia Marsh Arabs for their temerity to rise up against him in the aftermath of the first Gulf War.

Dykes and dams blocked the flow of water, drying up perhaps 90% of the wetlands which had once occupied around 20,000 square kilometres of southern Iraq. These sun-baked soils were then churned up by bulldozers.

Those Marsh Arabs not compelled to flee by the loss of the fish, reeds and water buffalo on which their livelihoods depended were subjected to "heavy artillery, fire bombs and even strafing", according to a 1992 United Nations report.

An estimated 200,000 people fled or were driven from their ancestral homes - some across the border to camps in Iran, others into Iraq's towns, where they faced continued hardships and discrimination.

And yet still the desiccated marshes remained a centre of grim armed resistance to the Ba'ath party regime.

Iraqi guerrilla fighter Abu Hattem - a man who locally won legendary status to rival Robin Hood - waged what he has since called "The War of the Fleas" against Saddam's superior forces across the salty wastes of the once fertile marshes.

The thousand or so Marsh Arabs who rallied to his cause are credited with inflicting some humiliating defeats on the Iraqi army and, during the recent US-led war, even liberated nearby towns days before invading Coalition forces swept up from neighbouring Kuwait.

Marsh Arabs before 1992
The Ma'adan have gone from this...
Though they acted as his refuge for more than 10 years, what does Abu Hattem want for marshes now? "This period of our lives in the marshes is over," he recently told reporters. "The marshes will not be part of our new agenda."

The parched lands are slowly being flooded once again - with Saddam's regime unwittingly setting the ball rolling in its dying days by accidentally blowing up a dam while trying to destroy roads that the British might use in their attack on Iraq's second city, Basra.

Baroness Emma Nicholson, founder of the London-based charity Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees (Amar), says this breached dam is one of five new sources of water routed in to help rejuvenate the marshes since the British occupied the area.

Fish and reeds (from which the Ma'adan fashion their distinctive buildings) are already returning, she says.

However, some reporters and aid workers in southern Iraq have cast doubts about the eagerness of some Ma'adan to resume their old ways, particularly those Marsh Arabs who have found life closer to town to their liking.

Ma'adan camp in Iran (courtesy Amar) refugee camps (Picture: Amar ICF)
"[They] have tasted the modern world and they don't want to let go of it," said one Basra representative of the International Organisation for Migration.

But Baroness Nicholson, a regular visitor to the region, says the desire to return to fishing and water buffalo farming remains strong in the majority of cases.

"Not everyone wants to be a farmer or fisherman - and we will help those who do not. But not even Saddam could break the will and spirit of the Marsh Arabs. That is way he had to continually fight them."

A recent census seems to support this view of Ma'adan stubbornness. Some 85,000 people are still thought to dwell in the marshes despite their sorry state - more than twice the number previously thought.

Baroness Nicholson is sure many more will flock back as Amar pushes to improve health care and schooling in the marshes - something Saddam also starved the region of. The situation is "complex", she admits. An understatement, perhaps.

Ma'adan camp in Iran (courtesy Amar)
Pushed out of the marshes, but the old ways remain (Pic: Amar ICF)
Firstly, the UN already says it is being careful not to show the Ma'adan preferential treatment for fear of stoking local resentment against the Marsh Arabs. And secondly, not all the dams restricting water supply to the wetlands were built by Saddam - Turkey and Syria take water from the rivers which could feed the marshes again.

Also, doubts remain that all of the marshes can be successfully flooded, particularly since the UN that estimated prior to Saddam's fall he had pushed the ecosystem to the very brink of collapse.

Baroness Nicholson is undaunted. "What one man can do, another man can undo."

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