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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 March, 2004, 16:19 GMT
Southern Iraq diary: Marshlands
On the anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, the BBC's Jill McGivering toured the south of the country. Here is the first instalment of a diary she kept.

Tuesday 2 March: Basra and the Hawizeh marsh area, and visits to small Marsh Arab settlements, near Nasiriya.

Street scene in Basra
Basra - a city 'entrenched in neglect'
Our first day is one of the holiest in the Shia calendar, Ashoura, the annual festival to commemorate the death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson. In Basra, we wake to find a pervading sense of holiday. It's the first time in decades that Shia Muslims have been able to gather to hold religious ceremonies and special commemorations which were suppressed under Saddam.

As we head out of the city at 07:30am, the streets are deserted. Metal grilles are pulled down and padlocked shut over the squat square fronts of concrete shops. Only an occasional straggler is visible; a man and boy with pickaxes digging up a strip of tarmac pavement, a woman in all encompassing black burqa, her hand poking out to hold the hand of a small child, hurrying along the empty roadside.

The first impression of Basra is of entrenched neglect - silent, empty streets, shabby one floor houses, broken buildings and half completed rebuilding projects, heaps of sand and broken stone abandoned on pavements waiting for day labourers to turn them into repairs.

The suburbs soon give way to open plains, shimmering scrub desert, endlessly dusty as the dry heat of the day grew. We are stopped at occasional checkpoints on the outskirts of town where British soldiers in their soft berets and no body armour work alongside Iraqi police.

It all feels notably less tense, less formal than life in Baghdad where I worked a few months earlier. Several times along the route, we pass groups of men and boys who are walking slowly in neatly regimented lines. They're engaged in synchronised symbolic flagellation, a symbol of today's Ashoura rituals. They're using cloths for whips, patting their backs across one shoulder, then the other.

Ruined beauty spot

After nearly an hour, the desert is starting to give way to patches of stagnant water, ponds that form small oases of green in the brown. We start to see swooping migrant birds - ducks and waders.

Basra city centre
The centre of a city once known as Iraq's Venice (Photograph by Paul Grant)
We're taken first to the ruined building of the former Hotel Qurna at Qalat Salih. It was a famous beauty spot in the 1940s, 50s ands 60s, we're told, a special attraction for foreign visitors. It's hard to imagine that now. We stand looking out at the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris - an expanse of dull brown water in the desert.

Our host here is Iraq's new minister of water, Dr Latif Rashid, a Kurd newly returned from exile. He shows us a plush double-page colour picture of the area from a 1970s book. It depicts lush thick tree cover along the banks, fringing clear deep waters. He pulls down the book and shows the contrast with today's reality - the brown barren banks, a few straggly trees.

Dr Ali Farhan, in white shirt, moustache and glasses, is an earnest man, now the project manager of Marsh Restoration, a major project in the area funded by US Aid. He tells us Basra used to be called Iraq's Venice.

"The other day we came across real photographs of Basra in the 40s and 50s, just like Venice," he says. "We bought about ten of them to frame and hang in the offices of the water ministry."

Re-flooding the marshes

A month ago, his team started a grand survey, gathering information, taking water samples and interviewing local people as part of plans to restore the marshes. They were systematically drained by Saddam Hussein's government, as punishment for the part played by the Marsh Arab people in the uprising of 1991.

The former Iraqi leader saw them as disloyal rebels and took his revenge, turning into barren desert an area of about 20,000 square kilometres so fertile and beautiful it's known as the original site of the Garden of Eden. Now dams built by Syria and Turkey have added to the water depletion.

"After liberation, re-flooding started," says Dr Farhan. "People broke down Saddam's dykes with their own hands." He says as many as 100,000 people had been displaced by the draining of the marshes. Many who remained started farming where once they'd been fishermen, growing wheat and barley in winter and rice paddy or vegetables in summer.

As we approach Ammara, we start to pass small, impoverished settlements along the road, one-room houses of dried mud bricks and roofs of cloth-covered thatch. The desert is punctuated by wandering dogs, sheep and cattle searching for occasional splashes of green in the desert.

Hoping for change

We stop and climb down from the raised road to cross the dust and say hello at random to a family. The woman, Moha Shaheb, holds a sickly baby boy in her arms, When I ask her age she laughs and says: "Anything between 18 and 80."

Life in the marshlands drained by the former Iraqi Government
Re-flooding the marshes is bringing some hope for poverty-stricken people (Photograph by Paul Grant)
She has seven boys and three girls, she says. Since the marshes were drained, they've had no electricity and no proper water supply. Her husband used to be a fisherman. We look round at the dried out landscape. Now they have hardly any income at all.

Since last year, there has been sporadic re-flooding, she says, but the water doesn't stay so there's little benefit. She's excited about the plan to re-flood the area. She wants the birds and fish to come back. They can't plant anything now. It's too dry and they don't have the money to buy seed, she says. Her one room home is dark inside, bare apart from a simple reed mat.

Another ten minutes down the road, we stop at a bigger Marsh Arab settlement. Children, their hair straw-coloured with malnutrition, swarm round us, giving us a thumbs up and shouting: Good! The women press round us too.

Dirty water and untreated sewage

They say they're frustrated that no-one is listening to them and helping. Hasana Hazim is a widow and mother of six sons (two already dead) and two daughters. The main problems are the fights between different tribes, she tells me. And they have no water. They have to drink directly from the river, also where the communities here dump untreated sewerage. They have no electricity, no clinic and no school. The water is dirty, she says. The children get diarrhoea and typhoid.

I ask her what it was like here when she was a girl. She smiles. The whole area was completely submerged, she says. She points to the mud houses. The water level was above even the roofs, she tells me, and they didn't live in houses like these but on top of water surface, tethered by reeds. There was no desert then, she says, no roads. Only boats.

As we travel back to Basra, we hear news breaking of the multiple bomb attacks in Karbala, the focal point of today's religious festival, and in Baghdad. The death toll steadily rises, reaching 140 as we enter Basra's suburbs.

That night, we're woken at 01:45 am by the sound of gunfire right below our first floor windows, involving the young security guards employed by the hotel and armed with AK 47s. We crouch in the corridor against the wall until it falls quiet again.

Further instalments of Jill McGivering's diary will follow.

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