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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 May, 2003, 23:51 GMT 00:51 UK
Iraq's Marsh Arabs battle for survival

By David Loyn
BBC developing world correspondent

During several days travelling around Iraq's former marshlands, we did not meet anybody who still lived where their ancestors had.

Saddam Hussein's regime killed perhaps 20% of the Marsh Arab population, and scattered most of the rest, leaving only small groups of people alive.

Marsh Arab children, southern Iraq
Saddam Hussein drained the marshes as a tool of oppression

The Marsh Arabs live in extended families, clustered around a 'mudhif', a round-roofed hall made entirely from woven reeds.

In earlier times these mudiths were often built on raised banks of mud which were often the only dry ground - as people lived in floating houses and moved around by boat, hunting and fishing and selling dairy products from water buffaloes.

Now the survivors have moved to be close to the canals which Saddam Hussein dug, often living just on the stagnant water which leaches out from the canals, as until the government fell, Iraqi soldiers would shoot them if they came too close.

In one mudith, a woman told me that most of the men in her family were shot, and their possessions stolen before they ran away. She said they were too poor to be refugees - they did not have a vehicle or boat to run across the border to Iran, the main haven for Marsh Arabs, so they had to survive as best they could in Iraq under constant harassment from soldiers.

From a British Army Air Corps helicopter we could see nothing but desert as far as the horizon, with wide lanes harrowed across it by mechanical diggers, which destroyed what had been there.

What Saddam Hussein did here amounts to genocide according to the British Euro MP Baroness Emma Nicholson, who is trying to put together a war crimes case against the ousted Iraqi leadership.

Marshlands decline

She did appear to find compelling evidence to support her claim that the acts of destruction were going on after July 2001. The date matters because the International War Crimes Court began its work then, and could investigate Saddam Hussein's regime.

Marshland, southern Iraq
Baroness Nicholson is campaigning for the marshes to be restored

British soldiers accompanying the Baroness found dams in areas which were shown as virgin marshland on their very detailed and recent maps.

These are not huge constructions but a series of small dams, locks and canals diverting the water away from the traditional marshlands.

Baroness Nicholson is trying to persuade the army to undo the damage.

"The thing is a catastrophe," she said. "This simple harmless-looking dam is just one piece of a malevolent puzzle which was genocide against the marsh people."

The Baroness secured a number of appeals from surviving Marsh Arab clan leaders, including some who have returned from exile in Iran. They all wanted the marshes re-flooded, providing that there was effort to restore the high points where families had their centre point to build a mudith.

History of discrimination

But General Tim Cross, the most senior British voice in the interim authority for Iraq, the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, said a decision on restoring the marshland would have to wait until an Iraqi administration was installed in Baghdad.

"The longer-term restoration of the marsh land and Marsh Arabs is clearly an important issue and I think that's an issue for the future Iraqi Government and the people of this region themselves to decide how they want to set about doing that." he said.

"Whilst my personal instinct is to support what the Baroness is saying, I think a bit of caution, patience and debate amongst people who understand the issues is going to be very important"

Baroness Nicholson says there is a danger of drift, and finding excuses for inaction, such as concerns about the small number of farmers actually using the drained land to grow wheat.

The Marsh Arabs have faced indifference and discrimination from Baghdad before, and can hardly expect to be a priority for the incoming Iraqi administration, whenever it is formed.

If nothing is done, Baroness Nicholson says the ancient civilisation of the Mesopotamian marshlands will be gone forever: "The marsh people will be a footnote in history and we will be the guilty parties."




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's David Loyn
"Saddam didn't just kill the people of the marshlands. He drained the marshes, trying to destroy their civilization"




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