Refugees flee Saddam's man-made drought: The waters sustaining the Marsh Arabs' 5,000-year-old lifestyle are being deliberately drained away

AT THE beginning of this year, farmer Abdel Karim was looking forward to a record crop of dates from his palms in the southern Amarah marshes, near the town of Qurnah. He had heard that Iraqi government engineers had dammed and diverted lakes and rivers in the marshes some 60km (37 miles) north of his home.

There were 'many stories of villagers being forced out of their homes by the army' he said. But, like the other Marsh Arabs, or Ma'dan, in his village, Karim, 60, pushed these rumours to the back of his mind. Whatever was going on up north was not affecting him, he decided.

Twelve months later, he is still coming to terms with his miscalculation. Because, like thousands of other Ma'dan, Karim, his wife and their 13 children have been forced out of their home by the government's drainage schemes and the continuing military clampdown in the central Amarah marshlands. Today, they are in Iran.

From late March onwards, water levels in the lakes, channels and semi-permanent swamps surrounding his village started to fall alarmingly, he said. 'Drinking water became more and more scarce. My date palms were dying one by one.' By late June, with no sign that things would change, he decided he had no choice but to leave the village where he had spent most of his life.

It was three months since Karim had fled. But for the first eight weeks, he and his family had scuttled from place to place to avoid Iraqi patrols. Arrest almost certainly meant imprisonment, said Karim. 'Anyone caught outside their tribal area without good reason is a suspect,' he said. At one point the family considered returning to their village. But then they met a relative who told Karim that all the mudhifs (reed houses) in their village had been destroyed.

We spoke as Karim and his wife waited for their 15-year-old daughter to be seen by a doctor in a clinic in Hoveizeh in southern Iran. The clinic, run by the Amar Appeal, a British relief charity chaired by Emma Nicholson MP, is just 15km from Iraq. Other families waited quietly nearby.

Since mid-1993, more than 7,000 Iraqi Shias have made the same journey to Iran, most of them Ma'dan. This influx comes on top of almost 50,000 the Iranians have sheltered since 1991. However, the refugee flow into Iran is unlikely to stop. There may be 50,000 people in the marshlands who have lost their homes but are trapped in the region.

'There are thousands of refugees who are being sheltered by other villagers in more isolated areas of the Amarah marsh,' says Abu Sallah, a doctor who spent most of October in the marshlands. Dr Sallah, himself an Iraqi refugee who fled after the collapse of the 1991 uprising against the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, claims that many of these people want to seek refuge in Iran but have been prevented from doing so by Iraqi troops stationed in the Huwaiza marshes near the border with Iran.

The reclamation programme is making the job of policing the border marshlands easier, because there are fewer channels and open stretches of water on which boats can be used, the normal mode of transport for the Ma'dan. On foot, not only is it harder to escape Iraqi patrols, but would-be refugees often have to struggle through hip-deep mud and swim to reach Iran. Many of the refugees who arrived in Iran in August and September said they had lost relatives and friends through drowning during their flight.

Ma'dan like Abdel Karim now sheltering in camps in Iran fear the survival of their 5,000-year-old lifestyle is at risk. United States satellite images show that 40 per cent of the Amarah marsh is now depleted. Large areas of the Huwaiza marsh on the Iraqi side are also being turned into dry land. 'It is the first time that man has deliberately created a drought,' says one recent arrival.

And the drainage schemes continue to expand, according to recent arrivals from the marshes, including a new set of dykes north of Qurnah, in the area where Abdel Karim used to live. Without water, the Ma'dan's already precarious existence in the southern marshes would become an impossibility.

Iraqi opposition groups say the Baghdad regime's engineering schemes are part of its plan to bring the traditionally independent-minded inhabitants of the marshes under its control. Draining the region will make it easier for troops to harass rebel groups and harder for fugitives to escape. Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation dismisses this. A spokesman claimed the water works are an essential part of Iraq's long-term agricultural development programme. They are designed to cleanse thousands of hectares of farmland that have become encrusted with salt after years of over-irrigation, he said, and to provide more irrigation water for farmers.

The engineering works that most concern Iraqi dissidents are those that have been started since the Gulf war in the central and northern Amarah marshes, near the River Tigris. These include the diversion schemes Abdel Karim first heard about early this year and a 50km canal on the western side of the Tigris that runs south to Qurnah.

Opposition groups say there is little evidence of newly reclaimed areas being put to agricultural use in the Amarah marshes. Moreover, the engineering work has been accompanied by a massive troop build-up - not something normally considered necessary for agricultural development projects.

Baghdad admits that it has stepped up military activity in the region since the middle of this year. But it says the marshes have become a haven for 'brigands and criminals' and it is not prepared to let this continue. However, in his recent report to the United Nations General Assembly, Max van der Stoel, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iraq, described the use of military force in the marshes as 'evidently disproportionate' and said that this indicated 'that the aim is not only to subdue criminals in the area, but to subdue the whole populations'.

If the claims of recent arrivals in Iran are true, Baghdad's tactics in the marshes have included the use of chemical warfare. In an attack on the Abu Zergi marsh, 25km north-west of Basra, on 26 September, Iraqi troops are alleged to have fired mortar shells containing the poisonous gas phosgene.

But because of its location deep inside Iraq, eyewitness accounts did not reach the outside world for over two weeks. It was not until mid-November that the UN inspectors visited the Abu Zergi marsh to investigate the allegations. It was so long after the event that it was hardly surprising that the inspectors said that the initial findings were not conclusive. Their final conclusions have still not been made public.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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