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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
books...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Sport
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Sport
Romelu Lukaku scored twice to add to the hat-trick he registered in the first leg in Switzerland
football
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
tv
News
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Recruitment Genius: Print / Warehouse Operative

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Supply Chain Assistant

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Anna Woodward: German Speaking Accountant

£45,000: Anna Woodward: My client is aleading global manufacturer and service ...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower