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
Life and Style
life
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
News
Joan Rivers has reportedly been hospitalised after she stopped breathing during surgery
people81-year-old 'stopped breathing' during vocal chord surgery
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
health
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
Environment
environmentCrop pests are 'grave threat to global food security'
News
i100
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash
tvSimon Cowell blasts BBC for breaking 'gentlemen's agreement' in scheduling war
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
News
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
people
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Sport
footballAnd Liverpool are happy despite drawing European champions
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
fashion

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Technology Teacher - Food & Textiles

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Food Tech/Textiles Teacher We ...

Head of Marketing (Online & Offline, Media, Digital, Strategy)

£85000 - £100000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing - Slough, Berkshi...

Humanities Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Humanities, Religious Education ...

Physics Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Physics Teacher Long Term from S...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone