Saddam drains the life of the Marsh Arabs: The Arabs of southern Iraq cannot endure their villages being bombed and their land being poisoned, and are seeking refuge in Iran. Michael Wood reports from Huwaiza Marsh on the death of a 5,000-year-old culture

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BEYOND Susangerd the road heads westwards and straight for 50km to the Iraqi border. By mid-morning the heat and humidity are barely endurable. Soon the scrubby desert gives way to intermittent pools, and then suddenly the marsh opens out on both sides of the causeway - a great sheet of water stretching to the horizon, dotted with clumps of reed. This is Huwaiza Marsh.

'Wait until we enter the reedbeds,' says the driver, 'it's like hitting a wall of heat.' Finally you reach a place called Himmet - not really a place at all, just a spot on a dirt road raised a few feet above the swamp. This is where the Iraqi refugees live, Marsh Arabs who have fled Saddam's terror. Their shelters straggle along four kilometers of road to the last military post. There is not a drop of shelter here, but the Marsh Arabs are adept at making something out of nothing and they've thrown up reed shanties all over the levees.

In the haze on the horizon, Iraqi military vehicles and dump-trucks can be seen raising clouds of dust; they are building a massive new dyke running north-south through Huwaiza which will cut off the last line of escape from Iraq to Himmet. President Saddam Hussein's slow genocide of the Marsh Arabs is reaching its climax.

The encirclement and destruction of the Marsh Arabs and the annihilation of their 5,000-year-old culture have been brought about by the deliberate draining of their unique habitat - the 6,000-square-mile marshes of southern Iraq. This environmental and human disaster has been long in the planning. The Iraqi regime continues to deny it. It claims the draining is part of an agricultural improvement plan which will benefit the people of the region.

Documents captured during the Kurdish uprising show that President Saddam approved the plan for the marshes in December 1988. Burning, terror, murder and starvation of the marsh people, poisoning the water, economic blockade and damming the rivers - were all part of the plan. When the Shia revolt had been crushed in the cities, President Saddam turned his fury against the people in the marshes.

According to the Iraqi army, in December 1991 and January 1992 over 70 marsh villages were destroyed and 50,000 people removed. The assault continued throughout 1992. There are records of attacks almost every day. Huge tracts of the marshes were drained by using earth barriers to block the tributaries of the Tigris which feed the Amara marshes and by damming the Euphrates below Nasiriyah.

Satellite photos taken last August showed the big lakes shrunken and a 1,000-square-mile rectangle of marsh dried out north of Qurnah and west of the Amara-Basra highway. When an Iraqi engineer was captured by the mujahedin last October with his plans and maps of the earthworks, they confirmed the scale and objective of President Saddam's campaign. New satellite photos and eyewitness accounts show that the whole of the central marshes between the two rivers are now dry.

Meanwhile, with the water receding, the people have been forced to move - first to find drinking water, then to escape the area altogther. The exodus had begun.

In the last two months 5,000 Marsh Arab refugees have arrived at Himmet - to add to the ten times as many Shia who have lived in nearby camps since their failed uprising against the regime after the Gulf war. The newcomers live on the road, and more refugees are expected soon, as President Saddam's ring of steel closes. No one knows how many are still trapped inside: estimates range from tens of thousands to a quarter of a million.

Those who have managed to get out describe artillery attacks by the Iraqi army. Many say they travelled through the night with their children and hid during the day. 'We covered ourselves with mud and hid in a fetid pool at one point so they wouldn't see us,' said an elderly woman from Al Agger.

Most of the people at Himmet have witnessed President Saddam's atrocities. The story of one village - Al Agger, in the Amara marshes - can stand for hundreds of others. The people were shelled several times in October 1991 and April 1992 before the notorious attack of 20 May last year, when two helicopter gunships rocketed a wedding. At least 13 people were killed, including the groom and his nine-year-old sister. More than 20 others were injured. Several members of the two families have escaped to Himmet and have recounted what happened.

But this was not the end of the suffering of the people of Al Agger. In July last year 30 people were killed by an attack with shells and firebombs.

A witness recalls that by early August last year 'We were brought under by drought and lack of water. The farm animals were dying and the rice crops were lost. Then the people started to leave, to follow the water and stay alive.' Those who remained were ferociously attacked again for two days in December when the temperatures were below zero.

By February of this year, Al Agger was deserted, the houses burnt, the school and clinic smashed. In the centre of the village were graves marked by a lettered black flag on which were painted in Arabic the words 'Redeemer Save Us'.

'We used to be people who gave to others,' said one old man of the village. 'We were always generous to people in need. This was our tradition. We had a guest hut where we fed strangers and travellers. Now we have no buffalo, no cows, no boats. Now we have to sit here and wait for someone to come and give us enough flour to make one piece of bread. Now we have to search the marsh shore to find some drinkable water for our children.'

Many of the refugees are women with their children whose menfolk have been killed. One day a volunteer working with the refugees was crossing Um al Naj lake in Iraq and spotted a young woman with three small children, struggling to pole her canoe. When he got closer to her, he saw a newborn baby in the bottom of the boat which she had just delivered. Though exhausted and bleeding profusely, she had rigged a cloth to shade her baby from the burning sun and was trying to get across to Iran. He was able to help her, to guide her to one of the passages through the marshes. He fetched a pick-up truck to meet her at Tabr, the nearest levee on the Iranian side. From there his colleagues got her to hospital in Susangerd.

There is a strained atmosphere here in Himmet. People who have lived in freedom are now confined. There are occasional fights, there is anger and much frustration. People queue at the medical tent; many of the young children have bloody diarrhoea or amoebic dysentry; there's a six-month-old girl with bad conjunctivitis. Most of the mothers have trouble giving milk, and of the 250 nursing infants here a dozen have died in the last few weeks.

In a shelter near the tent, a group of women quietly mourn a dead three- year-old girl with the beautiful laments which are at the heart of the Shia faith. Below them, in the marsh, two women punt towards the shore, their boat stacked with green reed stalks to make a roof for their hut.

Around eight o'clock in the evening there's a distant rumble of artillery, like a far-off roll of thunder. A spurt of flame leaps on the horizon - the rush of dried reedbeds going up. The Iranian border troops say the Iraqis are attacking one of the passages by which the refugees escape through Huwaiza. According to the refugees this happens most days, morning and evening. The fire in the reedbeds flares for a while and then dies down, leaving a smudge of smoke on the darkening skyline. We prepare to head back to Susangerd for the night.

'Please take us with you,' laughs one of the boys. 'Just help us to get out before the rest of our babies die,' says a woman from Al Agger.

Twenty supporters of the Marsh Arabs and their environment began an indefinite hunger strike on Wednesday outside the American Embassy in London. A film produced by Michael Wood on the Marsh Arabs will be shown in 'Viewpoint' on 19 October, 10.40pm, ITV.

(Photograph omitted)