When people in the Western world think of Arabs they tend to think Bedouin tribesmen riding camels through great oceans of unforgiving sand dunes, but that really is not the whole story of these ancient people. There was, in modern day Iraq, a huge area of wetlands known as the Iraqi Marshlands.
The wetland region where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers split into meandering ribbons and lakes before flowing into the Persian Gulf has been home to human communities for five millennia. The inhabitants of the marshlands were heirs to a culture going back into the distant past. Prior to the reign of the infamous dictator, Saddam Hussein, this area was the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East. The Marsh Arabs are believed to be the cultural descendants of the ancient Sumerian and later Babylonian civilizations.
The same communal mudhif buildings seen in marsh culture today have also been seen depicted on Sumerian seals from 5000 years ago. There are also apparent similarities between the agricultural and irrigation practices of the ancient Sumerians and the modern day ‘Ma’dan’, as the present Marsh Arabs are known. The Sumerians also travelled in similar slender reed boats, caught fish and birds with long spears, lived on marsh islands in reed houses, and herded water buffalo, sheep and cattle.
Many scholars regard these marshlands as the inspiration for the fabled Garden of Eden, as described in both the Bible and the Koran. It seems also that the belief is held of the marshes also being the site where the Great Flood occurred and the patriarch Abraham was born. There can be no doubt that this area is of major significance in the histories of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
The Marsh Arabs saw their ancient way of life seriously damaged by the repressive Saddam Hussein. Many fled their remote homeland in southern Iraq when the government turned on them after uprisings following the 1991 Gulf War. Massive government drainage schemes have turned the region from one of the world’s most significant wetlands to a wasteland of parched and cracked earth. Until 1991, the Madan lived traditionally, growing rice and dates, raising water buffalo, fishing and building boats and houses from reeds.
The United Nations Environmental Programme says about 90% of the up to 20,000 square kilometres of marshlands have been lost because of drainage and upstream damming in what many naturalists have described as “one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters.”
After Saddam’s losing the Gulf War of 1990, rebellions spread across the south and north of the country. Iraqi Government forces put down the uprisings brutally, bombing civilians from military helicopters. Between 30,000 and 60,000 people died, according to the US. Thousands sought shelter in the remote marshes, Human Rights Watch says.
Repression increased and the Iraqi regime began large-scale hydro-engineering projects in the marshes, building dams, canals and embankments. Water levels began to drop. In 1992 and 1993 reports emerged of a military campaign to flush out the wetlands, describing artillery and aerial attacks on civilian areas, arrests and executions, mine-laying and the destruction of homes and properties. UN special reporter on Iraq, Max van der Stoel, concluded in 1995 that he had found “indisputable evidence of widespread destruction and human suffering.”
A decade later, about 40,000 Marsh Arabs are living in camps or squatter settlements in Iran, the rest thought to be displaced within Iraq, but no one knows how many are still alive. Since the infrastructure of the country was all but devastated during the war, no attempt has to date been made to re-flood the marshlands, despite cries for this to be done.
It might be too late to restore more than half the marshlands; and a precious ecosystem, together with an ancient and venerated way of life, may for 500,000 Marsh Arabs sadly become no more than a fond memory. Everything humanly possible should be undertaken to repair this environmental vandalism, but the reality is that this will not be made a priority in time. Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man often comes at too big a price.