The British Royal Air Force helicopter sweeps low over a sea of marsh grass, then banks sharply to the left, hurling me off my seat and onto the chopper’s rough metal floor. Fifty feet below, pools of silver water speckled with rust-colored flora and lush reed islands in cookie-cutter shapes extend in every direction. Women swathed in black veils and black robes called abayas punt long boats past water buffalo lolling in the mud. Sparkles of light dance off a lagoon, and snowy herons glide over the wetlands.
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I'm traveling with a unit of British soldiers deep into Al Hammar Marsh, a 1,100-square-mile freshwater sea located between the southern Iraqi cities of An Nasiriyah and Basra, the country's second largest after Baghdad. Saddam Hussein's engineers and soldiers turned it into a desert after the Persian Gulf war of 1991, but during the past three years—thanks to a dismantling of dikes and dams built on Saddam's orders in the early 1990s—the marshlands have been partially rejuvenated. Now this fragile success is facing new onslaughts—from economic deprivations to deadly clashes among rival Shiite militias.
The Merlin chopper touches down in a muddy field beside a cluster of mud-brick and reed houses. A young Romanian military officer with a white balaclava around his head rushes up to greet us. He's part of a "force protection" group dispatched from An Nasiriyah in armored personnel carriers to make sure that this British reconnaissance team—scouting villages for an upcoming World Environment Day media tour—gets a warm reception from the local population. As we climb out of the muck and onto a dirt road, the Merlin flies off to a nearby military base, leaving us in a silence I've never before experienced in Iraq. A few moments later, two dozen Iraqi men and boys from a nearby village, all dressed in dishdashas—gray traditional robes—crowd around us. The first words out of their mouths are requests for mai, water. As Kelly Goodall, the British Army's interpreter, hands out bottles of water, a young man shows me a rash on his neck and asks if I have anything for it. "It comes from drinking the water in the marshes," he tells me. "It isn't clean."
The villagers tell us they haven't seen a helicopter since the spring of 1991. That was when Saddam sent his gunships into the wetlands to hunt down Shiite rebels and to strafe and bomb the Marsh Arabs who had supported them. "We came back from An Nasiriyah and Basra after the fall of Saddam, because people said it was better to go back to the marshes," the village chief, Khathem Hashim Habib, says now. A hollow-cheeked chain smoker, Habib claims to be only 31 years old, but he looks 50, at least. Three years after the village reconstituted itself, he says, there are still no paved roads, no electricity, no schools and no medicine. Mosquitoes swarm at night, and nobody has come to spray with insecticide. The nearest market for selling fish and water-buffalo cheese, the economic mainstays, is an hour away by truck; during the rainy months, the Euphrates River rises, washing out the road, swamping the village and marooning everyone in the muck.
"We want help from the government," Habib says, leading us down the road to his home—four sheets of tightly woven reeds stretched over a metal frame. "The officials in Basra and Nasiriyah know that we're here, but help isn't coming," he tells a British officer.
"We're here to see exactly what needs to be done," the officer, fidgeting, assures the chief. "We'll work with the Basra provincial council, and we’ll make some improvements."
Habib doesn't appear convinced. "We haven't seen anything yet," he calls after the troops as they head down the road to await the Merlin's return. "So far it's been just words." As the British hustle me along, I ask Habib if he would prefer going back to live in the cities. He shakes his head no, and his fellow villagers join in. "Life is difficult now," he tells me, "but at least we have our marshes back."
A complex ecosystem created by the annual flooding of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, Iraq's marshes have sustained human civilization for more than 5,000 years. Some of the earliest settlements of Mesopotamia—"the land between the rivers"—were built on floating reed islands in these very wetlands. This was one of the first places where human beings developed agriculture, invented writing and worshiped a pantheon of deities. In more recent times, the remoteness of the region, the near-absence of roads, the difficult terrain and the indifference of Baghdad's governing authorities insulated the area from the political and military upheavals that buffeted much of the Arab world. In his 1964 classic, The Marsh Arabs, British travel writer Wilfred Thesiger described a timeless environment of "stars reflected in dark water, the croaking of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine."
Saddam Hussein changed all that. Construction projects and oilfield development in the 1980s drained much of the wetlands; the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) forced people to flee from border areas to escape mortar and artillery attacks. By 1990 the population had fallen from 400,000 to 250,000. Then came the gulf war. After the U.S.-led coalition routed Saddam's army in March 1991, President George H.W. Bush encouraged the Kurds and Shiites to rebel against Saddam, then, when they did so, declined to support them. Saddam reconstituted his revolutionary guard, sent in helicopter gunships and slaughtered tens of thousands. Shiite rebels fled to the marshes, where they were pursued by tanks and helicopters. Iraqi ground troops torched villages, set fire to reed beds and killed livestock, destroying most of the region's economic viability.
In 1992, Saddam began the most insidious phase of his anti-Shiite pogroms. Workers from Fallujah, Tikrit and other Baathist strongholds were transported to the south to construct canals, dams and dikes that blocked the flow of rivers into the marshes. As the wetlands dried up, an estimated 140,000 Marsh Arabs were driven from their homes and forced to resettle in squalid camps. In 1995, the United Nations cited "indisputable evidence of widespread destruction and human suffering," while a report by the United Nations Environmental Program in the late 1990s declared that 90 percent of the marshes had been lost in "one of the world's greatest environmental disasters."