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April 4, 2003

As War Unfolds, Marsh Arabs Caught Between Hopes and Fears

The culture of the Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs, is one of the oldest in the Middle East – some say around 5,000 years. Until the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the Ma’dan inhabited the extensive marshlands between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers of southern Iraq, raising buffalo, hunting and gathering, living in mudhif, their distinctive cathedral-shaped reed houses. Many have noted that their homelands encompass the Biblical Garden of Eden.

Since 1991, however, the Marsh Arabs have been subjected to an incredibly brutal campaign to eradicate their environment and their culture. After some Marsh Arabs participated in the post-war uprising of Shi’a Muslims in the south – with the encouragement of, but no military support from, the United States - the government of Saddam Hussein responded by building a series dams and canals to drain the marshes and forcibly relocate the Ma’dan. This act of ecological devastation (the United Nations has called the episode “one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters”) was accompanied by equally appalling acts of violence, torture and repression. Human Rights Watch is one of the groups that has documented these systematic abuses; which it says amount to acts of genocide and crimes against humanity (see their briefing paper:

According to Human Rights Watch, the Ma’dan numbered around 250,000 in 1991. Today the number of Ma’dan still living in the marshes is estimated at fewer than 40,000; of the 95,000 Shi’a Muslim refugees now living in camps in Iran, around 40,000 are thought be Ma’dan. Whether still in Iraq or living in exile in other parts of the world, life for the Ma’dan is difficult.

Now, as American and British forces are pushing deeper into Iraq in their bid to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, they are finding that the sentiments of the Iraqi population toward their presence are more complicated than they anticipated. In many places they have been treated less as ‘liberators’ than as invaders, contrary to some war planners’ expectations. But as they try to solidify control of the country’s southern regions, reports are surfacing that at least one segment of Iraq’s population – the Ma’dan – are welcoming their presence.

In exchanges with Marsh Arab villagers in southern Iraq, journalists have recently captured their eagerness for the fighting to be over, and for peace to return again to the region. Years of forcible conscription into Saddam’s armies, relocation to grim roadside settlements, detentions, torture and daily threats to their livelihood have bred in the Ma’dan a fervent desire for tranquillity. “We want this over in a minute,” one father of three told reporter Terri Judd of The Independent. “We just want to live a basic life and drink good water.”

British military officers have begun to work with Marsh Arab villagers to channel humanitarian assistance and help them find a market for their produce, so they can obtain basic necessities such as flour and clean water, which have become hard to come by since the war started. Soldiers have also reported that some Ma’dan have come forth to help identify missile placements and the positions of Iraqi military forces in the area, giving a much-needed boost to morale.

The needs of Marsh Arab communities, both in Iraq and in Iran, remain urgent, even as many other Iraqis are running low on food and water due to the military action. Both immediate and long-range planning will be necessary to ensure that the Marsh Arabs have the means to provide for themselves, and to preserve and revitalize their rich and ancient culture.

Scientists, conservationists and other experts have recently discussed the possibility of restoring the marshlands under a new, peacetime administration in Iraq. The United Nations Environment Program reports that 90% of the marshlands have been lost due to the government’s dams and canals; experts say some of the damage is irreversible, and warn that the marshes could disappear completely in three to five years without urgent action. The area is also home to a number of endangered species. A major international effort to restore the marshes will be required if these, and the ancient Marsh Arab culture, are to survive.

[The AMAR Foundation is a nonprofit organization working to provide for Marsh Arab refugees in settlements in Iran. For more information see]