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Interview with Baroness Emma Nicholson

[Iraq] Baroness Emma Nicholson meets Marsh Arabs in a traditional "mudheef" or meeting house. (Will have the reporting on the woman story finished tomorrow - and maybe written as well.)
Baroness Emma Nicholson meets Marsh Arabs in a traditional "mudheef" or meeting house (IRIN)

The British NGO Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees (AMAR) was founded by former British MP and current MEP Baroness Emma Nicholson in 1991 to assist Iraqi Marsh Arabs following their forced evacuation from the marshes and the destruction of their habitat in southern Iraq by Saddam Hussein.

On a trip to the region shortly after the defeat of the Iraqi army in Kuwait Baroness Nicholson was moved to launch the NGO after witnessing at first hand the acute suffering of the Marsh Arabs and the southern Iraqi Shiites in general following their abortive uprising against Saddam.

Now, in the aftermath of Saddam's overthrow, she told IRIN that she is increasingly worried that the new-found attention the Marsh Arabs are attracting from the international community will not necessarily be to their benefit.

The following is an excerpt from that interview.

QUESTION: How did you come to get involved with the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq?

ANSWER: I became involved initially following the first Gulf War when I heard of the plight of the southern Shiite population of Iraq, but found to my astonishment that although the international community was working very hard on behalf of the Kurdish population in the north of Iraq, they seemed totally unaware of the southern uprising. I saw that there was acute suffering here and knew that something had to be done.

Q. How were you able to translate that realisation into action?

A. I was a British member of parliament at the time, and in desperation I came here to the region to see for myself what could be done to help. At that time, it was impossible to cross the border from Kuwait to Iraq, so I went on to Iran, and as soon as I arrived there - with the considerable help of the Iranian authorities - I went to the border and crossed into Iraq. It was then that I found myself in the marshlands and amongst the Marsh Arabs. And although all the people of the south had suffered great political oppression, the Marsh Arabs have had their way of life and habitat destroyed at the same time. So that was how I started working with the Marsh Arabs.

Q. What are AMAR's objectives in the region?

A. Our mission is to help the civilian population in extreme stress to retain their dignity and survive through the provision of professional services and by capacity training. In order to help these people to get back their dignity, we try to enable them to help themselves. We look for professionals within the ranks of the affected populations to assist them in their own leadership.

Q. Is it the aim of AMAR to see the marsh areas that were drained by Saddam Husayn re-flooded?

A. Certainly it is the wish of the refugees in Iran that the marshes are re-flooded and the people returned to their homes and their natural habitat, but we have to be careful that it is done in a way that respects the wishes of all the Iraqi people and ensures that all voices are heard. The areas of marshland that have been drained are now the area of major farm production in Iraq, so we have to be very careful not to cause further stress.

Q. You must be delighted that the plight of the Marsh Arabs is now commanding international attention.

A. We have been pushing the international community to give the plight of the Marsh Arabs the attention it deserves for years, mostly without success, but I am quite worried that the issue has suddenly become very fashionable. Now there is a big rush to look at the Marsh Arabs.

Q. Why do you think there is this sudden focus and what can a small organisation like AMAR do to protect the rights and wishes of the Marsh Arabs in a situation like this?

A. There is a sudden focus now on the Marsh Arabs. We must appeal to those in authority to take control and make a balanced analysis of the needs and requirements of the Marsh Arabs. We will be appealing to Ambassador Olson [of the Coalition Provisional Authority] to reverse the situation to ensure that the voices of the Iraqi people are heard. The recent crush of goodwill and enthusiasm has drowned out the Iraqi voice, and that is unacceptable. This is their country - full of educated and able people - and we must enable them to reach their own solutions.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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