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Southerners hope the land will turn green again

[Iraq] Qasim Alwan on the banks of the Euphrates.
Qasim Alwan on the banks of the Euphrates river (Mike White)

A broken road follows the bank of the river which flows past Al-Ghumayj village in southern Iraq. One side of the road reveals splendour, the other side misery. As 73-year-old Qasim Alwan slowly walks along it, to his left is the mighty Shatt al-Arab, which epitomises his past prosperity, to his right a brown wasteland, the cause of his present poverty.

Lying just downstream from the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Qasim's village was transformed and largely destroyed by the drastic policies of Saddam Husayn. Following the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent uprising of the southern Shi'ahs, Saddam's government systematically set about wrecking the environment of the region and concomitantly the livelihoods and lives of the Madan people, or Marsh Arabs, as punishment for their perceived lack of loyalty.

Using pumps and pipes from the nearby oilfields, the government drained the marshes in which about 400,000 Madan lived between the two mighty rivers, turning a paradise into a desert. It also destroyed the reeds that covered much of the area, arguing that they hid opponents of the regime. The damming of tributaries, diversion of rivers and the pumping dry of fertile land reduced Alwan's village to a virtual wasteland. Today, his shabby concrete and mud-brick house sits on a desolate flatland surrounded by rubbish, stones and piles of buffalo dung.

Skinny dogs with noses close to the ground limp across it, children with hair teased on end by the dust and wind scamper after them, and buffaloes gather under the scant shade offered by a few date palms. But this was once a veritable Garden of Eden, according to Qasim. In fact, in Al-Qurnah, about 10 km north of his village, is The Tree of Adam, marking the spot where Satan is said to have tempted the father of mankind.

Qasim remembers how lush everything once was, how many species of birds there used to be, the river full of fish. "But now, look at this," he says, kicking at the hard earth with his sandal. "It is just death under my feet."

When the land was drained, thousands of villagers were forced to shift, their livelihoods as farmers and fishermen gone. Qasim estimates that two-thirds of the people in his area went away, many seeking refuge in nearby Iran.

Those like him who stayed, found themselves reduced to eking out an existence which was a shadow of their past good life. Someone who previously owned 300 buffaloes now only had only 20, he said.

Not only had it been Saddam's intention to punish them, Qasim says, but also to make them reliant on the regime for food to survive. And the regime's hand intruded even further into their lives. People were constantly arrested and imprisoned for being suspected opponents of the government. Three of Qasim's cousins were arrested - two had both their legs amputated and the other an arm.

But now there is hope.

After the fall of Saddam's government, removal of the dams and diversions commenced, in the last 10 days, the level of the river flowing past Al-Ghumayj had already risen dramatically. Previously it was possible to walk across it, but now its level has risen well over people's heads, and they can swim in it again.

For Qasim and his peers, after 15 years of an arid existence, this suddenly offers the chance to return to their former life of bountiful farming - and the promise of former villagers coming home to resettle. Already he has heard of some people starting to return from Iran. Qasim says he will try to rehabilitate the land to what it was, but it will take time.

And while water is crucial, so are basic services. His village has never had electricity, health centres or schools, because the former government insisted on keeping the people's lives hard, he says.

Twenty-year-old Sirhan Akbar has never been to school, nor have any of his friends. He is too young to remember the days when the land was truly green, but his father tells him about it often. "God willing, in the future, we can get back the things we had."

Another villager, Ali Qasim Alwan, said that at least they were now free of the threats from Saddam's Ba'th Party. "Our life is miserable here - war after war. We wish for our children better than what we had - freedom, security, no more beheadings, no more army."

About 50 km away in the village of Garamah, near the bank of the Shatt al-Arab, Matir Muhammad digs at the earth in his yard, trying to reconnect a water supply.

Just beyond the rusty corrugated iron fence surrounding his mud and concrete home, small fish flit in pools of stagnant green water. Ironically, it was water that brought his family here in 1993. The land in their former village of Harir had been drained, the river level lowered and their farming and fishing life destroyed.

He used to grow watermelons, wheat, and barley and would love to do so again, he said. "If there was water again, we would go back."

Standing by a rough shed housing three buffaloes, its roof covered with drying dung cakes to be used for cooking, Khayriyyah Jabir Musa recalls how good the life used to be in her village 20 km away. "Thanks to God it was a rich life, but after they blocked the water we came here. It was a great injustice. We had big houses, but now they are all gone - there is nothing left," she said. Nothing but hope that the land will once again turn green, and they will all be able to go home.

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:

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