Saddam Hussein used eco terrorism against the Marshland Arabs and the people of Basra after the Gulf War, punishing them for helping coalition forces.He stopped the water flow to the marshes turning the land into a desert. The Marshland Arabs were subsistence dwellers. After their way of life was destroyed many moved to the cities: others languish in a state of poverty in destitute villages on what had been fertile ground. Basra’s average temperature has risen and crime has flourished.
The Marshland is in the process of being restored, though not in a scientific manner. Shortly after Saddam's fall, many of the dams were broken restoring water to the area. Wildlife returned and the landscape has begun getting green again. Whether the area can ever be fully restored or even maintain the status quo is in question. There is a constant battle for water rights. Dams in Iran are now blocking the flow of what came naturally to the Marshland.
Early in January, CMOC (Civil Military Operation Center) sponsored a Marshland Conference in Basra. In attendance were businesses leaders and scientists who have a stake in the Marsh. The keynote speaker,Dr. Mohammad Mossa Omran pointed out, “Birds don’t carry passports,” The loss of the Marshland is not only Iraq’s loss but also one for the global community.
CMOC is aiding some of the village in hope of influencing the population by giving out blankets and heaters and building a community center and school in Rota Village. The Marshland is on the border of Iraq and Iran and the Marshland Arabs have traditionally been smugglers. CMOC is trying stop the flow of weapons and insurgents from Iran by giving the citizens new possibilities and a stake in their community.
At the conference I met Kassem Hawal, an Iraqi filmmaker who has what might be the only film footage of what the Marshland was like before Saddam destroyed it. He also has footage of the bulldozers filling the waterways. Kassem’s work was destroyed by Saddam's regime, except one reel he recovered and restored. His camera work is stupendous: long steady shots of the marsh and its inhabitants including a wedding procession on the water. Kassem can be reached at www.kassemhawal.com
Also at the conference was director of Basra’s Natural History Museum, Prof. Dr. Khalat-Al- Rabaae, and Professor Sadek A. Hussein, an ichthyologist at Basra University and Dr. Mohammed Al-assadi, Dean of the Science College. The Natural History museum was bombed to the ground. One remaining specimen remains at the university. The director is hoping the coalition will help him build a new museum. The University has a small collection of natural history specimens left.
To visit the University took creative maneuvering. Military are not allowed on campus. A Sheik’s son, his translator and a bodyguard (nicknamed Pringles) escorted us. They joined in on a tour of the College of Agriculture, the home of the natural history collection. There is a room of fish with about twenty specimens, a room of instects and a room with a herborarium collection comprised of specimens collected by the schools dean. I met and inteviewed students and faculty. Some are studying invasive species, others, botany and molecular biology. They all do field work and shared images of the sites they have collected species in.
I plan to make it a trip to the Marshlands in the coming weeks and document the eco system and villages myself.
Images are all from Basra University's School of Agriculture