A birdsong that proves water is bringing Marsh Arabs' world back to life

By Robert Fisk, Salal river, southern Iraq

05 January 2004

Abbas Oweid stood next to what was left of Saddam's dam and swept his hand across the grey desolation of sand, dust and broken homes to the north. "I knew all these villages" he said. "Take this down in your notebook; you should remember the names of these dead villages: Mahamar, Manzan, Meshal, Daoudi, Djezeran Nakbia, Zalal, Abu Talfa, Jdedah, Ghalivah, Um al-Hamadi, Al-Gufas, Al-Khor, Al-Hammsn ..."

It was too much. I couldn't keep up with Mr Oweid. The sheer scope of Saddam's destruction of the Marsh Arabs had outpaced the speed of my handwriting. But then, far across the rubble of bricks and broken doorframes and dried mud, there came the cry of a bird.

Mr Oweid's face broke into a smile. "Where the birds are, there is the water," he said, and rested on his heels, a man ­ the Arabs like this ­ who had found the right aphorism for the right moment. But it was true. The birds are returning because the water is trickling back into the thousands of square miles that Saddam drained for 10 years.

You can hear it, gurgling, frothing, sucking its way into old ditches and dried-up streams and round the little dirt hills upon which the Shia Muslim Marsh Arabs built their homes before Saddam decided to destroy them.

I sat on a little boat here yesterday, puttering up the broad Salal river, and saw an old mud and concrete house with a new roof and new palm trees planted around it and a small, green boat pulled on to the dirt embankment. The bullrushes and reeds are gone and there is no tree higher than three feet. But one family has come back. Even Mohsen Bahedh, whose family fled to the safety of Iran during the long and terrible self-imposed drought that Saddam inflicted on his people, is thinking of returning.

He sat beside me in our little boat, his left hand holding a Kalashnikov rifle, his right resting on the head of his five-year-old son, Mehdi. "There were 12,000 families here and they all left," he said. "We had fish and fruit and vegetables and birds and water buffalo and our homes, and Saddam dried us out, took all our water away, left us with nothing."

Our boat slowed at one point because the water level rose six inches in front of us, a literal ridge of higher water that fell back to the river's normal level on the other side. "Underneath us are the remains of a Saddam dam," Mohsen said. "It makes the water run over the top of it. So we can still see the dams, even when they are no longer here."

Saddam's destruction of the Marsh Arabs was widely condemned outside Iraq, although you have to come here to appreciate his ruthlessness of purpose. After the Americans and British encouraged the Shia Muslims of Iraq to rise up against Saddam in 1991 ­ then betrayed them by doing nothing when he wiped out his opponents ­ deserting Iraqi soldiers and rebels who wanted to keep on fighting retreated into the swamps of Howeiza and Amarah and Hamar where the Marsh Arabs, deified in Wilfrid Thesiger's great work so many decades ago, gave them sanctuary. Iraqi helicopters and tanks could not winkle them out.

So Saddam embarked on a strategy of anti-guerrilla warfare that puts Israel's political assassinations and property destruction ­ and America's Vietnam Agent Orange ­ into the shade. He constructed a set of dams, hundreds of them, to block the waters flowing into the marshes from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. He diverted the water through new artificial waterways ­ one of them was called the Mother of All Battles river ­ which irrigated the towns and cities that remained loyal to him. The only water allowed into the marshes were the runoffs of fertilised fields, so the Marsh Arabs' cattle walked into the centre of the streams to find fresh water. In the end, there was no water left.

An entire Sumerian society, whose reed and wood homes were modelled on those of the ancient Sumerians, and whose brides were brought to their weddings in flower-covered boats, was destroyed. Almost.

When the Anglo-American invasion force crashed into Iraq in March last year, there were still hundreds of square miles of marshes left; and in the first hours after the British reached Basra, the people of Hamar dug through the earth and concrete dams that Saddam had erected to destroy them and breached his dams.

One old man in Nasiriyah told me his wife woke him after the first night of bombing to tell him she could hear water trickling in the old ditch behind their house. The man didn't believe her. "Then I got up and in the moonlight," he said, "and I saw water."

It is a story of hope. Faisal Khayoun's father was murdered by Saddam's secret police in 1993 while driving on the Basra road. "They shot him in the forehead and neck," he said. "My cousin and my uncle were arrested in 1997 and hanged at Abu Ghoraib. The mukhabarat (intelligence service) used to come here on raids at four in the morning and I would always spend the nights on the roof, waiting in case they came. Now, for the first time in my life, I stay asleep in my home until the sun wakes me in the morning."

Mohsen Bahedh jumped ashore four miles north of the Hamar Bridge and we sloshed together through deep, black mud that sucked at our shoes, to the four broken walls of a house. "This was my home," he said. "I came back and knocked out some of the bricks and window-frames to build a new home south of Saddam's dam. See, that's where we kept the geese ­ and my cattle were where the dust is. And my boat was down there."

He and Mehdi padded through the wreckage. "Maybe we will come back now," he said. "Yes, we helped Saddam's opponents. And when the soldiers deserted and came here, we fed them and gave them places to sleep and fuel to keep them warm. We are a kind people."

Many Marsh Arabs long ago exchanged the water buffalo for the Mercedes and became traders. Other tribes moved in and planted crops in newly irrigated land. But Thesiger's people have survived and Saddam's regime has not, and yesterday a small tide of dark-blue water was still seeping back into the desert, creeping around Mahamar, Manzan, Meshal and all the lost villages of the marshes.