In his presentation to the United Nations this morning, Secretary of State Colin Powell cited an expected list of Iraqi crimes. Among them, he made reference to a group called the Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq. Sadly, most of those listening to Powell’s remarks know nothing about the Ma’dan. While daily headlines continue to carry the latest about Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqi dictator’s long-running episode of literal mass destruction against the Ma’dan has been tragically neglected.
For years, Hussein’s behavior toward certain groups (Kurds, Shiite dissidents, Jews and others) has elicited attention. Yet, very little attention has been paid to the campaign of outright genocide he has waged against the Ma’dan. While the term “genocide” is often used carelessly, most observers agree it is apt in this case. The European Parliament employed that exact word as early as January 1995, where it characterized the Marsh Arabs as a persecuted minority “whose very survival is threatened by the Iraqi government.”
The Ma’dan live in a swampy delta at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, roughly 200 miles south of Baghdad. They are situated within a 30,000-square-kilometer triangle in southern Iraq marked by the ancient cities of Amara, Basra and Nasiriya. Many Biblical scholars believe this area to be the site of the “Garden of Eden.” This region is a unique, unspoiled wilderness containing pristine marshes filled with thousands of species of animals, birds and fish.
Most impressive about the Ma’dan is their culture and history. Estimates on their number range from 350,000 to 500,000. As descendants of the Sumerians and Babylonians, they are believed to be the world’s oldest people. With an ancestry that can be traced back to 3000 BC, the Ma’dan predate the Biblical flood in Mesopotamia. They are also credited with inventing writing.
Insulated by wild, natural marshes, the Ma’dan have managed to preserve their identity and ancient traditions. Even British colonialists and the Turks left them alone.
Their rich history, however, is in peril, thanks to Saddam Hussein.
Hussein has declared war on the Ma’dan using a number of innovative tools. His primary weapon is a water-diversion program known as the Third River Project. The intent of the project is to drain the marshes of water, drying up all life. The flow of the Tigris has been channeled into tributary rivers (with artificially high banks), keeping water out of the marshes. The flow of the Euphrates River has been almost completely diverted as well.
Satellite photos now show the formerly lush green areas an arid brown, as the marshes have decreased by over 90 percent. The United Nations Environment Programme reports: “The Central and Al Hammar marshlands have been completely collapsed with, respectively, 97 percent and 94 percent of their land cover transformed into bare land and salt crusts.”
The ecological destruction is believed to be irreversible.
This environmental catastrophe — which the U.N. has termed “one of the Earth’s major and most thoughtless environmental disasters” — has killed not only fish, birds, and plants, but also many Ma’dan, whose very existence and socioeconomic life is tied to the environment.
Several thousand people have reportedly been killed since 1991 and hundreds of thousands made homeless. The U.N. reports that the Ma’dan are “essentially now a refugee population.” There are reports of cholera and diarrhea outbreaks, partly explained by the fact that the drainage project has deprived the area of clean water. The U.N. is investigating the use of chemical weapons, a Hussein favorite employed against groups he doesn’t like.
Hussein and the Iraqi propaganda machine have referred to the Ma’dan as “subhuman,” “monkey-faced,” and “un-Iraqi.” This prompts another neglected Hussein fact: the man’s deep personal racism. In the case of the Ma’dan, he may be a genocidal racist.
Hussein has employed other tools in his ongoing war. The Iraqi National Congress, a dissident group, claims that large quantities of toxic chemicals and poisons have been dumped into the marshes to kill the fish that remain a staple of the Ma’dan diet. Large areas of vegetation have been scorched by napalm bombing.
Why is Saddam Hussein doing this?
In part, Iraq’s majority Sunni government is attacking the Ma’dan because they are Shiite Muslims who express sympathy and maintain religious links with Iran’s Shiite leadership. Such has always been a motivation for Hussein targeting them.
But that’s not the only reason. After the Gulf War ended in 1991, the southern Shiites (not Ma’dan Shiites) initiated an uprising against Hussein’s government. It was quickly crushed. Many non-Marsh Shiites who took part in the uprising fled to the marshlands. In response, Iraqi forces began a systematic drying of the land. Since then, non-insurgent Ma’dan have been flushed out along with these hiding rebels.
Even before the 1991 insurgency, the Ma’dan have long been accused of harboring refugees fleeing from oppression in Baghdad.
What can be done to help these people? There is no easy answer, but one simple step toward helping the Ma’dan would be for the West to better acknowledge their existence and plight. Coverage of this tragedy by the general media has been scant at best.
Why so few stories have been done remains a mystery. The United Nations notes that not only is one of the world’s “most significant wetlands” and a “biodiversity centre of global importance” being annihilated, but a 5,000-year-old culture is in “serious jeopardy of coming to an abrupt end.”
Let’s hope that’s not what it takes to at last make the Ma’dan a headline.