About 200 miles south of Baghdad, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, lie incredibly fertile salt marshes . The Ma’dan people, frequently referred to as “Marsh Arabs,” inhabit this stunning maze of waterways, which is home to thousands of types of fish, birds and mammals, including the Maxwell’s otter, a rare subspecies now thought extinct. These people, largely semi-nomadic, have lived in this area for thousands of years, growing rice and dates, fishing and raising livestock.

The abundant reeds that grow in these marshes are a mainstay of the Ma’dan way of life. Fences to protect their homes are made from reeds, and the canoes that the people travel in, the canoe poles that they use, the cots they sleep in and baskets for carrying things are all painstakingly and artfully woven from the reeds. Reed mats have long been a major export product and they are so skillfully made that they may command a premium price in the developed world.

Even the homes that the Ma’dan live in are made from reeds. The everyday houses are simple affairs of mud and reeds, and very elaborate houses called mudheef, a term which means ‘guest house,’ are constructed almost entirely from reeds. These structures are finely-built, domed-roof houses which are the center of social life in Ma’dan villages. There is evidence that the distant ancestors of the Ma’dan, the Sumerians, built similar houses thousands of years ago. A mudheef can require as much as 100 workers to complete.

Unfortunately for the Ma’dan, they are Shiite Muslims, spiritually closer to the Iranians than to the Iraqi establishment. Their culture is heavily influenced by the Persian and Bedouin peoples that are their close relatives. This has aroused the ire and suspicion of the holders of power in this spiritually turbulent region. Beginning in the 1950s, the Iraqi government has been diverting the river and draining the marshes. Largely, this began as a campaign to ‘civilize’ the people of the marshes, thinking that their culture was too primitive for a modernizing country such as Iraq. Official propaganda has described the Ma’dan as “monkey-faced” and “un-Iraqi.” Dehumanizing the enemy and trying to show them to be unpatriotic is a very effective way of turning citizens into a mob, bent on destroying the “sub-humans.” After the Iran-Iraq wars of the early 1980s, things got even more bleak for the Marsh Arabs.

Ma'dan and other Shiites have traditionally sided with Iran and against Saddam Hussein's government and have even reportedly given comfort and hiding places to anti-government factions. In 1991, after the first Gulf War, anti-Hussein partisans hid out in these marshes to fight against the regime. The Hussein government then stepped up the effort to exterminate the Ma’dan. In order to destroy the people, Hussein’s minions attacked their livelihood, the marshes. Villages were fire-bombed with napalm, high-voltage cables were reportedly used to electrocute fish and humans and the water was poisoned, destroying the fish and drinking water. The most ambitious project, however, was the one to drain the marshes.

In order to carry out the systematic destruction of the marshes, the government set up a program that they referred to as “the Third River Project,” which a United Nations report declared “the environmental crime of the century.” By 1993, over half of the water was kept out of the marshes. The marshlands were at one time as large as 7,700 square miles (20,000 sq. km). Much of this land quickly turned to arid, salty mud flats, devoid of reeds and nearly unfit for agriculture. Some Ma’dan have fled to Iran as refugees.

At one time, there may have been as many as 500,000 Marsh Arabs. A 1993 estimate was that there were a mere tenth of that number of people living in the salt marsh area. It took the international community a long time to do anything at all. In early 1995, the European Parliament officially designated the Ma’dan as a persecuted minority and deemed the Iraqi government’s attacks against them as genocide. The parliament also called for an end to the draining of the marsh. Since Iraq never registered these marshlands under the Ramsar Convention, these moves are little more than symbolic, however.

Despite all this terrible news, there is some hope. The wetlands are slowly returning. Much of the land is starting to be reclaimed. When political stability returns to the fertile crescent, perhaps the Ma'dan may return to their ancestral home land and live in peace with their environment as their ancestors have done for millennia.

Rowe, Martin, "Death of the Marsh Arabs" This is Satya magazine: http://www.montelis.com/satya/backissues/jul98/marsh_arabs.html
El-Awady, Aisha, “The Marsh Arabs: A Unique Way of Life” Islam Online Magazine: http://www.islamonline.net/English/ArtCulture/2004/09/article01.shtml
Edenbridge Town Ethics, “Plight of the Marsh Arabs” http://www.edenbridgetown.com/ethics/injustice/marsh_arabs.shtml
Global Idp database, Marsh Arabs, http://www.db.idpproject.org/Sites/IdpProjectDb/idpSurvey.nsf/wViewCountries/49588D5274509797C12569E4004FE3A3