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'A Gift From God' Renews a Village

Iraqi Engineers Revitalize Marshes That Hussein Had Drained

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 11, 2003; Page A01

ZAYAD, Iraq -- The surging water from the Euphrates River first quenched the desiccated soil around this village. Then, with a steady crescendo, it smothered farming tracts, inundated several homes and enveloped the landscape to the horizon.

"Hamdulillah," intoned Salim Sherif Kerkush, the stout village sheik. Thank God.

Three women return from a morning spent collecting reeds from the marshes in Zayad, Iraq. The reeds are a common item used to build homes, make mats and other household items.

_____Photo Gallery_____
Gallery: The Marsh Arabs Return Home

Thin reeds now sprout on the glassy surface. Aquatic birds build nests on tiny islands. And lanky young boys in flowing tunics spend the first few hours of each day as generations of adolescent males in their families have: gliding across the water in narrow wooden boats to collect fish trapped in homemade nets.

"The water is our life," Kerkush said as he gazed at the marsh that now comes within a few feet of his house and stretches as far as the eye can see. "It is a gift from God to have it back."

A dozen years after Saddam Hussein ordered the vast marshes of southeastern Iraq drained, transforming idyllic wetlands into a barren moonscape to eliminate a hiding place for Shiite Muslim political opponents, Iraqi engineers have turned on the spigot again.

The flow is not what it once was -- new dams have weakened the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers that feed the marshes -- but the impact has been profound. As the blanket of water gradually expands, it is quickly nourishing plants, animals and a way of life for Marsh Arabs that Hussein had tried so assiduously to extinguish.

In Zayad, a tiny hamlet about 210 miles southeast of Baghdad that was one of the first places to be flooded, residents have rushed to reclaim their traditions. Kerkush drove to the port city of Basra to buy a wooden boat known as a mashoof. His children assembled fish nets. Other relatives scoped out locations to build a house of reeds.

The marsh has once again assumed its omnipresent role in the village. Women clad in black head-to-toe abayas wade into the water to wash clothes. The mullet found in the murky depths, though small and bony, is grilled for dinner every night. Swamp grasses are cut to feed the cows and sheep that will eventually be traded for water buffalo.

"Everyone is so happy," Kerkush said as he watched his son stand in a mashoof and steer it like a gondolier with a long wooden pole. "We are starting to live like we used to, not the way Saddam wanted us to live."

A Simple Life Destroyed

Born in 1949, Kerkush remembers a childhood identical to those described by his father and his grandfather. It was, he believes, a way of life little changed since the days of the ancient Sumerians who lived near the marshes and were the first humans to practice irrigated farming.

The progress of the 20th century -- the advent of cars and computers, of television and telephones -- did not penetrate the dense reed beds and narrow waterways that protected their village.

"It was a very simple life," he recalled. "We would fish. We would collect the reeds. We would plant rice."

They rarely ventured more than a few villages from home, and outsiders rarely ventured into the marshes. In hamlets such as Zayad, home to about 120 families, everyone is related and marriage among cousins is common.

The marsh dwellers were largely unknown to the outside world, even to other Iraqis, until British explorer Wilfred Thesiger chronicled the seven years he spent with them in his 1964 book "The Marsh Arabs." The marshes, he wrote, were a place where one could encounter "stars reflected in dark water, the croakings of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine."

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