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In pictures: Bringing the Iraqi marshes back to life

“As you sit and watch men and women glide by in their mashoofs as the dawn glows off Hammar marsh, it’s hard not to feel compelled by the idea that this magical place must survive,” Bob Tollast writes in ‘Back to life’, a story we published in DG#18 which saw Tollast and photographer Scott Chasserot travel to southern Iraq to visit the marshlands. Thought by some to be the original Garden of Eden, the marshes were drained by Saddam Hussein following the 1991 Gulf War. Now, one man’s drive to restore the land to its original state has brought the marshlands back from the brink of destruction.

These are some excerpts from Tollast’s story, accompanied by Chasserot’s pictures.


From the big mudhief meeting halls to these buffalo shelters, reeds provide the raw material for daily life in the marshes of southern Iraq. Cathedral-like mudhief structures, intricately made from thousands of bundles of reeds, used to be nestled amid forests of bulrushes.

The destruction of the Iraqi marshlands began following the Gulf War in 1991. As the Iraqi army fled Kuwait under heavy attack from the US-led coalition, it suffered casualties in the tens of thousands when retreating columns were strafed from the air along the ‘Highway of Death’. Already exhausted and mutinous after an abortive eight year war with Iran that claimed over a million lives, a large group of Shi’a soldiers rebelled, urged on by George Bush Sr who asked them to “take matters into their own hands”. Many took his comment to mean impending coalition support, but this never came. Allowed to use helicopters within Iraq under a ceasefire agreement, Saddam redirected his elite Republican Guard units to crush the rebellion. As many as 100,000 died or were “disappeared” into one of the 200 mass graves uncovered after 2003. Surviving rebels fled to hide out in the marshes, what Azzam calls “Iraq’s Sherwood Forest”.

Saddam took drastic action. Six canals were dug to drain the area, the largest known as the “Victory canal”. With little construction happening in Iraq due to sanctions, earth-moving equipment was redirected to the south and the marsh water was channelled out of the area. ‘Military roads’ were constructed so that tanks could blast away at anyone hiding in the reeds, villages were shelled and reed mudhiefs were destroyed.


Here, water buffalo have found a favourite spot on a derelict ‘military road’. The animal’s presence in the region dates back 5,000 years to the Uruk and Sumerian periods.

Parts of the marshes have by now been re-flooded through the tireless work of Azzam Alwash, CEO of Nature Iraq. Azzam was forced to flee Iraq in 1978 after refusing to join Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party. When he returned after the 2003 invasion, he found the marshes of his childhood had been turned into “a hell of ashes”.

Today as much as 40 percent of the marshes have returned, and many Marsh Arabs have come back, but numbers are far below the heyday of the community here: perhaps 50,000 from the original half a million.


This expanse of dried marshland by the highway to Chibayish provides a stark reminder that not all of these wetlands can be restored. The region has been suffering the worst drought since 1970, a situation which is being exacerbated by Turkey’s ambitious Anatolia hydroelectric projects. An astonishing 1,783 new dams are scheduled to have been built by 2023, and when complete will radically reduce the levels of the Tigris and Euphrates downstream in Iraq. This could not only doom the marshes, but also threatens all of Iraq’s freshwater. Since 2009 the marshes have been retreating once more.

For much more on the Iraqi marshlands and Azzam’s fight to restore them, read Tollast’s story ‘Back to life’, published in DG #18. The issue is available in our online shop, or at selected retailers.

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