New hope after years of none

SUN JOURNAL

Marsh Arabs: A once thriving tribe gathers to heal after the fall of Saddam Hussein, a man who tried to destroy their people and their way of life.

War In Iraq

April 19, 2003|By Edward A. Gargan | Edward A. Gargan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SHINANA VILLAGE, Iraq - One by one, the elders raise their hands.

"Me." "Me." "Me," they murmur in response to the question: Whose father, brother, son had been executed by Saddam Hussein's government? Eleven hands in all, raised in the stagnant air inside the low mud-brick house of Sheik Kathem Al Wafi, signaling the death toll here.

These men and their sheik, the elders of the Al Wafi tribe, are people of the Madan, the marsh Arabs who for five millennia lived in a vast area of wetlands that began about 50 miles north of Basra - lived, that is, until 1988, when Hussein's government began a systematic campaign of oppression, execution and internal exile against them.

Until now, there have been no independent interviews with the Madan, a people who as recently as 1991 numbered 250,000 but now number scarcely 40,000, according to Human Rights Watch. Once spread across a liquid landscape of floating islands of packed reeds, of lakes and channels cut through dense marshes spread over 6,000 square miles at the juncture of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Madan were killed off by Hussein's government, their marshes drained and tribes scattered.

"Many have been arrested, disappeared or executed; most have become refugees abroad or internally displaced in Iraq as a result of Iraq's oppression," Human Rights Watch wrote four months ago.

"They used to hang us," Al Wafi says. "They used to destroy our homes. There are a lot of prisoners, and we don't know what happened to them."

The sheik, who struggles for a moment before fixing the year of his birth as 1931, is speaking in the main room of his two-room house off Highway 6, two lanes of blacktop that run from Basra to Baghdad. He sits cross-legged against the wall, on a carpet worn thin by thousands of feet, and greets villagers who come to sit with him. Above his head hangs a portrait of a man revered here, Mohammed Al Sadaq, a Shiite imam who was expelled from Iraq and now lives in Iran.

"As Salaam Alaikum," he says in greeting to each man, for it is only men who enter, until there are too many to greet.

Among the tribes of the Madan, the Al Wafi are often regarded as among the least refined and least educated, and often the fiercest in their passions. For those at Al Wafi's, their hatred of the regime boils into shouts and curses.

"There is no water anymore," the sheik says. "Saddam Hussein drained all the marshes. When there was the war with Iran, they said we were against Saddam. They never gave us our freedom. We have no water, no land here. We were not with Iran; we were not with Iraq."

Indeed, as adherents to the Shiite sect of Islam - which counts as its believers 60 percent of Iraqis, and which is Iran's principal Islamic sect - the Madan were viewed by Hussein as traitors and enemies, especially after he launched a war against Iran in 1980. As that war lurched to its end, leaving millions dead and the borderlands an ecological wasteland, Hussein turned his secret police on the Madan.

The sheik and others of the Al Wafi tribe, in the first conversation the marsh Arabs have had with a foreign journalist since Hussein rose to power in 1979, tell of torture, mass graves, disappearances, the destruction of homes and, from time to time, of active rebellion, often delivered in a confusing mix of names and times and numbers. But throughout, the clear thread of a people being systematically destroyed remains clear.

"They took my brother in 1998," says Sabah Al Wafi, 24, a relative of the sheik, "and they executed him. I was arrested later. I had a letter from a Kuwaiti prisoner of war" - one of 605 Kuwaitis still recorded as missing from the 1991 Persian Gulf war - "and they found it when they searched my house. They tortured me with electricity. They made me sit on hot metal plates. They used to drink and laugh as they tortured me. One of those ... was Officer Omar."

"In 2000," he says, "I escaped."

"Under Saddam Hussein," interrupts the sheik, "the Baath Party did evil things to us. They drained the marshes. They stopped our religion. They didn't allow us to go to the imam at the mosque on Friday. This is one of the most important things."

Then, last Friday, for the first time in many years, the Al Wafi went to the mosque, the sheik says. "The imam said that we are happy now that Saddam is over. We are happy the regime is over. We thank God, and we thank the coalition troops."

In the years leading to Friday's prayers, many of the Al Wafi here in Shinana Village suffered.

Since 1999, after the murder of a prominent Shiite cleric in Najaf, Hussein's police have destroyed at least 40 houses in this village - 18 last May - the sheik says. "They destroyed specific houses," the sheik says. "Anyone who was against the regime, they destroyed those houses.

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