Iraq's Garden of Eden Restoring the Paradise that Saddam Destroyed

Saddam Hussein drained the unique wetlands of southern Iraq as a punishment to the region's Marsh Arabs who had backed an uprising. Two decades later, one courageous US Iraqi is leading efforts to restore the marshes. Not even exploding bombs can deter him from his dream.

By

Corbis

Azzam Alwash is an anomaly in Iraq, a country devastated by war and terrorism. As he punts through the war zone in a wooden boat, his biggest concerns are a missing otter, poisoned water and endangered birds. Who thinks about the environment in southern Iraq, and who is willing to risk his life to save a marsh?

"Isn't this wonderful?" Alwash asks as his boat, accompanied by armed guards, glides through a channel lined with reeds. Flocks of birds fly through a reddish evening sky above the marshland, where the air temperature has dropped to 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) -- cool by local standards. Basra, a city devastated by war, is only 60 kilometers (37 miles) away, and yet it might as well be on another planet.

Water buffalo snort as they swim past the boat. Alwash, a broad-shouldered man with bushy gray hair and a moustache, is beaming as he sits upright on the rowing bench. "Just look at this," he says. "There was a desert here just a few months ago."

The Cradle of Civilization

Alwash, 52, a citizen of Iraq and the United States, is a hydraulic engineer and the director of Nature Iraq, the country's first and only environmental organization. He founded the organization in 2004 together with his wife Suzanne, an American geologist, with financial support from the United States, Canada, Japan and Italy. His goal is to save a largely dried-up marsh in southern Iraq. In return for giving up his job in California, Alwash is now putting his safety and health at risk.

Nowadays he spends a lot of time flying from one continent to another. Four days ago, he traveled from Fullerton, California, where his family lives, to Amman, Jordan to meet with former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Then he flew to Basra to attend a conference, and now he is back in the marsh. His next stop is Baghdad, where he has an appointment at the Environment Ministry. After that, he will travel to Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, where, for security reasons, Nature Iraq has its headquarters. After that, he has meetings scheduled with donors and advisers in the Italian cities of Padua and Venice. Other men have a mistress, says Alwash -- he has the marshes.

Of course, this isn't just any old marsh. Alwash is fighting for a marsh which Biblical scholars believe is the site of the Garden of Eden, and which some describe as the cradle of civilization. The Mesopotamians settled in the fertile region in the fifth century B.C., and within a few centuries it had become the site of an advanced Sumerian civilization. Scholars believe that cuneiform was invented in the region, as were literature, mathematics, metallurgy, ceramics and the sailboat.

Only 20 years ago, an amazing aquatic world thrived in the area, which is in the middle of the desert. Larger than the Everglades, it extended across the southern end of Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers divide into hundreds of channels before they come together again near Basra and flow into the Persian Gulf. For environmentalists, this marshland was a unique oasis of life, until the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, had it drained in the early 1990s after a Shiite uprising.

Turning the Garden of Eden into Hell

The official explanation was that the land was being reclaimed for agriculture. The military was sent in to excavate canals and build dikes to conduct the water directly into the Gulf. The despot, proud of his work of destruction, gave the canals names like Saddam River and Loyalty to the Leader Canal.

In truth, Saddam was not interested in the farmers. His real goal was to harm the Madan, also known as the Marsh Arabs. For thousands of years, the marshes had been the homeland of this ethnic group and their cows and water buffalo. They lived in floating huts made of woven reeds and spent much of their time in wooden boats, which they guided with sticks along channels the buffalo had trampled through the reeds. They harvested reeds, hunted birds and caught fish.

When the fishermen backed a Shiite uprising against the dictator, the vindictive Saddam turned their "Garden of Eden" into a hell. He had thousands of the Marsh Arabs murdered and their livestock killed. Any remaining water sources were poisoned and reed huts burned to the ground. Many people fled across the border into Iran to live in refugee camps, while others went to the north and tried to survive as day laborers. By the end of the operation, up to half a million people had been displaced.

Within a few years, the marshland had shrunk to less than 10 percent of its original size. In a place that was once teeming with wildlife -- wild boar, hyenas, foxes, otters, water snakes and even lions -- the former reed beds had been turned into barren salt flats, poisoned and full of land mines. In a 2001 report, the United Nations characterized the destruction of the marshes as one of the world's greatest environmental disasters.

'Wait Until You See the Marshes'

On June 18, 2003, only three months after the American invasion, Alwash flew from Los Angeles to his native Iraq. He knew what to expect. "Nevertheless, it was a shock," he says. "I remembered water and green vegetation as far as the eye could see, but what I saw was nothing but desert, dust and the ruins of settlements."

At that point, Alwash had not stepped on Iraqi soil in exactly 24 years and 341 days. He had gone to the United States to study and eventually became an American through and through. He had an American wife, two young daughters with whom he did not speak Arabic, a house in Long Beach and a well-paid job as a hydraulic engineer. "It was the perfect American dream," he says today.

But he couldn't forget the marshland, his childhood paradise. His father, who had worked in Iraq's Water Ministry until the early 1980s, had often taken him along when he was traveling in the marshes for work or hunting geese in the reeds. Sometimes his mother and his two sisters came along on their extended outings in the boat. Alwash had promised himself that one day he would show his wife and his daughters the "Garden of Eden" of his childhood. "This is nothing," he would say when they were hiking or canoeing in California. "Just wait until you see the marshes!"

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