Marsh Arabs Fleeing Persecution
by Gerald GrahamLarge numbers of Marsh Arabs are fleeing the wetlands of southern Iraq and the unique lifeamong the reeds their ancestors have known for thousands of years.Devastated during the protracted Iran-Iraq war of the eighties, they are now being systematicallypersecuted by the Iraqi military, partly in retaliation for their opposition to Saddam Husseinduring the Gulf War and partly because of their Shiite faith.Unfortunately, their plight has been overshadowed by the problems of the more numerous Kurdsof northern Iraq.At the end of Gulf War hostilities in 1991, the U.S., U.K, and France (the so-called P3 countries)imposed a no-fly zone above the 38th Parallel in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds from the IraqiAir Force. Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Commission appointed Max Van der Stoell,former Dutch foreign minister, as Special Rapporteur to look into allegations of Iraqi humanrights abuses throughout the country. Although he was never allowed into Iraq, his August 1992report documented widespread use of torture, political killings, and other forms of oppressiondirected against, among others, the Marsh Arabs of the south.A short time later, the P3 countries created a southern no-fly zone below the 32nd Parallel. Butbecause of lack of enforcement, and because there are no safe havens, Iraqi forces manage tocircumvent the order. The Marsh Arabs continue to be regular targets of helicopter gunships andmortar and heavy artillery barrages. Even worse, the vast marshlands which support their entireeconomic and social structure are being systematically drained by Iraq, ostensibly to providemore farmland in the region.In March, 1993, Canada co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Commission Resolution which onceagain decried human rights abuses throughout Iraq, including the south. The resolution instructedIraq to stop persecuting its own people, extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur andcalled for the stationing of human rights monitors in the country.Meanwhile, fleeing the bombs, thirst and eventual starvation, the Marsh Arabs seek refuge in thetowns and villages of their fellow Shiites along the border with Iran. Unless there is internationalpressure on Iraq, more people will follow until an ancient way of life is lost forever.Canada's official contribution to the international Iraq relief effort has totaled $27 million. Mostof this has gone to various UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, CARECanada and the Mennonites. A Canadian physician, Dr. Eric Hoskins, also went to the area aspart of a Harvard medical group Finally, Toronto based Ed Med Supplies successfully petitionedthe Canadian government to allocate $2 million from Iraqi assets frozen in Canada toward thepurchase of medical equipment and supplies.