But on that day, one of the coldest on record, five-year-old Hanaa and her mother caught no fish and gathered no reeds. No sooner had they paddled past the last of their neighbours’ floating reed houses than a squadron of government fighter jets emerged from the mist, guns blazing. They reduced the artificial islets to embers, and killed many of the buffaloes. Not content with shooting up a few villages as punishment for locals’ alleged harbouring of defeated Shia rebels, Saddam Hussein soon dispatched his engineers to divert the Tigris and Euphrates rivers away from the marshes. The effects were disastrous. By the turn of the last century, the Middle East’s largest wetlands had withered from a peak of 20,000 sq km to almost nothing.
“There were no fish, no grasses, so of course we couldn’t stay,” remembers Hanaa, now in her 20s and a mother of four. “The village just died.”
However, in March this year, almost 25 years since she and her siblings were pushed off their land and into the slums of a nearby city, Hanaa and some of her former neighbours will be making a triumphant homecoming.
Authorities in Baghdad are rebuilding these lost communities. They are keen to resettle properly at least some of the roughly 250,000 Marsh Arabs who have trickled back to the area since it was partially re-flooded more than 10 years ago. At a time when some 3 million other Iraqishave been displaced by Isis-fuelled violence, officials see this as a crucial step in righting the wrongs of a previous conflict.