Sophia's Peace Work

Saturday, June 19, 2004


A few days ago, I went to the Alwiyha Club (located near Firdos Square) for a meeting on the Marshes of Iraq. For those of you who do not know, the Marshes of Iraq were located in and around the conjunction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and originally spread across the three southern governates of Iraq. They were once the largest marshes in Eurasia and were a major stopping point for migrating birds, as well as the home of the Marsh Arabs, an ancient Arab fishing culture with very distinct customs, that lived and worked within the Marshes. To find out more about the Marshes check the Eden Again Project site.

As a rule, I hate workshops and conferences. To me, they are mostly an excuse to NOT do anything about a problem.

Having trouble with democracy? Why, just have a conference! You'll feel better.

Need to deal with why children are dying of leukemia? Well, let's have a workshop on the matter, so that we can sleep better at night.

In general, we seem to have workshops and conferences about topics that we really don't have the political will or ... more importantly ... the money to deal with. A conference is cheap when compared to building, staffing and maintaining a hospital. Yet it is the hospital that is needed ... not the conference.

Perhaps I'm not being completely fair. There are great opportunities for networking at such events and a lot of work goes on behind the scenes. But, as I predicted, the workshop on the Marshes was mostly about a lot of people getting up to reiterate again and again ...

- the history of the Marshes(Saddam destroyed the Marshes because the Marsh Arabs, who are mostly Shia, resisted him and because army deserters used the marshes to hide in);
- the long list of problems (returning the water to the marshes remains a problem, extensive services are needed in terms of roads, hospitals, electricity, schools, assistance is needed to help the Marsh Arabs re-establish themselves in the region);
- the beauty of the Marshes (favorite quote: "The Marshes were a Gift from God to the People of Iraq.");
- the need to study the Marshes (always a fruitful way to spend limited resources), and
- the fact that there is no money, no resources, and no real driving force to actually do anything about the Marshes (except to have conferences and workshops about them).

But there were many leaders from the Marsh Arab communities who had come to the workshop with some hope of getting results. And when the speakers became too long-winded in their descriptions of the surpassing beauty of the Marshes, one or another would get up and complain,

"You don't need to spend time telling us about how wonderful the Marshes were. We know this. We need you to talk about how we can solve all the problems of the Marshes!"

Since I am interested in looking at the Environmental consequences of the war and because I am working on this Tigris River Boat Project to look at the problems of the river in the Baghdad area (many miles before the Tigris feeds into the Marshes), I had asked to speak briefly about my work and this project. But as I listened to the workshop speakers and I felt the impatience of the audience, I grew worried about what to say.

These people didn't care about the Tigris river in Baghdad. They didn't care about the environmental consequences of the war. The didn't care about the destruction of the ozone layer (one workshop speaker actually talked about this). All they cared about was the fact that they lived in a landscape that had been virtually obliterated, they had no jobs, they had no hospitals, no education for their children, no electricity to provide even the motion of a fan in the increasingly sweltering heat of summer. This was not an audience that cared about boat projects in Baghdad.

But I was asked to speak and so I rose to the podium with my translator with some trepidation.

"I will only take a moment of your time," I said, apologetically, "I am here in Iraq with a peace organization and I am working on a project to look at pollution of the Tigris River as it flows through Baghdad. But I am also interested in looking at the environmental consequences of the wars in Iraq ... one of which is the destruction of the Marshes. Someone here today said that 'the Marshes were God's gift to the Iraqi people' and yet it was because of one man and because of war that the Marshes were destroyed. This has only strengthened my commitment to working for peace."

"You are here to find real solutions to very real problems in the Marshes," I continued, "But, as I understand it, the only reasons that the Marshes are beginning to come back at all is because the Marsh Arabs took matters into their own hands. After the war, they started to remove the dams that Saddam had built to stop the water from entering the Marshes. They started to flood the Marshes with water again. My only advice to you is that you don't look to outsiders to solve your problems. You must depend upon yourselves to find the solutions. There are people who can and want to help, but you must decide what course to take."

"I haven't been able to visit the Marshes during my time in Iraq," I concluded, "But, inshallah, I hope to see them one day soon."

Not very helpful words when you know people are reaching out for help ... but atleast they didn't throw spitballs at me!


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