Iraqi fishermen risk death to pursue livelihood

Al Faw is a fishermen town but they fear Iranian coastguard who've been shooting at them since Saddam Hussein was deposed.
Al Faw is a fishermen town but they fear Iranian coastguard who've been shooting at them since Saddam Hussein was deposed. Leila Fadel / MCT

AL FAW, Iraq — Just over a month ago, Makki Hamid boarded his boat and headed out on the water to fish. His mother always worried that her son would drown — he'd never learned to swim.

In this coastal town along the Shatt al Arab — the River of the Arabs, where the Euphrates and Tigris merge before converging with the Persian Gulf — the docks are lined with dinky fishing boats. They make up the livelihood of this town. Just across the sparkling water, the coastline of neighboring Iran is visible.

As Hamid's mother headed to the market that morning almost 40 days ago, she didn't know it'd be the last morning she'd see her son. He'd been shot by the Iranian coast guard. She rushed to the hospital in Basra. When she heard the women screaming and saw Hamid's wife crippled with sobs, she knew.

Hamid didn't make it through the hour-long drive from the peninsula. A bullet to his abdomen killed him.

Hamid is the fourth fishermen killed this year by the Iranians, according to the local fishermen's association. Since the U.S. invasion, at least 15 have been killed and tens more have been wounded along the Shatt al Arab, territory that's been disputed since the time of the Persian and the Ottoman empires and a flashpoint for war during Saddam Hussein's reign. Since the dictator was deposed, the fishermen have been confronted by Iranians enforcing their claim on the Shatt al Arab.

Sometimes the bullets fly from the Iranian bank to the Iraqi bank. Other times, if the fishermen near or cross the imaginary line in the water, the Iranians shoot or threaten to shoot.

The gunfire has been ongoing for five years. The fishermen are at a loss. If they stop fishing they cannot eat. If they fish they risk being shot. They approached the Iraqi governor who referred them to the Iranians. A senior government official in Baghdad said it is an ongoing problem since the U.S.-lead invasion and they've sent "diplomatic notes" to try to deal with it.

But in five years nothing else has been done. No one in Baghdad acknowledged the problem publicly.

The Iranian ambassador said he'd heard nothing about the shootings and could not speak about the matter.

But there is no dispute that fishermen are dying.

Sabah Hassan, the deputy of the al Faw fishermen's union, said nothing is being done. The government ignores the plight of the fishermen being shot on the water.

"We've reached out to the government and they don't do anything," he said. "They tell us go away. All of you are smugglers. ... There's nothing for us to do but fish. We have to feed our families. We have no options."

Tension over the Shatt al Arab has recurred since the 1600s between the Persians and the Turks. It was one of the major factors of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Al Faw was captured by the Iranians in 1986, which virtually stopped Iraq's shipping capabilities. The Iraqi army bombarded the town and two years later it was recaptured with the help of the Americans.

Throughout the battles the fishermen have suffered. Since Saddam's ouster, Iran, which has long claimed the Shatt al Arab as its natural border, has been emboldened.

Hassan visited Hamid's mother, Fatmah Ahmed Ali, during the 40-day mourning period for her son. She saved a local newspaper that reprinted his picture and the story of his death.

"I became crazy now," she said in her sparse living room furnished with three flimsy mattresses. "They say they are Muslim. Is this Islam?"

In the next room Hamid's widow holed up in a room alone in grief.

They went to the governor to ask for compensation. They were told to talk to the Iranians.

Outside Hassan pointed east and to the north.

"A kilometer east is the wealth of Iraq," he said, pointing toward the main oil pipeline. "Five kilometers north is the harbor, and we have nothing."

A few blocks away, Karrar Mohammed Jassim lay on a thick mattress with a purple and blue floral comforter covering his legs. His eyes stared at the flickering television intently. It is his only entertainment.

When he was just 14 years old, a stray bullet from the Iranians lodged into his spine, his father said. After three operations he still cannot walk. He urinates in a bag and for four years he's laid in this bed.

"I wish one day I could walk again," the 18-year-old said. "I just want to walk again."

Near the docks, the fishermen fear a bullet that might suddenly kill or cripple them. The skin of Ghali Ali Hassan is dark, wrinkled and leathery from years in the sun. On a recent afternoon the 55-year-old methodically went through yards of net pulling small fish free from the webbed material.

"He is the oldest fisherman here but he is an unlucky man," said Mohammed Hadi, a fellow fisherman helping collect the crop of fish.

Hassan left his work and pulled up his sleeve to show the thin fading scar where doctors cut into his arm to remove a bullet. He pointed to the inside of his right thigh and the outside of his left, where he said he also was hit by Iranian bullets nearly a year ago. After he spent about $1,041 on surgery he couldn't afford in Baghdad, he sold his home and moved into an illegally built shack with his two daughters and his wife.

"They claim the Shatt al Arab belongs to them," he said pointing toward Iran. "The local government told us to go to the Iranian government and claim compensation. I've seen no compensation."

Others around him tell their own stories of narrowly escaping the guns trained on them.

"During Saddam's regime we were secure, they would never have dared," said Hassan, who's fished in these waters since 1970. "They were scared then."

But after the 2003 U.S. invasion, the fear vanished.

"Saddam Hussein disappeared and they started shooting," he said.