Clash in the Desert: Karbala’s Tomato Farmers Versus Iraq’s Biggest Airport.
The authorities in the religious boom town of Karbala plan to build the country’s biggest airport on the city’s outskirts. But to do so, they will have to confiscate land from hundreds of farmers, who live a basic lifestyle but provide the city with its food. After protests and threats of eviction, the question remains: which is more important – vegetables or planes?
They are poetically known as the “farms of the desert” and there are hundreds of them on the outskirts of Karbala, in southern Iraq. They stretch from the outskirts of Karbala to the outskirts of the nearby city of Najaf and most of the farmers living and working on them have fairly basic lifestyles.
An estimated 300 families, many of them refugees from Iraq’s decimated southern marshes, work on this 60 kilometre by 12 kilometre stretch and they are proud of what they eke out of the desert. They are also proud of their own self reliance in an area where there are barely any paved roads, schools or even electricity in the houses.
“We produce this food all by ourselves,” says one of the farmers, Ammar, who is 40. “We do not receive government support or subsidies in any form, neither seeds, nor fuel nor infrastructure. We live a fairly primitive life out here but we are not complaining. We are happy with our lives. We don’t want salaries or government jobs or public services. We just want to government not to be hostile towards us.”
Unfortunately Ammar is unlikely to have that wish granted. In 2009 the local government and the federal Ministry of Transport laid a foundation stone nearby that was to be the start of a new airport for Karbala. The Imam Hussein airport – named after the Muslim icon that draws many visitors and pilgrims to his Karbala shrine – will cost an estimated US$2.5 billion to build and should serve around 20 million passengers a year. Plans have been drawn up and the Iraqi government has invited contractors to tender for the construction work.