On my most recent visit to the Mesopotamian marshes, in March, I came at Sayeed Hitham’s for breakfast. The pandemic had kept me away for at least a year.

The sun was just rising, the sky pink and golden. Hana, Hitham’s wife, stood smiling near the doorway to their reed home. Tea is prepared, bread is ready, she said. “Come in. ”

We sat on the worn-out carpet around a glowing kerosene heater, sipping tea and dipping the flat naan Hana had just baked into hot buffalo milk. “What took you so long, Emi? ” Sayeed asked with a tone of reproach. “We harbor ’t seen you in forever. ”

Indeed. A year was the longest I’d gone without visiting the Mesopotamian marshes since I began documenting the region in late 2016.

At that time, when journalists and photographers were flocking to the north of Iraq, where the battle for Mosul was raging, I took the opposite path and headed south. I had been in search of another view of the country, something distinct from the war I’d been covering for the previous year and a half.

It was a moment of real discovery for me — among those few times when you connect with a location, with a people.

The Mesopotamian marshes, a series of wetlands that sit near Iraq’s southeast boundary, feel like an oasis in the middle of the desert — they are. The ruins of the ancient Sumerian cities of Ur, Uruk and Eridu are close at hand. The broader region, known as the cradle of culture, saw early developments in writing, architecture and complex society.

The marshes are home to a people called the Madan, also known as the Marsh Arabs, who lives deep in the wetlands, mostly as buffalo breeders in isolated settlements, the vast majority of which are accessible only by boat. Others live in tiny cities on the banks of the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, which feed the marshes.

Lots of the Ma’dan left decades ago, when the marshes were ravaged by war, famine and repression.

During the Iran-Iraq war, waged between 1980 and 1988, the wetland’s proximity to the Iranian border turned the region into a battle zone, a theater for bloody battles. Later, in the early 1990s, in the wake of a Shiite uprising against his Baath Party, Saddam Hussein intentionally drained the area — where many of the Shiite rebels had fled — as a punishment and a means to stifle the insurrection.

The marshes turned into a desert for at least a decade, until the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

By then, damage had already been done. By the early 2000s, less than 10 percent of the area’s initial wetland existed as a functioning marshland.

Today, after being re-flooded and partly restored, the marshes are once again endangered — by climate change, lack of environmental awareness on a local level and, perhaps most dramatically, by the construction of dams in Turkey and Syria and upriver in Iraq.

In 2018, a very hot summer followed by a lack of rain caused a serious drought. In some areas, the water level fell by over three feet.

Thats it, I remember thinking, as the little boat crossed the marsh where corpses of young buffaloes floated in the water. Buffalo breeders like Sayeed Hitham lost about a third of the livestock, and many had to leave when areas turned into a desert. They migrated to neighboring cities — or farther still, to the poor suburbs of Karbala, Basra or Baghdad.

But then, a few months later, the water started to rise. People returned. I photographed the renewal, just as I’d photographed drought the year before. But it felt then — it feels now — like a sword of Damocles hung over the area.

The stakes are high, both ecologically and for the people who live here. If the already-depleted marshes dry up again, the Ma’dan may have no option but to leave, to throw away from a peaceful enclave into a troubled land.

Still, I’ve kept coming back. Over time, I’ve seen drought and abundance, freezing winters and burning summers. Ive seen children born and watched them grow up. I’ve followed Sayeed Hitham and his family as they moved around the marsh, the location of their new home determined by the water level — and every time built out of reeds.

I’ve gotten used to the enormous water buffaloes, known locally as jamous, which represent the principal source of income for most of the Ma’dan.

The buffaloes scared me in the beginning. However, I’ve learned to walk through a herd of horns, to allow them smell me, to pet the fluffy, friendly calves — those who try to lick my hands like oversized dogs.

When I outlined my progress into Sayeed, as we wrapped up breakfast, he burst into his wonderful, exuberant laughter. You still know nothing, Emi, he said. “You can’t even tell the mean jamous from the herd. ”

Then, serious, and still smiling, he said: “It’s OK. You’ve got time to learn. ”