Guillaume Decamme, AFP
Last updated: 31 July, 2012

In southern Iraq, heritage of other eras decays

Looking at the spray paint on the cross and the rusting scooter seat in the weeds, it is hard to argue with the local landowner who laments, “Iraq is not like Egypt — here, nobody gives a damn about our heritage.”

In this town in south Iraq, home to two cemeteries — one for British and Indian soldiers, the other for Turkish veterans — who died in World War I, much of the remnants of bygone eras and rulers have been left crumbling.

“When I was a boy, I often went to play in the cemetery,” recalls Mithaq Jabbar Abdullah, now 34. “There were roses, it was like a garden.”

“But starting from the embargo against Iraq in the 1990s, everything began to go wrong,” says Abdullah, a private generator operator who makes a living from Iraq’s chronic electricity shortfall.

“And today,” he says, before his voice trails off with a sigh.

The cemetery is accessed from one of Kut’s main roads, but one must step over countless iron bars and shards of glass and metal.

Nearby, Abdullah’s electricity generator roars, filling in the gaps between Kut’s frequent power cuts, providing a soundtrack that makes quiet commemoration difficult.

As relations between Iraq and Britain worsened following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of neighbouring Kuwait in 1990, fewer and fewer visitors passed through the site.

“The state of the cemetery has gone hand-in-hand with the state of relations between Iraq and Britain,” says Mussana Hassan Mehdi, a schoolteacher and local historian.

“During the time of Iraq’s monarchy, it was very well maintained. Then Iraq became a republic (in 1958). … From then on, it steadily worsened until (the US-led invasion of) 2003.”

“After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the government was virtually non-existent. And today, the local residents use the cemetery as a garbage dump,” Mehdi laments.

Now, the names of those buried as a result of the 1915-16 Ottoman siege of Kut are no longer visible, covered in dirt, and many headstones are obscured by vegetation.

After scraping away some of the dried mud, the memorial to one soldier, Corporal Horace Edward Hawkett, becomes visible: He “did his duty (and) is ever in our thoughts.”

It reads: “Corporal H.E. Hawkett. Oxford & Bucks. Light Infantry. 20th December 1915. Age 23.”

But to find the names of all the 420 British and Indian soldiers who fell while under the command of Major General Charles Townshend, one must search the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), which is concerned with around 23,000 similar sites in 150 countries.

It offers details of the five-month battle during which the troops had to resort to “eating cats, dogs, donkeys and mules” to survive, according to Mehdi.

The CWGC blames the security situation in Iraq after Saddam’s fall in 2003 — the country was engulfed in bloodshed and, while violence is dramatically lower than in 2006 and 2007, attacks remain common — for the cemetery’s lapse into disrepair.

“The current security situation in Iraq continues to place severe limitations on the work which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is able to carry out at its cemeteries and memorials there,” said Matt Morris, a CWGC spokesman, in an email to AFP.

Earlier this year, the CWGC signed a contract to clear the cemetery and replace the front wall and fence, and Morris said the organisation “was awaiting details of how that contract has been progressing.”

The grave for Turkish soldiers who died, however, stands in stark contrast to the British one.

That cemetery, which lies just outside Kut, bears the words “Turkish Martyrs — The Nation Is Grateful” in Turkish at the entrance, on what appears to be a regularly polished metal plate.

The memorial grass is neatly clipped and free of weeds, and the Turkish flag flutters in the wind.

Ahmed Hashim Anbar and his uncle together receive around $300 a month to care for the cemetery full-time, paid for by the Turkish government.

“The only visitors we see here are Turks,” Anbar says.

“Usually these are people from the Turkish embassy, who come for ceremonies. They are very proud of their history. They take care of their heritage.”

The Iraqi government, meanwhile, has prioritised several other issues ahead of heritage preservation in the years since 2003, when it began grappling with a sectarian war and sought to rebuild the country after 30 years of conflict and international sanctions.

Evidence of that lies just 500 metres (yards) from the cemetery, close to the Tigris river, at a house built in 1883 by the Ottoman empire, where Major General Townshend set up his headquarters during the siege of Kut.

Now, the building lies between a construction site and a grocery store.

The rooms are home to bats, one wall has collapsed as a result of a recent earthquake, and garbage has piled up in the courtyard, all from the neighbours, according to the property’s owner, Hussein Hassan.

Beautiful columns with elegant carvings valiantly hold up the first floor of the building, but have visibly eroded.

The house has lain empty since the 1980s.

“It pains me to see the house in the state it is in,” Hassan says.

“We do not have the money to renovate it. Only the government has enough funds for the work.”

But so far, neither the central government in Baghdad, nor the provincial government of Wasit, of which Kut is the capital, have stepped up.

The Wasit provincial council’s culture committee says it has been considering buying the house “to transform it into a museum,” according to committee chief Haidar Jassim Mohammed.

Hassan is unmoved, however, by those declarations.

“The government came — they took pictures, and they said they would buy it. But so far, nothing has happened.”

“Iraq is not like Egypt,” he says. “Here, nobody gives a damn about our heritage.”