Thu, Aug 02, 2012 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE: World War I heritage slowly decays in southern Iraq

AFP, KUT, Iraq

The dilapidated headquarters of the British Army command under Sir Charles -Townshend, built about 150 years ago during the Ottoman Empire in the city of Kut, Iraq, are pictured on July 1.

Photo: AFP

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,” said Abdullah, a private generator operator who makes a living from Iraq’s chronic electricity shortfall.

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 former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of 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,” schoolteacher and local historian Mussana Hassan Mehdi said.

“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 said.

Now, the names of those buried as a result of the 1915 to 1916 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.

“Corporal H.E. Hawkett. Oxford & Bucks. Light Infantry. 20th -December 1915. Age 23,” it reads.

However, 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 Web site of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is concerned with around 23,000 similar sites in 150 countries.

The commission 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 commission spokesman, in an e-mail.

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

However, the grave for Turkish soldiers who died 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.

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