BEIRUT

Culture

In southern Iraq too, Ottoman-era heritage decays

The dilapidated home in Kut that once the British army headquarters has lain empty since the 1980s.

KUT, Iraq: Two cemeteries sprawl in this southern Iraq town. One is for British and Indian soldiers. The other for Turkish veterans. Both died in World War I.

Many of the remnants of these 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,” continues Abdullah, a private generator operator who makes a living from Iraq’s chronic electricity shortfall. “And today.”

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

The soundtrack to a visitor’s quiet commemoration is provided by the roar of Abdullah’s nearby electricity generator, filling in the gaps between Kut’s frequent power cuts.

As relations between Iraq and Britain worsened following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of neighboring 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 Hasan 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 U.S.-led invasion of] 2003.

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

Now, the names of those buried here, killed during the Ottoman’s 1915-16 siege of Kut, are no longer visible. Covered in dirt, many headstones are obscured by vegetation.

To find the names of all 420 British and Indian soldiers who fell under the command of Maj. Gen. Charles Townshend, one must search the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is concerned with around 23,000 similar sites in 150 countries. It offers details of the five-month battle during which, according to Mehdi, the troops had to resort to “eating cats, dogs, donkeys and mules” to survive.

Matt Morris, a spokesman for the CWGC blames the security situation in Iraq after Saddam’s fall in 2003 for the cemetery’s lapse into disrepair.

Earlier this year, the CWGC 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.”

The grave for Ottoman soldiers who died stands in stark contrast to the British one.

At the entrance of that cemetery, which lies just outside Kut, a regularly polished metal plate bears the Turkish inscription “Turkish Martyrs – The Nation Is Grateful.”

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

The Iraqi government, meanwhile, has prioritized 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 meters from the cemetery, close to the Tigris river, at an Ottoman-era house built in 1883, where 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. The property’s owner, Hussein Hasan, said the garbage piled up in the courtyard is from the neighbors.

The elegantly carved columns that hold up the first floor of the building have visibly eroded. The house has lain empty since the 1980s.

“It pains me to see the house in the state it is in,” Hasan says. “We do not have the money to renovate it. Only the government has enough funds for the work.”

So far, neither the central government in Baghdad, nor the provincial government of Wasit 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 Mohammad.

Hassan is unmoved.

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

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 03, 2012, on page 16.

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