Memorial day in Iraq

In US, Memorial Day honours soldiers who fell in battle. In Iraq there is no special day to remember the victims.

Ammar looks about six or seven years old. There is no birth date on his gravestone but instead his picture in the centre of it.

It shows him with his hands on his hips and a smile on his face – the kind of smile that comes from being in a loving family.

I don’t know who took the picture, but it looks like one of those snaps taken on a special occasion. Who knows, maybe it was the religious festival of Eid or a birthday.

What we do know is that Ammar was killed on April 5, 2005. He was in his neighbourhood in the northeast of Baghdad when a gun battle between US soldiers and Iraqi gunmen broke out.

They say, and it’s impossible to confirm, that Ammar was caught in the crossfire and lay dead in a pool of his own blood for hours before anyone could reach him.

He is just one of an estimated 130,000 civilians who died during the decade-long occupation at the hands of US and coalition forces.

Ammar’s gravestone is squeezed into a tiny plot in the grounds of the historic Abu Hanifa mosque, in the Adhamiyah area of Baghdad.

The graveyard has a rundown, ramshackle feel, but as you walk around you see that people come regularly to visit.

The paint on the gravestones is fresh and flowers placed on the marble makes for a sharp contrast. The cemetery is full of the innocent victims of war.

Meanwhile, in Washington

A world away in Washington, and Arlington National Cemetery is preparing for Memorial Day.

This weekend is federal holiday in the US and for many Americans it means barbeques and shopping for bargains and family time.

On Monday, though, Memorial Day is about remembering US soldiers who fell in battle. 

In preparation the US president visited his troops in Afghanistan. Newspapers and television channels have been full of the images of families mourning their dead.

In almost every article on Memorial Day I’ve read, a US flag features somewhere in the picture that accompanies it.

Here in Baghdad, and across Iraq, there is no special day to remember the victims of war.

There is no special cemetery you visit to pay your respects to children like Ammar.

There is no concert offering tribute to the men and women who were killed, no marching bands or a car race held in Indiana.

That’s not the Iraqi way.

Instead the memories of those who died are marked in smaller ways. A picture here. A plaque in an office there.

Around the gravestones

At the cemetery I speak to Fahad Jabbar, a dishevelled young man wearing a Brazilian football tracksuit and flip-flops.

He looks after the cemetery. I ask him if he’s ever heard of Memorial Day. He shakes his head and says no.

He guides me around the gravestones. He points out the final resting place of people who are locally famous or from respected families. 

I ask him if any US dignitary has ever come here.

“The only Americans who ever came here, came with guns and camouflage. They’d dig up the graves and read the headstones to gather intelligence on those who had died‎. They don’t care about dead Iraqis. No one mourns our dead. There’s no special day for us.”

A blast of gunfire

In war, innocents die. The widow of Yehiyah Saher knows this more than most. She was at home when her husband when out to his shop, five minutes away.

He got on his scooter on January 26, 2006. He was running late so he drove faster than normal.

Turning a corner he saw a US convoy of three Humvee vehicles.

The gunner of one of them saw the scooter coming towards them. He took aim, and opened fire.

With that blast of gunfire, he was killed, leaving behind a widow and five children. Yehiyah was 39 years old. 

His wife learnt later that the army patrol was on edge. A few hours earlier a IED, or improvised explosive device, had killed some of the soldiers’ colleagues.

In war, innocents die.

It is right that the US, and all those nations involved in the war, remember the soldiers they sent to fight.

But on this day we should also remember the innocents who died at the hands of those soldiers.

Remember them here in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

The motto of the Arlington cemetery is Honour-Remember-Explore. Honour, Yes. Remember, Yes. Explore?

They mean the cemetery. Perhaps they should mean the reasons why both soldiers and civilians die.

Follow Imran Khan on Twitter @AJImran

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