This is a really awesome story. It is a little long but well worth reading for a number of reasons. It gives a different side to the Iraq war which the media rarely show. Plus there are some amazing spiritual illustrations. The preachers among you will get many sermon illustrations out of this I am sure.
It is out of a book called “Rules of Engagement” by Tim Collins. He is a British soldier from Northern Ireland who led forces into Iraq in 2003. He made a speech which was published all over the world and is worth reading in its own right. When this particular story takes place Collins and his men have been in Iraq for several days and come to the town of Al Amarah.
It is long, but I guarantee it is worth reading:
“The British Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery is near the centre of Al Amarah, in the park beside the Chahaila Canal. Set in a shady grove of date palms, it has a sturdy iron fence around it and is split into three sections: the Islamic cemetery, which is now used as a football pitch; the Hindi cemetery which has been defaced but is still there, with a crumbling monument; and the Christian and others cemetery, which is intact and very well preserved. We entered through the gatehouse where the caretaker lived. It was a bit like entering the Secret Garden’.
“The first remarkable thing was the fact that while we were normally surrounded by crowds wherever we went in Al Amarah, when we walked through the gates of the cemetery they peeled off, as if an invisible force field prevented them from coming in. They left my side and raced off to grab a place on the fence to look in. Soon the fence was lined with faces staring in at us. Inside the ‘Chowkidar’ or caretaker, Mosun Ali, stepped forward. A small man with a welcoming expression, he was overjoyed to see us and ran in front to show me the way to the cemetery. It opened before me like an oasis. I recall it was at a time when we had just received reports that vandals had been desecrating our war graves in France and here was such a stark contrast, to stand in a recently liberated land among the graves of men who had lifted the yoke of Ottoman oppression from the people of a fledgling Iraq ninety years before and who were still accorded such respect and dignity.
“The graves as such were unmarked and lay under a hand-cut lawn the size of around three football pitches. The gravestones had been removed in 1930 because acidic elements in the soil were eating the stone. Instead, at one end of the cemetery was a long stone monument 90m long and 2m high in slate grey stone and reminiscent of the Vietnam memorial in Washington, with the names of the dead recorded on the wall in alphabetical order, by rank and regiment, with regiments arranged by seniority, each under their cap badge.
“The cemetery contained the remains of over 3,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen, including two Victoria Cross holders, a Royal Navy lieutenant and a lieutenant colonel from the North Staffordshires. At one section were the cap badges of the Connaught Rangers, Royal Irish Fusiliers and Royal Irish Rifles. As I read the names of these fallen Paddies, the majority from the wild west coast of Ireland in County Mayo, I could see names of men whose namesakes were serving in the battalion today. One of my sergeants from County Longford actually had a great-uncle buried in the cemetery. Flowers and shrubs grew in neat rows where the graves were divided into sections and date palms shaded the cool lawn. In the centre was a Portland stone monument of a cross with a sword embedded in it. Our small party moved around and looked in wonder at the tranquil surroundings, as birds sang and soft winds ruffled the palms of the date trees that shaded the precincts.
“Mosun Ali and his sons watched, their chest swollen with pride as we admired their work and diligence.
“As I stood there taking in the beauty of this peaceful garden and reading the names on the wall, Mosun Ali approached me with a large bundle. ‘Please, sidi,’ he said, ‘this for you.’ I took the bundle, which contained a book showing the layout of the cemetery and details of all the men who were buried there. It described each man, where he came from and even his parents and occupation. The VCs had their citations added, as did the holders of the DSO.
“It was a sad reflection of history that when I looked at the section with the Irish names, while the Ulstermen from the Fusiliers and Rifles had full accounts of themselves, many of the Mayo men had very few details beyond their dates of birth and death and service numbers. Many, I noted, were regular Army but the vast majority of the men of Connaught were wartime volunteers. One of the soldiers who was reading the book with me enquired as to why there were so few details of the Southern Irish casualties. Ironically the scant details were the result of a fear of terrorism, even in 1922. I explained that the book was compiled in 1921/22 when Ireland was in the grip of a civil war. To live in the west of Ireland and to admit to having a relative, even a son or husband, killed in the service of the Crown would have brought the IRA murder gangs to your door the same day. It is only very recently, the last few years, that Ireland has allowed itself to recognise this momentous sacrifice to freedom in the World Wars. In the De Valera era it was airbrushed out of history A Southern Irish soldier suggested that maybe the people didn’t think it was important. I explained that Ireland lost 49,000 men dead in the First World War. Its casualty rates across the Irish regiments were eighty-five per cent. Against the population of Ireland at the time it was a huge loss.
“Compared to the modern US population today (currently at around 240 million) it would be the equivalent of losing 3.5 million US servicemen — indeed the population of modern Ireland. It was important.
‘Where is the VC winner buried?’ I asked Mosun Ali. ‘Two.’ He held up two fingers and ran to one spot and pointed down and then to another spot near the wall about 50m away and pointed again. I had no idea how he knew that these shallow depressions held Victoria Cross holders but he seemed to.
‘So you know every grave by heart?’ I asked.
“He came to my side and with me still holding the book he leafed through to the page showing the first VC citation. He pointed to the grave number, Plot XVI, 14 L. He then turned to a diagram of the cemetery and pointed to the Portland stone cross, just to our rear, marked on it and noted XVI. He then indicated ‘J, K, L’ pointing to the row at our feet then he pointed to the diagram where the graves on these rows began at 20 and counted, ‘19, 18, 17, 16, 15,’ and stepped back, pointing at his feet, ‘14.’
“‘That’s amazing,’ I said. ‘We have cared for this place for three generations. We know every man here. I am glad to give you the book. We do not need it. We know it. It brought us much trouble too.’
“‘Trouble?’ I asked.
“‘Yes, sidi, the Ba’athists used to come when they were drunk and ask for the book. They beat us up — all of us, even the children — but we did not tell. The whole town has looked after this book. It has been moved around for its safety. I’m sorry, but no cover now. But it is safe and now we give it you.’
“This took me aback. ‘You got beaten up for this book? I’m so sorry that you suffered for this. But we are grateful. I only hope the poor pay we give you in some way compensates for what you have suffered.’
“‘Pay? We get no pay. Not for fifteen years. The last visit we had was the Australian Consul, who came in 1994 but he did not come back. Iraq was a dangerous place.’
‘So if you did not get paid, how did you live?’ I asked.
“‘I am a civil engineer and my son is engineer too. We do this in our…‘ He hesitated. ‘Free. . .‘ He corrected himself. ‘Spare time. Whole family helps.’
“‘But why do you do this thing for us if we give you no pay and never come to visit?’
“‘Because we knew you come back to save us one day. We — the whole town — know. It was a comfort. We wanted you to be pleased to see how we have kept this place for your people.’
“I was choked with emotion. As I looked around I noted that the ordinarily garrulous crowd were silent too, watching me as I surveyed the scene. I now knew why Abu Hatim wanted me to see this place. I turned to the caretaker. ‘We have come back and I want you now to accept grateful thanks of all the many nationalities who lie here. Tonight we have a party. Here is thirty dollars. Celebrate we are back.’
“At first he did not want to take the money. I insisted. The most touching thing to me was that they had not been warned that we were coming; they couldn’t have known, as I had only decided that morning towards me to go there. Yet the garden was freshly cut, the borders and lawn mature and carefully weeded, the hedges immaculate.
“I turned to a young soldier standing beside me. ‘Look at this place,’ I said. ‘It like Roselawn’, so it is,’ he noted. ‘But that’s the point,’ I emphasised. ‘When we came — it could have him been any day in the last eighteen years — they were ready. That’s dedication.’
“Then the ranger noted rather profoundly, ‘It’s like the day of judgement — you never know when you’ll be called. They were ready, all right.’ shrugged.”