Skip to comments.Cemetery Opened for Iraqi Families
Posted on 05/30/2009 2:17:59 PM PDT by SandRat
KIRKUK More than 50 local Iraqi family members stepped foot inside the green gates of the Sultan Saqi cemetery to pay respect to mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and beloved ancestors, May 27. For some, it was the first time in decades they have crossed the sacred threshold. After Iraq's old regime barred relatives access to this site for almost 35 years, they were granted official visits to two on-base cemeteries here thanks to a partnership between the U.S. Air Force, Iraqi Air Force, a Defense Department Human Terrain Team, and the Kirkuk Provincial Council's Religious Affairs Committee. The U.S. and Iraqi base commanders co-hosted the event.
Iraqi military, civic and religious leaders led a procession through the cemetery grounds to a ceremony in front of the renovated, green-domed Sultan Saqi shrine.
Col. Eric Overturf, 506th Air Expeditonary Group commander, recognized contributors from the 506th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron and the Iraqi Air Force for their efforts in a recent restoration project of the cemetery's shrine. He pointed out that while they come from different countries and have different religions and ethnicities, they came together to work on the project.
"These are only four men, but they represent the partnership of all of the people, [of] General Shihab (Al-Hurriya base commander) and me, the people of Iraq and the Coalition forces, and I think a great hope for the future [of this] nation," he said.
Cemetery caretaker, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Mark Rowan, 506th AEG Group chaplain, passed the key to the shrine's door to Shaykh Akbar Hussain, whose family has been responsible for the shrine and cemetery for more than 400 years.
"His family [members are] the ancient caretakers here; I'm the temporary caretaker," said Rowan, a Long Island, N.Y., native deployed from Yokota Air Base, Japan. He further thanked the shaykh for the faithfulness of his family and his love for the shrine and cemetery.
With the door unlocked and open, some people crowded into the shrine while others scattered throughout the cemetery to locate their families' grave sites.
A retired Iraqi school principal, Salim Ali Mustafa, walked to where his great grandfather is buried. It's been 36 years since he last stood on this ground, he said. He remembers coming to this area to study when he was in high school, he said. But much has changed since that time, including the absence of many trees that used to surround the land that once belonged to local farmers.
Human Terrain Team research manager Dan Sockle said that in the mid-1970s, under Saddam Hussein's orders, the base expanded to the north and south, absorbing most of the Tis'Ayn neighborhood and destroying the small village of Bilawah.
Today, however, there were no indications of human bitterness here after a long-anticipated return to honor Saqi and visit the graves of their loved ones, respecting and reflecting on their cultural heritage.
The atmosphere was not solemn, typical of such a place of respect. Instead visitors were grateful for the opportunity to visit and happy to once again see their family members' final resting places.
Hassan Kawther pointed out his family: a son, an uncle, sister, mother and grandfather buried among the cemetery's 700-plus graves.
Hassan said that by being here on this day, he recollects many memories from 42 years ago. "It's very good to come back," he said. "Nothing is better than today."
Two visiting family representatives, including Councilman and Committee Chair Hassan Turan, also reconnected with their loved ones in the Bilawah cemetery.
(By Senior Airman Jessica Lockoski, 506th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs)