A woman wearing a black coat and carrying a black bag roams this cemetery without any graves. There are also some young boys playing football in this dusty yard, surrounded by a fence with a small gate. This is Basra's British cemetery.
The cemetery, located in the Hakimiyah district of Basra, is home to the bodies of British servicemen who died in Iraq during the British occupation of the country during World War I. According to British records there are 2,551 burials from World War I and a further 365 from World War II, as well as graves of other nationalities. Previous to Iraq's attack on Kuwait in 1991, special teams from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would come from there regularly to keep up the cemetery’s maintenance. However since then, the cemetery has been badly neglected.
When an international alliance overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein in 2003, British soldiers were able to lay wreaths there. However in the ensuing decade, looters and vandals have destroyed almost all traces of the former cemetery.
“The cemetery has been neglected for years and the fence was not secure for a long time,” says provincial council member, Adel Rashash. “Young people have been able to go and in out easily.”
Rashash adds that he hopes that one day the cemetery will be restored: “It is part of our history and it is important to preserve it.”
“Twenty years ago the cemetery was so beautiful,” says Alaa Shakir, the author of a novel called The British Cemetery. “There was a beautiful garden and a lot of trees. The cemetery used to have a guard and a farmer who was tasked with taking care of the garden. But after 2003, it started to be neglected and then armed militias began throwing dead bodies in here.”
Between 2006 and 2008 when Iraq saw some of its worst sectarian-fuelled bloodletting, the bodies of dead Iraqis would often be brought to the British cemetery – often only temporarily.
“Today there a lot of poor people living near the cemetery and they're competing with the dead for space. From being an important part of Iraq's history, the cemetery has become a graveyard for unidentified bodies,” Shakir complains.
“About five years ago unidentifiable gunmen came to the cemetery, demolished any remaining tombstones and fired at them with their machine guns,” says Haj Samir al-Mansouri, whose home is about 200 metres from the cemetery. “Then they left. During the worst years of sectarian fighting, the cemetery was the place to find unidentified corpses. Since then it has become a playground for the local kids. The cemetery is nothing more than a yard with a fence now,” he told NIQASH.
“After decades of being asked to treat Iraq's history and reputation as the property of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis began neglecting their heritage and these kinds of sites,” Nasser Al-Hajjaj, a local journalist, poet and anthropologist, explains why the cemetery has been treated so callously. “They didn't want anyone to think that their interest in such things would be interpreted as loyalty to Hussein.”