FALLUJAH, Iraq --
Fallujah residents reclaimed another portion of their lives here, Dec. 1, when songs and solemn respects paid honor to the dead in two cemeteries long off-limits due to insurgent violence.
A months-long cemetery rehabilitation project, dubbed “The Love and Peace Project” by local imams, sought to clear all traces of terrorist activity from the burial grounds in Fallujah’s Andaloos district. The site was frequently used to store weapons caches in a culturally sensitive area to avoid detection.
City leadership, imams and Coalition Forces members worked for months to prepare the cemetery for its reopening to the public. They all attended the elaborate ceremony to witness the final fruits of their labor.
“Fallujah is a city of love and a city of mosques. The city is now a city of peace,” said Sheik Najam, the eldest Islamic scholar in Fallujah. “Today, these honorable people bring back the honor to Andaloos and the city of Fallujah by establishing a safe place to pay respect to their families of the past.”
The project was entirely Iraqi-driven, from idea to execution. Marines with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6, did not become involved until the battalion’s chaplain, Navy Lt. Aaron Roberton, talked with the imams to learn more about what he could do to help. From these conversations, the battalion pitched in to lend a helping hand when and where they could, Roberton said.
“I am honored to have had the opportunity to work with the imams in this project,” said the Oceanside, Calif., native. “It is my hope that Fallujah will continue to grow and continue to come back to life. Every day we see the city taking steps forward. These cemeteries honor those who have died and the improvements are … beautiful.”
Unlike in the United States where cemeteries are often isolated from populated areas, Fallujah’s burial sites are integrated into the heart of the city. Schools, mosques and police stations are within a stone’s throw of the grave markers. The two cemeteries being reopened at the ceremony were 200 feet apart, separated only by a road running north to south. On the west side of the road is the cemetery for common deaths. On the east side is the much smaller martyrs’ graveyard, where victims of terrorist violence are laid to rest.
“After my first prayer of the day, I give praise to the dead. I can now give that praise within these new walls of the cemetery,” said Sheik Ahmed, an imam. “The improvements will now allow the people of Fallujah to safely visit this place and give respect to their family members who have been killed or have died.”
The ceremony is the most recent sign of a reinvigorated Fallujah. The city has changed its image from a terrorist enclave to a symbol of hope for Anbar Province and Iraq.
“Fallujah is different than it was in 2003. The area is secure, the people are out shopping, and it appears like a normal life has been restored all around the city,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Pogue, 36, of Troy, Mich., platoon sergeant with Company K, 3rd Bn., 5th Marines. “It’s great to see the citizens taking pride in their city. If this were the city in which I resided, I would do the same. If there is anything that I can do to help them return to normalcy, I will give it my full effort.”
After the ribbon was cut to officially reopen the two cemetaries, Maj. Gen. John R. Allen, deputy commander, Multi National Force-West, and Col. Richard L. Simcock, II, commanding officer, RCT-6, and other Coalition Forces leaders went with the imams to pay their respects to the dead interred in the cemetery.
“This moment is something that deserves celebration. This is evidence of what we can accomplish by working together for the betterment of Fallujah. It wasn’t that long ago that we could not be standing here, doing what we are doing today. That speaks volumes about what can actually be accomplished,” Simcock said.
Allen echoed Simcock’s sentiments.
“Everyone in this martyr cemetery paid a price at the hands of the enemy, which makes this a very special place for the people of Fallujah,” he said. “The events here have been displayed for everyone to see the human cost of this war and the war that was waged upon these innocent people who gave their last full measure (of) dedication in trying to liberate this city from Al Qaeda.”
The Iraqis said they plan on carrying this rehabilitation effort to other cemeteries in the city.