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The March 20, 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath will likely be remembered and debated again on its 12th anniversary. But will we remember its civilian victims, and do we even know enough about them to properly do so?

Remembering the dead

Names, memorials and what is lost

by Lily Hamourtziadou
20 March 2015

Cemeteries are strange places. Many avoid them as eerie, or spooky, or simply too sad for reminding us of our mortality. Others spend years of their lives bent over a tombstone bearing the name of a loved one. Each grave contains a death and bears witness to a life. The remains of the dead: their physical remains and what remains of their identity. Those who knew them will remember them and even those who did not know them will come to know something about who they were: their names, affiliations, images…

Each person is identified as an individual and as a member of a group (familial, ethnic, religious, professional) through their name and title. When someone is born, they are registered as bearers of a name and surname, in some cultures receiving their name through baptism. In the course of their lives, people may change their name to mark a change in identity or in line with local and traditional norms. A ‘Miss’ may become a ‘Mrs’, her husband’s family name replacing her maiden name; a woman be named “the wife of” the man she married, or she (and also he) become the “the mother of” (or “the father of”) their eldest son; a fitting nickname be gladly accepted for common and life-long use… Our names are at the core of who we are and of who we are perceived to be by others. When we die, we leave behind something of ourselves through our name, through the recollection of all that name enclosed.

Nations have always commemorated their dead by making lists of those who gave their lives, or lost their lives, as members of that nation, and by building war memorials, to honour those who have died. To remember and honour the dead is important for nations, for states and for families all over the world. It is important for each individual too, for we all want to be remembered, we all want our death to be a loss to someone, just as much as we want our lives to have mattered.

The British military has ensured those British soldiers who gave their lives in Iraq are not forgotten. A list of the 179 soldiers who died there can be found easily: Names, titles, the manner of their death, their images… some smiling, others serious, some holding a child that will have to grow up without their dad or mum…

Our terrorism victims are also commemorated, those civilians who tragically died as they went about their lives, those innocents who met such an untimely and violent end.

Police named all 52 known victims of the London bombers. Some families released statements, paying tribute to loved ones lost in the attacks, as the site explains.

More names and photographs. More smiling faces. Some young and bright-eyed.

‘Phil Beer, 22, from Borehamwood, Herts, was on the Underground with friend Patrick Barnes when the explosion struck between King's Cross and Russell Square on Thursday. His family said Mr Beer, a hairdresser, was a "fun-loving and colourful" character who had red and black hair, a lip stud and a tattoo of a Celtic dragon on his arm.

Mr Beer's family has requested that mourners wear bright colours on the day of his funeral to reflect his personality.

In a statement, they said: "His loss has left us feeling very empty and we miss his infectious loud laugh."

A wonderful tribute to a son. A loss indeed.

Another tragic loss:

‘Elizabeth Daplyn, a 26-year-old administrator from north London, died in the Piccadilly Line blast while travelling to work at University College Hospital.

In a statement her family said: "Liz leaves behind dozens of people who loved and admired her, including her boyfriend Rob, parents Pam and Mike and sister Eleanor.

Her family said she was a talented artist and musician who read Fine Art at Oxford University.’

It is hard not to feel the pain of the loss of those lives. It is hard to stay dry-eyed as you look at those names and those faces.

A memorial that fills one with both horror and a sense of loss is the 9/11 Memorial in New York.

‘The 2,983 names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993, are inscribed into bronze parapets surrounding the twin Memorial pools, located in the footprints of the Twin Towers.’

And these are names (as the About page shows), carefully inscribed in bronze, whose outlines one can trace with one’s fingers, and on a memorial from where one can be assured not a single name is missing.

The public recording of the deaths of civilians in Iraq has been a different story, with only 1 in 12 of the deaths in our database able to be recorded with identifying details, as we shall see below. Usually, the larger the incident in which people are killed, the rarer it is for their names to be included, especially all their names.

Here is one such rare and recent occasion, as reported in Al-Iraq News (Feb 14, 2015), of a tribal elder, his son (a student at Glasgow University), and his entourage escorting him for security (all also family members) who were abducted in Baghdad and shot. Al-Iraq News’ terse list reads as follows:

  1. Sheikh Qasim Karim Swaidan al-Janabi – uncle of MP Zaid al-Janabi
  2. Dr. Mohammad Qasim Swaidan al-Janabi – cousin of Zaid al-Janabi
  3. Basim Hussein al-Janabi – security detail
  4. Saif Nayif al-Janabi – MP security detail
  5. Mohammad Nasr al-Ubaidi – security detail
  6. Mohammad Khalid al-Janabi - security detail
  7. Ali Hussein al-Janabi - security detail
  8. Amer Hannush al-Janabi - security detail
  9. Uday Hamid al-Janabi - security detail

Rarest of all is that the loss of these Iraqi lives was illuminated by stories of their hopes and dreams, and who they were:

Al Janabi's father was working to negotiate better treatment for local people and a secure place for displaced Sunnis to live, [a friend of his] said. Mohammed had intended to help with that work, having successfully defended his PhD, and was to return to Glasgow to graduate in June. "He told us to put the date in our diary and we said we wouldn't miss it for the world."

He was unmarried, she said. "He was such a handsome guy and tall for an Iraqi, with a beautiful smile. You would think girls would be throwing themselves at him, but he just wanted to finish his studies and didn't want to stay anywhere in the world, but Iraq."

Al Janabi’s story received more than the usual attention in the Scottish press because a part of his life was in Glasgow, as well as in Iraq. And such stories describing Iraqi victims in life as well as the circumstances of their death (including those who never left the country) do appear in the Western and global media from time to time (some of which are so remarkable we have highlighted them before). It is just that any detailed remembering is the exception rather than the rule.

Both the scale and the relentless nature of Iraq's violence have made it very difficult for journalists and others to report and record civilian deaths in appropriately humanising detail. Every day more are added to this long long list of violent deaths by guns, bombs and beheadings in a country that remains a battlefield.

On the 12th anniversary of the invasion, over 154,000 civilian deaths have been recorded by Iraq Body Count. With combatants of all nationalities included, the human toll rises to 211,000. By January 2014 we had managed to gather the name or other identifying details for 11,000 individual victims – a staggering number, but still only 1 in 12 of the civilians reported killed up to that date (this list can be browsed online or directly downloaded as a spreadsheet).

Others are described simply as ‘policeman’ or ‘lorry driver’. Most are merely ‘male, adult’. Of yet others - some two thirds of the victims in our database - the public record contains nothing at all about the individual who lost his or her life, except that they were non-combatant, usually going about their ordinary daily business, and met a violent and premature death at the hands of others. Clearly their deaths must be counted, and matter, as much as the deaths of those who (for whatever, often arbitrary, reason) are better known. But their loss is at present only represented in numbers.

Yet numbers alone cannot possibly represent human lives. Knowing how many have died cannot be enough without also knowing who has died, because figures cannot adequately communicate the loss of individuals. For many countries (not only Iraq), public casualty reporting and recording often consists solely of statistics, of numbers. A poor representation of what is lost.

Whose children were they? Whose parents? How many miss them? What did they like to do? What kind of people were they? Did they have a talent? Were they someone’s beloved?

Will we in the West directly and indirectly involved in the dissolution of the Iraqi state ever truly know what has been lost? Will we remember? Will the Iraqis know who all those people were, who all those people are whose blood is spilt in their streets every day Will the identities of the thousands found as ‘bodies in mass graves’ be known? Are the lives of Iraqis less valuable, a smaller loss than those of British people, of Americans, military and civilian?

The commemoration of a life lost must not have ethnicity, religion, colour, or monetary value. It cannot be reserved for the European, for the American, for the white, for the Christian, for the powerful, or for the well to do. It has to include the non-white, the poor, the Asian, the African, the illiterate, the beggar boy blown up, the elderly woman shot on her way to market and the Yazidi girl beheaded for not wearing her scarf. The commemoration of a life must know no boundaries or restrictions.

Nobody’s name, identity, life, is lesser than another’s. And nobody’s loss is any easier to bear by those who knew and cared for them, those who will forever mourn their passing. In ‘Dublinesque’, the British poet Philip Larkin describes a funeral. The mourners walk behind the coffin.

As they wend away

A voice is heard singing

Of Kitty, or Katy,

As if the name meant once

All love, all beauty.