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Thursday 20 April, 2017
A remarkable stone memorial it stands proudly, peacefully overlooking the crumbling cliffs and dramatic ridges that resonate in summer to the relentless hum of cicadas. The surrounding landscape has become legendary, etched into the collective memories of the nations who fought there.
The size of Abide is subliminal. It dominates the southern reaches of Gelibolu and is best appreciated from the ocean. At night, it is a beacon of white angular stone cutting through the darkness where the land meets the dark waters of the Aegean.
To this day, the exact number of men who served during the Gallipoli campaign remains unknown. While allied casualties have been estimated with relative accuracy, the ‘Turkish’ number of casualties is estimated at more than a quarter of a million. In total, it’s thought that more than half a million men fought at Gallipoli from across the Ottoman Empire.
Every March and April, and at other times through the year, the Turkish people arrive by the coachload to pay their respects to those men: the 18th March is their Martyrs’ Day. The memorial park and cemetery that surrounds Abide is their hallowed ground.
Six years ago, in 2011, I had the opportunity to join them. I hired a car, caught the ferry from Canakkale to Eceabat, parked along the approach road and joined the crowd as it made its way to the memorial.
The cemetery was very different from those I had visited previously. The names of the fallen from Australia and New Zealand are carved in white stone; stark iron crosses mark the graves of the French.
At Abide, there is glass. Row upon row of glass surrounded by stone, creating a scene that is both transparent and reflective. It is a place of unique contemplation, where the glass evokes both memory and the passage of time: your eye is drawn to each headstone, then looks beyond, to the horizon and the sea.
Here, the past meets the present. Visitors come to remember history, yet are reminded of now. While serving as a headstone, each block of glass is a window on the present. The glass cemetery at Abide is a place to reconsider history and its relevance to today.
As I remember that day, and my visit to Abide, the past has taken on a new relevance. On one pane of glass, that was part of an interpretive display, I learnt that the ‘Turkish side’ included many nations. It included soldiers drawn from every corner of the Ottoman Empire; from Bosnia, Egypt, Syria and Georgia as well as the geographic area we know as modern Turkey.
I was fascinated by a map engraved on that pane of glass that listed every country and nationality that fought for the ‘Turks’ in 1915. There were 18 of them. And today, there is one name on that list that means more to me than the others. That country is Iraq.
That is where I am, right now. As I write, I am sitting outside the Chapel at Camp Taji just north of Baghdad taking refuge from the dust, mud and rain. You can always get a ‘brew’ here supplied by well-wishers from coalition nations. They send packages of tea, coffee and hot chocolate, as do generous friends, family and community organisations who remember us back home in Australia and New Zealand.
I am here with Task Group Taji IV – a combined force of Australian and New Zealand Defence Force members. We’re here on a training mission at the request of the Iraqi Government: they asked for help, our nations answered that call. We’re here for six months to offer training, advice and assistance – our work makes a difference to the security of the Iraqis, and ours at home.
The historical significance of the mission is not lost on the men and women deployed with me here. We know we are in contested territory: a place where wars have been fought, and battles have been won and lost for centuries.
Yet our mission is very different from that of our forebears a century ago. We are not here to invade; we are here to build capacity. We are here at the invitation of our hosts who greet us with thanks, smiles and – in this age of smart-phones – requests for ‘selfies’. Every day they tell us they are grateful, saying we are teaching them the skills they need to liberate their homes and communities from the horrors of Daesh and its campaign of terror.
There’s Abdul, who I met in February. At 24 years old, he has lost his home and many members of his family. They were murdered by Daesh when it seized Mosul. A former school teacher, Abdul has given up his career to become a policeman. “I want my community to be safe,” he told me. “I just want to go back to Mosul and help the rest of my family.”
Last week, I met Staff Sergeant Mohammed Faleh of the 14th Division of the Iraqi Army. A veteran of the Battle of Fallujah, he was shot and hit by shrapnel from a grenade explosion while clearing a building in April 2015.
“I will never forget that day,” he said, showing me his scars. “I’m still injured with pins in my legs but I want to continue the fight against Daesh.”
“I am very grateful to the Australians and New Zealanders who trained us from Task Group Taji IV. I’m really happy to work with them. They’ve given us the skills we need to help us survive and return to our families.”
Thousands of Iraqis have similar stories to Abdul and Mohammed. Every day, our Task Group works with those Iraqis who are training with us out on the range, regardless of the wind and rain.
That includes Anzac Day. After a commemorative service at dawn, the Task Group will be ‘back on the tools’ by early morning, working side-by-side with the Iraqis we have travelled from the other side of the world to train, in a spirit of friendship and mutual respect.
But before we return to the range, the Q-Store, the workshops, the HQ or the ‘Role 2E’ (as the Anzac hospital is known) the men and women of our Task Group – Australians and New Zealanders – will take time to remember those who travelled to the Middle East Region before us and did not return home.
Some of us have personal connections to that history – a grandfather or great-uncle who fought at Gallipoli, or a relative who has served in war and peacekeeping operations since then.
On Anzac Day, we’ll also be reminded of the unwavering support of our families, friends, and communities at home. That support is precious to us – it reminds us of the lifestyle and the values we cherish and stand for.
This year I will also marvel at the friendships we have made in Iraq. Friendships with soldiers like Abdul and Mohammed. Friendships with the many other Iraqis who we have had the good fortune to meet during our mission.
I am proud of the difference our Task Group is making in Iraq.
This Anzac Day, I’ll think of my new Iraqi friends in the same way that I think of my dear friends and academic colleagues based in Turkey. And I’ll remind myself, as I remember the glass headstones of Abide and the former enemies who became our friends, how far we have come.