Al-Awja, Asharq Al-Awsat – On the road to the village of Al-Awja, the birth place of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, close to the city of Tikrit, which is also the location of Saddam Hussein’s mausoleum, and the tomb’s of his two sons, Uday and Qusay, one finds nothing but a bullet-ridden sign covered in dust which reads “Al-Awja: 30 meters” as well as some trees and bushes wilting in the heat.
The stories and images that were put forward about Saddam Hussein’s hometown [during his reign] were that Al-Awja’s streets were paved with marble or perhaps gold, however this of course was an over-exaggeration. Al-Awja is the village where the family of President Saddam Hussein – who ruled Iraq for more than thirty years, before being executed following the US occupation of Iraq – continues to live until this day. Al-Awja shares similar features with any other village in Iraq, except perhaps for the presence of some modern buildings and houses built during the 1970s which can be found amidst the older structures. However despite this, there is nothing special about Al-Awja; its streets and pavements are filled with cracks and potholes, and its concrete fences are topped with barbed wire.
Saddam Hussein established a palace and guesthouse in his hometown, and one of the former President’s cousins – speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity – revealed that the palace which is located in the east part of the village was not seized by any military or official party, and currently stands deserted.
Saddam Hussein’s cousins and fellow tribesman have also complained that they are being accused and harassed by different parties, with one family-member informing Asharq Al-Awsat that “everybody is trying to accuse us, and implicate us in crimes.” He added “we are the cousins of Saddam Hussein, and we are Iraqis to the bone, and this is something that nobody can deny!”
Another cousin of Saddam Hussein informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “the government views us as agents of Saddam, and the majority of families in the village have had their property confiscated; they do not have the right to buy or sell for any reason despite the fact this is our property that we obtained through our own hard work and was not gift from President Saddam.” He added “life should not stop due to what happened in the past, and punishment should not be collective. We support justice, and if one has committed abuse this does not mean that thousands must be punished for this….we hope that justice is used to overcome the circumstances of the past.”
As for the huge popularity and support that Saddam Hussein’s name evokes in Al-Awja to this day, one of Saddam Hussein’s distant relatives told Asharq Al-Awsat that “we are not the only ones to do so [support Saddam]…we are in a village that is united by its well-known Arab tribal traditions, and President Saddam was a member of our tribe, we are linked to him by family and blood, [also] he was not just an ordinary person, he was the President of Iraq who was overthrown by foreign military intervention, and our support for him is based from this understanding.”
Asharq Al-Awsat also visited Saddam Hussein’s mausoleum after a short tour around Al-Awja village, and spoke to an Iraqi from Baghdad who was reading Quran over the grave of Saddam Hussein. In response to a question as to whether he belonged to Saddam Hussein’s tribe the mourner answered “No, I have a friend in the village of Al-Awja, and I came to Saddam Hussein’s tomb to read the Surah al-Fatiha for him [Islamic tradition of mourning for deceased by reading verses of Quran]. Despite all the cruelty and mistakes that characterized his time in power, I find that it is a duty to read the Surah al-Fatiha for his soul.”
Saddam Hussein was buried in this mausoleum, while his two sons Uday and Qusay, along with his grandson Mustafa, were buried in the courtyard outside. Former Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, former Iraqi Interior Minister Ali Hassan al-Majid, former Iraqi Intelligence Chief Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, and former Iraqi Chief Judge Awad al-Bandar – who were all executed at different times over the past years – are also buried nearby.
Iraqi citizens previously placed garlands of flowers in Saddam Hussein’s tomb, although these have withered with time, although the preserved flowers that were placed within the mausoleum have managed to retain their colour over the years. The walls of the mausoleum are also adorned with pictures of Saddam Hussein, and lines of poetry mourning his death.
However dust covers the gray marble tiles of the mausoleum that is illuminated by just one window. The door to the mausoleum is guarded by a single guard and members of Saddam Hussein’s family confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that many Iraqis have visited this tomb over the years, and that they do not prevent anybody from visiting to pay their respects.
The security situation in the village deteriorated significantly following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, however the situation today is relatively calm, except for the occasional flare-up of tribal violence.