On national Martyrs' Day, the UAE will honour the bravery of those who sacrifice their lives in the line of duty, defending the sovereignty of the nation. Already marked in other countries, it is a sign of the country's maturity.
November 30. From this year on, it will be Martyrs’ Day, commemorating the UAE’s fallen heroes.
It is a day with origins that go back much farther than last Friday, when a Houthi missile struck an arms depot in the Yemeni province of Marib, sparking explosions that killed 45 Emiratis.
The first hero to die for the UAE did so before the country officially existed.
Salim Suhail bin Khamis, 20, was one of six police officers stationed on the island of Greater Tunb when it, and Lesser Tunb, were invaded by Iran before the UAE was founded on December 2, 1971. Iran also occupied the island of Abu Musa.
Described by his family as stubborn and passionate, Salim became the country’s first martyr when he refused to lower the Ras Al Khaimah flag from the police station he was guarding.
At the time, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb belonged to RAK and Abu Musa to Sharjah.
Salim’s body was buried on the island he defended, still occupied by Iran and still claimed by the UAE. Only one photo of Salim exists – an official photo in a police uniform as he joined the force at the age of 18.
This year the UAE joins many other countries which have dedicated an annual day to honour their fallen heroes. It is a date to salute the sacrifice of soldiers who lost their lives defending the sovereignty of their nation.
Martyrs’ Day, as decreed by the President, Sheikh Khalifa, will honour the memory of all those who have given their lives “as they performed their tasks and duties in the homeland and abroad, in the civil, military and humanitarian fields”.
The term martyr is religious in origin and predates Islam. One of history’s first martyrs is said to be Jesus, known as Issa in Islam.
The word martyr serves Christian and Islamic traditions and originates in the term “witness”, as in the embodiment of faith. A martyr is someone who dies for their beliefs and for defending a cause.
Bahrain has also declared it will have a Martyrs’ Day – on a date to be announced – after five of its soldiers were killed in the Marib rocket attack. Saudi Arabia had 10 soldiers killed in the attack.
“Martyrs’ Day is important to mark and celebrate so that every generation remembers the heroes and their great sacrifices,” Col Mohammed bin Saeed bin Alham Al Dhaheri said.
“Safety and security of a country should never be taken for granted, as it means there are courageous people protecting and defending it for all of us to live in peace and harmony.”
Now 64 and retired, Col Al Dhaheri had such a strong sense of duty towards his country that he joined the army when he was only 9 years old. He remembers the exact date he joined: December 28, 1958.
“There were no army schools back then except that of Madrasat Quwat Sahel Oman [Trucial Oman Scouts] run by the British forces,” he said. “They accepted boys from 9 years old and above. They called us ‘boys’ and only once we reached 17, we became ‘soldiers’.”
As the eldest in the family, he was allowed to go to Sharjah alone. He returned to Abu Dhabi in 1965 under orders from the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbout, and became one of the founding officers of the UAE Army.
One of his fondest memories as an officer was meeting important figures, such as Queen Elizabeth II when she visited Abu Dhabi in 1979.
“Accompanying His Highness Sheikh Zayed on official delegations around the world was one of the things I liked the most about being in the Army,” Col Al Dhaheri said.
His son, Abdullah, has followed in his father’s military footsteps and is a captain in the Armed Forces.
“There is a brotherhood and sisterhood with all veterans who have served in the name of their country and we feel solidarity with them and pray for all of them and their families,” Col Al Dhaheri said.
Abu Dhabi will build a museum and Dubai a mosque to honour the martyrs of the Emirates.
Sharjah will install a martyrs’ monument on Maliha Road, near the Sharjah Centre for Space and Astronomy, and a road in Sharjah University City will be renamed Martyr’s Road.
In Ajman, a martyrs’ square and memorial will be built in Al Alam Park.
“Every country has its own history and its own story and the Middle East in recent history has witnessed many wars and great tragedies,” Col Al Dhaheri said.
“One of the ways to heal from loss and to honour the dead is to dedicate a day or a monument or a square, or even poems, to them so that they are never forgotten.”
Of the other countries that use the designation Martyrs’ Day, each has a story that captures an important moment in each country’s history.
May 6 is celebrated in Lebanon and Syria as Martyrs’ Day. It is often forgotten that the date is tied to 1916, given the turbulent histories of both countries.
Under the rule of Jamal Pasha, popularly known as “Al Jazzar” (the butcher), tens of thousands died from the Great Famine.
Pasha also ordered the public execution of 21 Syrians and Lebanese for “anti-Turkish activities”.
They were executed in the Marjeh Square in Damascus and Burj square in Beirut, which have since been renamed Martyrs’ Square.
The square in Lebanon was later dedicated to the fallen heroes of the civil war (1975-1990) then picked as the final resting place of the assassinated former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
In India, Martyrs’ Day is January 30, the day Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948.
In Armenia, April 24 is Martyrs’ Day. It marks the massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923 in what has been called the first genocide of the 20th Century.
In Tunisia April 9 commemorates the fallen heroes who led protests in the streets in 1938 for their country’s independence from French rule. Twenty-two died and 155 were wounded.
Iraq marks December 1 as its Martyrs’ Day to honour those who fell in the war with Iran from 1980 and 1988. Its grand martyrs’ monument, also known as Nasb Al Shaheed, and whose massive turquoise domes are an instantly recognised icon in Iraq, was unveiled in 1983.
Elsewhere in the world, fallen soldiers are honoured on Remembrance Day, also known as Poppy Day, usually on November 11. The commemoration began after the First World War.
“The UAE is a relatively young country and with the establishment of a Martyrs’ Day, it marks an important step and change, where we can say it is has now grown up and joined other older countries that have been commemorating their fallen soldiers, as well as veterans, for many decades,” said Dr Albadr Alshateri, a professor at the National Defence College.
“It is the natural progression of any country that, as it grows stronger and develops, sacrifices become bigger. Defending one’s country has become real in a sense.
“There is no higher sacrifice than giving up your life for your country. So commemorating this selfless, brave act is part of showing appreciation for those who protect us and our country.
“In the same way that we have Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, we have now a day to thank those who died serving their country.”
The soldiers who died in Yemen will be remembered alongside those who fell during the First Gulf War (1990-1991) while liberating Kuwait.
There are also martyrs such as Saif Ghubash, the government minister who was assassinated in 1977, and Khalifa Al Mubarak, an Emirati ambassador who was assassinated in 1984.
Others who died in the line of duty will always be honoured for their ultimate sacrifice.
“This Martyrs’ Day will have great relevance, not just because it is the first one we mark officially on a national scale but also because of the fresh wound that many families feel after the loss of their loved ones in Yemen,” said Dr Alshateri.
“There is no greater sacrifice than one’s life for one’s country.”