x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

UAE's first martyr remembered

Relatives of Salem Suhail bin Khamis were paid a visit by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, on the 41st National Day.

Crown Prince of Dubai conveys greetings from the UAE President and Vice President to the family of the first Emirati martyr Salem Suhail bin Khamis killed while defending the UAE's sovereignty over Abu Musa Island. Photo of Khamis seen on the right.
Crown Prince of Dubai conveys greetings from the UAE President and Vice President to the family of the first Emirati martyr Salem Suhail bin Khamis killed while defending the UAE's sovereignty over Abu Musa Island. Photo of Khamis seen on the right.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // The Iranians were coming. And as their troops marched on the island of Greater Tunb, occupying it on the eve of the UAE's foundation in 1971, they ordered Salem Suhail bin Khamis to lower the flag of Ras Al Khaimah.

The 20-year-old head of the island's six-strong police force refused. For his defiance, the invaders shot and killed him.

Khamis' death earned him a place in UAE history as the first martyr to die standing up for a country that did not even yet exist.

Forty-one years later, as the UAE marked National Day this week, his family were joined by the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, at their home in Al Munaie in RAK.

At dawn on November 29, 1971, helicopters circled the island and dropped leaflets, written in Farsi, telling frightened residents - mostly farmers and fishermen - to surrender.

"There were so many, it all happened suddenly, we did not know this would happen," Umm Mahmoud, who was in her late teens and married there at the time, remembers.

"We were happy there, they came and took our land. We do not speak Farsi, we all spoke Arabic. Our sheikh was Sheikh Saqr [bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, the late Ruler of RAK]."

But the police were outnumbered, says Hassan Al Fuqaee, one of the six policemen on duty that day.

"We were six officers, and they were 2,000," he said. "They came from everywhere, on ships, helicopters, on land, we were surrounded, but we did not surrender."

The residents of the island were taken by boat on the six-hour journey to RAK, and the injured officers were taken to hospital. But Khamis was buried on the island by the Iranian invaders.

"He was buried there," said his elder brother, Harib Suhail bin Khamis, who is now in his 60s. He would have preferred his brother's body to be brought back to RAK for burial.

"We found out about his death by a message sent later that day to the RAK police post where I was. We were shocked, but expected his body to be brought back."

"It would have been better for him to be with his family, and close by so we can visit, and so he could have been buried next to his parents," said Mariam, the wife of the martyr's nephew.

"My brother did his job," said Harib. "He gave his blood for his country. When one knows his country, he does not give up on it.

"We were very happy about [Sheikh Hamdan's] visit. We celebrated National Day, and we remembered our brother and his sacrifice for his country."

Mariam said the whole town was thrilled at the visit. "The happiness we were in is indescribable, the whole area was happy," she said. "They all know his story. There is a school that the Government named after him in his honour."

And while his story filled their hearts with sadness, they were also proud and "stand by what Salem stood for on the day".

"He raised the flag, and he would not put it down, so they fired at him while he was still carrying it," she said.

During Sheikh Hamdan's visit, there was no need to tell his brother's story, as Harib said it was known in every Emirati household. Instead, they just remembered him and looked at a photo on the wall.

"He saw the picture, asked if that was him, we said yes. He did not ask about the story - we did not say anything."

And more than four decades later, the occupation that began that day continues. In the past year, Iran has inflamed tensions over the island - as well as Abu Musa and Lesser Tunb, which were invaded the same day - with a visit by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and statements that the islands are rightfully Iranian.

Appeals from the UAE and its Arabian Gulf neighbours for the ownership of the islands to be settled by international negotiations have fallen on deaf ears.

For Umm Mahmoud, as much as she loves her home of 41 years in RAK, the matter is simple: she wants to be able to visit her old house. "It is our land," she said.

osalem@thenational.ae