Kabul's British Cemetery honours dead of wars old and new

12th November 2009, Comments 0 comments

The number of foreigners seeking out the cemetery has dwindled in recent months, as security worsens in the capital and the Taliban insurgency spreads across Afghanistan.

Kabul -- Wreaths of red paper poppies -- the symbol of remembrance -- lie against the high southern wall of the British Cemetery in Kabul, a layer of fine dust covering their curled-up leaves in the midday sun.

The names of British military personnel who have died in Afghanistan since 2001 are engraved in clear letters on highly polished stone above personal tributes to fallen comrades, regimental symbols and mottos.

Next to them lie the chipped and fading white stone graves of some of the 150 soldiers who died during Britain's last foray into Afghanistan more than a century ago, which ended in defeat and retreat

Rahimullah, the cemetery's venerable gatekeeper, always expects more visitors in November, when Britain and her Commonwealth allies remember their war dead from conflicts past and present, in far-off lands and closer to home.

"Every year there is a big ceremony," he told AFP. "The British people come, about 50 to 60 of them, military people in army clothes and national dress. They stay for about one hour and then leave flowers."

But this year, Rahimullah, a former gravedigger who now doubles as gardener, has doubts that many people will come in the days leading up to Remembrance Sunday on November 8 and Armistice Day three days later.

The number of foreigners seeking out this peaceful place has dwindled in recent months, he said, as security worsens in the capital and the Taliban insurgency spreads across Afghanistan.

Last week, Taliban suicide gunmen stormed a UN guesthouse in Kabul, prompting President Hamid Karzai to order a security upgrade for international organisations.

The 100,000-strong US and NATO force has suffered its deadliest year yet in the eight-year war, with around 450 deaths according to the independent icasualties.org website, which keeps a tally of coalition losses.

Nearly 230 British service personnel have died since 2001, including 91 this year alone. Five soldiers were shot dead by an Afghan policeman at a checkpoint in southern Helmand province on Tuesday.

Not all of them have their names on the cemetery's stone walls.

"Lack of security is the reason they're not coming. Before, they came," said Rahimullah, perching on the corner of an iron-framed bed in the shade of a tree, as a partridge pecked at the floor of its wickerwork cage nearby.

The cemetery -- also known as the Christian Cemetery -- was first built as the final resting place of more than 150 soldiers who died during the British Empire's ill-fated attempt to annexe Afghanistan in the mid- to late-1800s.

Over the years, as the soldiers' graves were beaten by the elements and neglect, Kabul-based Europeans were also buried here -- from explorers of the ancient Silk Road to those who lost their lives on the hippie trail.

New memorials have since been erected to Canadian, French, German, Spanish, US and other NATO troops who have also died far from home.

On some, a Biblical passage reads: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God."

Whether peace comes to Afghanistan or not, Rahimullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, says he will be here to open the heavy, wooden gates to any curious passers-by -- just as he has done for the last 30 years.

Even at the age of "about 80,” he will walk the rough, gravel paths -- more slowly now and with the help of a carved, wooden stick -- ready to answer any questions as best he can, with a toothless smile, and for a modest tip.

Violence has never fully stopped him before, even during the Taliban's time in power when the leader of the Islamist group, Mullah Mohammed Omar, paid a visit.

"He came for a short time with six people with guns," Rahimullah said.

"I told them it was a foreign cemetery and he asked me why I was working here as I was a Muslim. I just opened the gate and showed them around. That's all.

"But I didn't come to work for three days after that. I was scared. After three days, I came and asked the neighbours if anyone else had come. They hadn't, so I just carried on with my work."

Even if no one comes, there is work to do: he has rose bushes with deep red and pink flowers to prune, while cutting back the coarse grass that threatens to obscure the headstones is a constant task.

Said Rahimullah: "If some people or foreigners help me, I will also cut the trees down and put some fruit trees in."

Phil Hazlewood/AFP/Expatica

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