A century on, UK deaths remembered in Kabul

Author: By Kim Sengupta in Afghanistan

Armistice Day was commemorated today at a cemetery in Kabul resonating with
Britain?s turbulent history in Afghanistan. Armed troops patrolled outside,
the early timing was deliberate, the ceremony brief. The location, in the
crowded and unprotected heart of the Afghan capital, near the scene of a
previous suicide bombing attack, was not a place for a group of Western
diplomats and military to hang around for long.

The Army Padre, Nick Heron, spoke of the sacrifices made by those who had
died, the search for harmony and peace, and the need to keep faith at a time
of trouble. Wreaths of red poppies were laid, by among others, the British
ambassador, Mark Sedwill. Afterwards they looked at the long list of the
dead and talked quietly among themselves.

All of the fatalities, apart from a handful, have been since 2006 when British
troops were deployed to Helmand with the then Defence Secretary, John Reid,
declaring that he hoped that ?not a round would be fired in anger?. Since
then more than six million rounds have been fired and 232 members of the
forces killed. The only certainty now is that another plaque will have to be
added soon to the cemetery wall.

A soldier studying the plaques from top to bottom shook his head. Another
pointed out two of those on the list, from the Mercians regiment, saying
that he knew them, that they were very young, and that they were good guys
who were missed.

There were other victims of the savage violence unleashed in this country. One
of the newest gravestones was for Gayle Williams, a 34-year-old British aid
worker who was shot down while living and working among local people in
October last year. Her murder came a day after another Briton, David Giles,
and a South African, Jason Bresler, were gunned down. Further along is the
resting place of 29-year-old Bettina Goislard, who worked for the UN Refugee
Council. She was shot in the city of Ghazni. The Taliban claimed
responsibility for the deaths.

Around 150 of the graves are of British soldiers killed in the First and
Second Afghan wars of the 1800s which began with the British Raj attempting
to impose its candidate on the Afghan thrown and ended in withdrawl after
the deaths of thousands of British and Indian troops. One of those who did
not make it home was Cecil Henry Garsford, a 23-year-old lieutenant. Before
his death on the slopes of Asmai Heights he had questioned, in letters sent
back, the tactics being used by his superiors. Captain John Cook, VC, of the
Bengal Staff Corps & 5th Gurkha Rifles, on the other had no doubts about the
need for intervention. It was his duty to fight against Ghazis, who were
?fanatical Mussulmans?.

Kaka (?Uncle?) Rahimullah, caretaker at the cemetery for the last 30 years,
did not know much about the debate currently raging in Britain about the
war, the demands to pull troops out. ?But I can understand that, it is
terrible for any country to have its young people cut down, we know all
about that in Afghanistan,? he said.

?I do not know why this happens, I do not know what it is about this country
that makes people want to fight here, and our own people fight each other. I
do not know why Allah allows this. I only hope my grandchildren will not
have to go through this. But I see the numbers of British troops dying every
month, it is not good.?

It is the proud boast of 80-year-old Mr Rahimullah that he has only missed one
day of tending the graves in all his years in charge. ?That was the day of
my wedding and both my family and my wife?s family objected, I had no choice
but I felt I wasn?t doing my duty.?

Mr Rahimullah stayed on during the brutal years of the civil war with shells
and rockets raining down in Kabul. Mullah Omar, the one eyed leader of
Taliban Afghanistan, came to visit one day accompanied by bodyguards. ?He
asked me why I was looking after the bodies of unbelievers. I replied I was
doing my duty as a Muslim. I also told him ?Anyway I am illiterate and I
cannot read the names on the gravestones, illiterate people are blind?.
Mullah Omar laughed and said since he was one-eyed he too was illiterate.
They lost interest and went away.?

After the official party left for the fortifications of the British embassy
and Nato headquarters a few people wandered in to pay their respects. Among
them was Mark ?Jaymo? James, a former British Army colour sergeant, who had
returned to Afghanistan as a consultant for the recent elections. He was
looking at a plaque of three former comrades who were acting as bodyguards
for an Afghan official when they were killed. ?Some Afghan security people
turned on them. Some things never change do they?? Asked Mr James. The
details of the five soldiers gunned down by a renegade Afghan policeman in
Nad-e-Ali will soon be added to the wall.

Andy Saville, another former soldier, was taking photographs with his camera
phone of the plaques on the walls to send back to regimental friends back
home. News texts flashed up on the screen ? British troops have been fired
on at a mosque in Helmand; enough explosives have been found in Kandahar to
make 200 bombs; the body of a US Marine was discovered floating in a river;
five Swedish soldiers have been injured. Outside the walls of the cemetery
the war went on.

Mr Rahimullah was preparing to go home. He would be back to continue looking
after the graves. ?But I do not want any more names on those stones ? he
said shutting the gate. ?There are too many people dying in this country,
too many.?

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