A century on, UK deaths remembered in Kabul

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The Independent Online

New names had been added to the black plaques shining in the pale dawn light, those of soldiers recently fallen in this conflict. Twenty yards away neat rows of faded and chipped white gravestones stood on the hard frosty ground, the dead from another war a century ago.

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.”