Afghanistan cemetery holds memories of foreigners


The heavy wooden gate to the British Cemetery is kept locked. To get inside, the curious must bang their fists and shout their intentions over the sounds of boys yelling in the streets, the call to prayer from the local mosque and the roar of foreign military planes overhead.

Hidden behind its tall wall are memorials to Englishmen, Europeans and even a few Americans -- all of whom came to this war-torn land in the service of their country and lost their lives.

Afghanistan has long been called the “graveyard of empires,” and nowhere is that somber designation more real than at this smallish cemetery, with its gravestones marking the fallen, some from forgotten battles that occurred more than a century past, others from deadly incidents that made headlines just weeks ago.

Also known as the White Cemetery, the graveyard was originally a burial site for soldiers killed in Britain’s ill-fated colonial adventures in Afghanistan: the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century.

Among those memorialized is Lt. Cecil Henry Gaisford, killed in 1879 in the battle for Asmai Heights -- “he died like a soldier.” And Lt. St. John William Forbes, killed that same year in the battle for a piece of high ground called the King’s Throne.

One of Britain’s most famous heroes of the Afghan campaign is also memorialized here: Maj. John Cook of the 5th Gurkha Rifles, awarded the Victoria Cross for leading a desperate charge against Pashtun riflemen.

In one mass grave are the remains of 29 members of the 67th Foot Regiment killed from 1878 to 1881.

In all, the remains of about 150 are buried here, some beneath gravestones that are cracked, chipped or no longer readable.

When a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban from power in late 2001, a British army unit adopted the cemetery, erecting a plaque that vows, “We Shall Remember Them.” Service personnel are no longer buried here, but stone-carved memorial lists are attached to the walls, with the names and ranks of those killed in the struggle with the Taliban.

On two plaques are the names of two dozen Americans who were killed in joint operations with the British: Americans who served in the Special Forces, the 10th Mountain Division and the Utah National Guard; and Army Cpl. Jeffrey Roberson of Phelan, Calif., a member of the 18th Military Police Brigade.

Each November, as part of a Remembrance Day ceremony, British officials, backed by bagpipes, visit the cemetery for speeches, prayers and the laying of red poppies. For security reasons, the ceremony is quick and at an unusual hour -- this year’s began at 6 a.m.

For 25 years, the cemetery has been watched over and its greenery tended by Rahimullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name.

During the Taliban years, an angry Mullah Mohammed Omar stormed into the cemetery with his gunmen and demanded to know why a Muslim would guard the graves of Christians. Rahimullah tried to sidestep the Taliban leader’s question.

“Because I am illiterate and illiterate people are blind,” Rahimullah reportedly told Omar.

For three days Rahimullah remained in hiding, fearing he was marked for death.

After the Taliban was toppled and the British army decided to upgrade the cemetery, Rahimullah’s defiance and wrinkled visage made him a minor celebrity in the British press. The British Embassy now pays him $100 a month and has issued a proclamation honoring him for decades of “faithful service.”

Under a cold, gray Kabul winter sky, the cemetery has a forlorn look, its trees bare, its rose bushes reduced to sticks with thorns, the patches of grass frozen. Neighbors occasionally hurl trash over the wall.

But Rahimullah’s son Einullah said that in the spring, when the roses bloom, the grape arbor is thick, and the apple, almond and cherry trees are full with fruit, the cemetery has a colorfulness that stands in sharp contrast to the drabness of the neighborhood around it.

“It’s beautiful,” said Einullah, who is tending the cemetery grounds while his father is in the hospital with high blood pressure and other ailments of old age.

The most famous civilian grave may be that of Hungarian-born British archaeologist Aurel Stein, famed for his exploration of the “Silk Road” across Central Asia. For years he was denied permission to enter Afghanistan to study the military campaigns of Alexander the Great. He was finally allowed to enter in 1943, only to die in Kabul, the capital, that year.

Near Stein’s grave is buried an American engineer from Ohio who helped build the irrigation canals of Helmand province. And a British family killed in an automobile accident. Some grave markers tell of street murders.

There are German, Polish and even Russian graves; one memorial plaque is to Turkish soldiers killed in a plane crash on their way home.

One of the more recent graves is that of Gayle Williams, an aid worker of British and South African nationality. Williams, 35, was gunned down in October 2008, allegedly by a Taliban fighter who believed that she was spreading Christianity.

In her will, Williams asked to be buried at the British Cemetery.

On her marble tombstone is a citation from Psalms: “How lovely is your dwelling place / O Lord Almighty.”