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Libyan faithfully tends graves of foreign World War II dead

Every morning, Salah Fatour is at his post with his worn rake and wheelbarrow, tending the garden of the dead.

In a city besieged by war, he finds peace among the graves of a long-ago conflict. He steps gently around the whitewashed tombstones, pulling a weed, caressing a flower, careful not to disturb the souls of soldiers who died on foreign soil seven decades ago.

Fatour, his rough hands calloused from raking, performs the sacred duties once carried out by his father, who tended the Benghazi War Cemetery for three decades after World War II. Fatour, who was born at the cemetery, has maintained it for 25 years, preserving the memories of the dead.

“I didn’t know them, but I feel that I know them very well now because I’m with them every day,” he says.

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The cemetery memorializes 1,214 Commonwealth soldiers, many of whom died in the brutal desert battles the Allies fought with the Desert Fox, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and his Afrika Korps for supremacy in North Africa. Most were terribly young — 19, 20, 22 — eager Brits and Scots and Aussies and Canadians and South Africans who fought and died in the sands.

Here lies Flight Lt. S.D. Meadowcroft, dead at 26: “Beloved Husband of Gladys, Father of Michael John, His Duty Nobly Done.” And A.F. Payne, 27, of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps: “I Loved Him. What Can I Say More?”

There are Africans too, penniless young men from Britain’s African Pioneer Corps and Sudan Defense Force, and Indians from the Indian Pioneer Corps and the Gurkha Rifles.

Here lies Pvt. Moses Nayor, African Pioneer Corps, killed in January 1944. And laborer Mangal Soren, of the Indian Pioneer Corps, dead at 22 in 1942.

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Of the graves, 163 bear no names. These are the unknowns. Their tombstones speak for them: Known Unto God.

Towering palms shade some of the dead, and graceful eucalyptus trees stand sentinel over others. Scarlet bougainvillea bracts drape the pale stone walls, and pink oleander blossoms brush against the graves.

The cemetery is beside a busy highway choked with trash and the detritus of the rebellion against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi. Young gunmen in jeans and sandals lounge outside a small rebel garrison across the road, paying no heed to other young men who once fought on this land.

“Libyans don’t care about old wars. They only care about this war now,” Fatour says, his brow damp from a morning’s efforts with the rake and shovel.

Libyans never visit the graves. Before the rebellion erupted in February, elderly British men would sometimes visit, seeking the name of a fallen comrade.

Fatour cracks open a dusty ledger containing the names of all who rest here. This is how visitors find the dead. When the old men at last locate the proper tombstone, they fall to their knees and weep.

“One old British man, in his 90s, a colonel from the war, he couldn’t stop crying when he found his friend,” Fatour says.

The last visitor arrived Jan. 26, according to the ledger. Someone named Michael from the United States wrote: “An honor and a blessing.”

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Fatour’s rake carves neat lines in the packed clay earth and the pebbled pathways. The cemetery is immaculate: the headstones bright and clean, dead eucalyptus leaves shoveled away as soon as they land.

Fatour describes how tombstones are shaped differently for graves of non-Commonwealth dead. Here lies a Norwegian, Jorgen Nielsen. And a Yugoslav, Pvt. J. Flajs.

Most graves are marked with crosses. But Fatour says Libyans would be shocked to learn that some bear the Star of David, for Jewish soldiers.

Here lies E. Hewinson, of the Royal Army Service Corps, killed in 1945. And L. Averback, Royal Artillery, dead at 32: “One of the Best That God Could Lend.”

And few Libyans know that a fellow countryman is buried here. His tombstone is the only one that bears the Islamic crescent moon and star, also the symbol of the Libyan rebels. Here lies Omar Hussein, of the Libyan Arab Force, slain in 1943.

The cemetery is one of four in Libya maintained by the British-based Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In neighboring Tunisia, 2,841 Americans are buried at the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial.

Fatour is paid $235 a month by the graves commission. He says he has missed several payments since the rebellion began because the commission’s contractor is trapped in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, cut off by fighting.

“I’ll keep taking care of them whether I’m paid or not,” he says. “British or Jewish or Indian or African, I care for them all.”

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Fatour is 52, weary from his life’s work. His round face is sunburned. Sweat runs in thin rivulets, streaking the white dust caked on his cheeks.

It is late afternoon. The fierce desert sun casts the tombstones in black shadows. The soft buzz of honeybees drifts from hives beyond the cemetery walls. The voices of the rebel gunmen, young and eager for battle, fade at dusk.

Another day’s work is nearly done. The fallen soldiers are at peace. The only sounds are the scratch of Fatour’s rake and the rough scrape of his shovel as he tends the sanctuary of the dead, and of the living.

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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