Saturday, 6 August 2011

Lonely keeper of Kabul's Christian dead

Abdul Sami mows the lawn near the grave of Sir Marc Aurel Stein in the British Christian Cemetery in Kabul. Photo: Kate Geraghty

The Sydney Morning Herald
Ben Doherty, Kabul
August 6 , 2011

BEHIND thick mud walls and two heavy black wooden doors is a small grove of peace in this restive city.
This is the British Christian Cemetery, an oasis amid the dust and the crush of Kabul. The balconies of neighbouring apartment blocks loom over the cemetery, making it feel even smaller than it is.
The rising hill behind is marked with a dozen green flags flapping in the wind, marking the graves of Muslim martyrs. In this place, they seem to serve as a reminder that those buried here are outsiders, strangers in an often-hostile land.

The Taliban wanted to destroy this cemetery. The previous caretaker was a Pashtun man called Rahimullah, a Muslim who tended the cemetery for 35 years, many for no pay.

Rahimullah died last year, and responsibility for maintaining the graveyard has passed to his son, Abdul Sami. ''This place is very nearly not here,'' he tells The Saturday Age through an interpreter.

''But my father was enthusiastic and passionate. During the Taliban days, I remember, they would come here and tell him to stop looking after the cemetery, he should not tend the graves of the infidels. But my father knew it was his responsibility, that he should care for it. So he did, it didn't matter what the Taliban said, or that the people buried here are Christians.''

The graves here are a window into Afghanistan's turbulent history. The oldest are from the Anglo-Afghan wars, such as those of 29 men of the 67th Foot South Hampshire Regiment, buried in a mass grave after their attempt to take a hill south of the city in December 1879 failed.

Sir Marc Aurel Stein, the famed Hungarian-born British archaeologist, was buried here in 1943. His tombstone describes him as a scholar, explorer and author who ''enlarged the bounds of knowledge''.

Rahimullah knew the details, and very often the history, of every headstone in the cemetery. It's harder for his son. ''There are the very old ones, and there are some new ones. I don't know about them so much, I am not so literate. I cannot read the old headstones. I only know about the new ones.''

There are few of these. ''In the time of Karzai, that's about 10 years, we have only had I think eight burials,'' Abdul Sami says.

The newest are the grave sites of Americans Thomas E. Little and Dan Terry, part of a medical team ambushed and killed by insurgents in Badakhshan province last year. They sit in a sunlit corner, Terry's marked only with a stark wooden cross.

The cemetery has changed little in Abdul Sami's lifetime, although there are more trees than there once were. When the cemetery walls were bombed and the pine trees stolen for firewood during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s, Rahimullah planted fruit trees: apricots, walnuts and the small, sweet peaches that grow in Afghanistan.

Now Abdul Sami spends his days mowing the grass and tending to the trees.

Visitors are rare, he says: ''The people buried here are from very far away, and most of them died a long time ago. Sometimes families come, but usually there is no one.''

He sleeps in the one-room mud-brick home he and his father built near the centre of the cemetery. Abdul Sami is married, and hopes for children soon. But he doesn't want to hand down his inherited job.

''I grew up in a time of war, so I didn't go to school, I couldn't get an education. I don't want that for my children. I want them to go to school, and to go somewhere else. I don't want them to be here.''

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