The British Cemetery

Today being Friday, this is a day off for us. The Afghan weekend is Thursday and Friday, but we (and most internationals here) tend to work 6 day weeks. On Friday, however, we are more or less free to relax and think of things other than work. This morning we went to the British Cemetery.

It’s called that because it has been in existence for nearly 200 years, since 1839 when British casualties from the 1st British-Afghan War were laid to rest within its walls. It is also called the Sherpur Cantonment cemetery, as that is what the area was called in the 19th century. Although there are now people of many nationalities buried there, including Canadians, it is still commonly known as the British Cemetery.

Embedded within the walls of the compound there is a Canadian memorial. It is quite simple, a maple leaf flanked by the names of those who died between 2002 and 2004. Then, to the left, is attached a large piece of slate inscribed with the names of the 36 soldiers killed during 2006. My daughter, Nichola, is eighth on the list. The cemetery is not an official war grave site so efforts are underway to raise funds which will help complete the memorial, adding the names of those who died between 2007 and 2011. If anyone would like to contribute please let me know and I will put you in touch with the right people.

The cemetery became quite famous a decade ago. One day a farmer, Mr Rahimullah, brought his sheep in to the walled area to eat the grass. He stayed, and became the caretaker, looking after the cemetery for many years. Mr Rahimuller passed away in 2010 and his son, Mr Abdul Samay, is now the caretaker. He doesn’t have any sheep.

After breakfast Jim and I went to the Embassy (again! the security guards are starting to recognize me, although they still ask for my passport and phone ahead to make sure we have an appointment) and met the Acting Head of Mission. She has just returned from leave, and so Mr MacKinnon (whom I first met last fall, the acting Acting Head of Mission) is returning to Canada.

After a few words of welcome the security team took over and we were ushered into various vehicles and then had a scary ride to the cemetery. Well, I did, as I had to travel with the Colonel and the CIDA lady, in an armoured SUV with flak jackets on the floor and a rifle in the back seat. Jim got to go with our driver. We went in two convoys, so as to minimize our footprint and provide a low profile. Along with us were a couple of Mounties, who are here working with the police training program. Plus a bagpiper.

We pulled up outside the gate to the British Cemetery and it was locked. The caretaker came and opened it, and we walked through the gate, which was closed behind us. Inside everything was covered in snow. It was calm, it was peaceful. Then the piper started up.

We formed a line and marched down the path, the Colonel in front with a wreath, the piper, me, the Acting HoM, the acting acting HoM, the CIDA lady, the Mounties, and so on. The caretaker looked on bemused. Jim took pictures, as did the communications guy from the Embassy.

The piper played a lament, and then I stepped forward and laid the wreath. There was a minute of silence and then the piper played Amazing Grace. I wish they wouldn’t do that. We walked slowly away, and paid our respects at the grave of two Canadian aid workers who were killed in Afghanistan in 1972. There was snow over their headstone, so I could not see their names.

Jim took a photograph of me with the caretaker and we had a group photograph, then headed back to the gate. A box had miraculously appeared, with a sign saying “Please help support the people who look after this place”, and I left some money.

When we got back I told the Colonel that I could understand going in two small convoys to reduce our profile and keep the whole event low key. But, I said, it seemed to me that having the skirl of the pipes echo across Kabul kind of blew that plan out of the water. He just smiled.

Jim and I left the Embassy and stopped at a supermarket. I bought some bottled water, and some sliced cheese. Then we stopped the car at a bakery on the street and our driver bought us two flat loaves of naan bread. Back at our guest house we had a quiet lunch.

I would like to go back to the British Cemetery, perhaps in the spring when the snow has gone. I would like to go back without a security detail, or a piper. I would like to talk to Abdul Samay, and to talk about his father, and to look in more detail at the history within those walls.

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