Tending to our infidel dead

Lieut. Cecil Henry Garsford was 23 when he perished on the slopes of Asmai Heights, the place now known colloquially as TV Hill because of the broadcasting tower on the summit. Garsford, Eton-educated, was once awarded a medal for "gallantry when, canoeing on the River Rhine in Bonn, he saved the life of another youth who had capsized and was drowning."

The eldest son of Lt.-Col. John Garsford, he had gone into battle against Afghan tribesmen brandishing his father's sword. With his dying breath, "he called on his comrades to take care of it, because it was his father's." The date was Dec. 14, 1879, and young Garsford had come a long way to die. His fate is remembered here, on a tombstone plaque, in a sleepy Kabul cemetery.

In Kabul, the Christian Cemetery – also known as the British Cemetery – is such a place. On a sun-burnished afternoon, the graveyard is still but for birds chirping and lizards scuttling across the stone walls. It is peaceful. Afghans call this cemetery Kabre Ghora, ghora being a popular 19th-century term for a British soldier. The graveyard, here at the northeastern end of Shahabuddin Wat, was established by the British, during the second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880).

Five-year-old Muterza, a lovely child with eyes like coffee beans, swings idly from the heavy wooden gate, at once shy and curious. Members of his family, Pashtuns, have served as custodians of the cemetery for decades, even through the Taliban period, when immense pressure was exerted to stop tending the infidel dead.

Indeed, the Taliban had its headquarters in the buildings that line the outer right wall of the cemetery. Three months before the Taliban fell, Mullah Omar himself ventured into the graveyard to confront Muterza's grandfather, Rahim Mullah. "Why do you continue doing this?" Omar demanded. "I am an illiterate man," Rahim Mullah responded. "And everyone knows that to be illiterate is to be blind." The one-eyed Omar countered: "But I too am blind!" And then, hard as it is to imagine, Omar burst into laughter.

At one end, beneath a Maple Leaf, a large memorial is dedicated to dead Canadians, installed only a few months ago. They, too, came a long way to die. Rahim Mullah is 75 years old now and ailing. In fact, he's in hospital. But his son, Ainullah, has picked up the spade. On this day, he is pulling weeds from graves and tossing aside cluttering rocks. There is little shade. "Once, we had big trees inside the cemetery, but the Taliban cut them all down," he says. "They used them to build fires in the winter."

Ainullah, 49, speaks proudly of his father's devotion to this foreign cemetery, sentiments long ago instilled in him also. "He insisted on staying here, even through the wars. The Taliban were unhappy about this. But he had such a love for the place. He said: `Yes they are Christian, but Christians are human beings too.' "The important thing is that we are all human beings. Me, I don't have bad thoughts about Christians. Many of these people gave their lives for Afghanistan."

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