Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The grave digger in the British Cemetery Kabul

Rahimullah, the grave digger of Kabul

It was a cold winter’s day in early 1994 when I first met Rahimullah, grave digger and caretaker of the British Cemetery in Kabul. He looked poor in tattered Shalwah Kamez and a shawl wrapped round his shoulders to keep out the biting cold. The headstones and graves were dusted with snow. In the distance the Hindu Kush range stood high above Koh Daman, the hills that skirt Kabul. Rahimullah looked about 50 then. Since the Soviets withdrew from Kabul in 1989 he hadn’t been paid. I knew that Aurel Stein, the famous Hungarian born British Archaeologist was buried here in 1944.

The headstone marking the spot where Aurel Stein was buried. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I didn’t know that this would to prove to be the most interesting grave yard I had ever seen. Its oldest residents are British soldiers from the Anglo-Afghan wars. Like the 29 members of the 67th Foot (South Hampshire Regiment), buried in a mass grave after a failed attempt to climb a hill south of Kabul on the 13th December 1879.

The heavy wooden gate opens into the Kabul Christian or British Cemetery

All that really remains of them is part of their grave stone, stuck along one side of the cemetery wall with other fragments of history. Long lists that tell no stories other than the staccato military details of name, rank, regiment and date. In between are assorted ranks of other visitors who never made it home. Explorers, journalists, hippies who lost the trail, engineers and aid workers; Italians and Germans and Canadians and Polish and many from other countries. Their headstones tell a snippet of Afghanistan’s rich history.

More recent headstones

Raimullah hadn’t been paid for four years when I first met him and I was so impressed that he still kept the grave yard tidy after 3 years of heavy fighting that I got a few friends together and we paid him a monthly salary for the next few years. He knew every grave and the history behind it and over a period of almost 3 years, we became good friends. I often used to sit on a grave and he would tell me about his life, his thoughts on Islam, why he tended the graves of Infidels.

I had almost forgotten about old Rahimullah, when I saw the tragic news on the BBC news on Monday night, 27 October about Gayle Williams, 34, who worked with disabled children for the charity Serve Afghanistan, was gunned down by two men on a motorbike as she made her way to work on Oct 20.

Gayle Williams

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing, saying that she had been targeted because she was "preaching Christianity" -a charge rejected by her colleagues.
Her mother Pat and sister Karen were among around 50 expatriate colleagues, friends and diplomats who gathered to mourn Gayle Williams at the Afghan capital's historic British cemetery.
Rose petals were scattered on her coffin, which was decked with flowers, as she was buried. Miss Williams had asked to be buried in Afghanistan should she die in the country.
The ceremony was protected by a cordon of police, with roadblocks set up to prevent a possible attack.
Her relatives then met President Hamid Karzai at his palace afterwards.
I am sure Rahimullah was there. He would have carefully dug the grave and tenderly tended her plot after the family and crowds departed.
Gayle William’s burial must have been one of the biggest ever to grace that famous green plot, excepting that of Aurel Stein.

The headstone of Aurel Stein's grave in Kabul

“ On a dry, dusty morning in late October 1943, a procession moved slowly along the road from the diplomatic quarter of Kabul to the Christian cemetery, on the eastern outskirts of the city. The route had been specially watered for the distinguished company, among who were representatives of the King of Afghanistan, and his Foreign Minister, the British, American and Iraqi Ministers, the Iranian Ambassador and the Soviet Charge d’Affaires…. Sir Aurel Stein, archaeologist, explorer and scholar had finally reached the country five weeks before his eighty-first birthday and several decades after first applying for permission to visit its ancient sites.” (from Aurel Stein - Pioneer of the Silk Route by Annabel Walker)

The rich dust of those infidels has fertilized a rare green space under Rahimullah’s care and he will lovingly care for them as long as he can.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Osama bin Laden 'liked a hug'

We all like a hug at times. So does Osama.

AAP | Wednesday, 22 October 2008

'WELL-LOVED': Osama bin Laden was polite and shy when he visited an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 2001, but was always warmly received, an Australian who was there says.

It wasn't until explosions and bullets erupted, heralding the arrival of Osama bin Laden into the mountain camp, that something clicked.

Jack Thomas, by his own admission, realised then he was not just at any old military camp in Afghanistan, but an al-Qaeda camp.

There was a festive atmosphere when bin Laden visited, which he did on three occasions during 2001 when the 35-year-old Melbourne man was at the camp.

Rocket-propelled grenades were launched into the side of mountains, explosions and anti-aircraft fire clouded the air, bullets were fired.

And Thomas got close enough to bin Laden to observe the al-Qaeda leader was polite and shy, didn't mind a hug, but wasn't so fond of kissing.

"He was definitely well loved," Thomas said of Bin laden in an interview with Australian TV network ABC which was played in court last week.

"(He) was very polite and humble and shy.

"He didn't like too many kisses. He didn't mind being hugged, but kisses he didn't like."

Thomas said bin Laden "seemed to float across the floor".

The former Melbourne taxi driver revealed the insights into the goings-on at the al-Farouk camp, an al-Qaeda training base in Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks, in two interviews for the ABC current affairs programme Four Corners in 2005.

The raw footage in which Thomas is interviewed by ABC journalist Sally Neighbour was played to a jury in the Victorian Supreme Court last week.

Thomas, from Werribee, is standing trial for receiving funds from al-Qaeda and possessing a falsified passport.

He has pleaded not guilty to both charges.

In the interview, the Muslim convert told Ms Neighbour that at the camp he felt "like a king, Robin Hood, as part of a band of merry men".

The court also heard from Fairfax Media journalist Ian Munro, who interviewed Thomas in 2006 for an article published in February of that year, called Islam's Warrior.

Thomas told Mr Munro he went to Afghanistan in March 2001 because he wanted to help bring about peace in the country and aid in the creation of a Muslim state.

At the time, Afghanistan was in the throes of a civil war between the governing Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

Thomas intended to go to a Kurdish camp to train to fight on the frontline, but told Mr Munro he was redirected to al-Farouk.

Thomas admitted to Ms Neighbour he didn't know the camp he ended up at was operated by al-Qaeda.

"(I) later found out the camp to be an al-Qaeda camp," he said in the ABC interview.

Asked if he knew it was one of bin Laden's camps, Thomas replied: "At the start, no, not until he arrived on the first occasion."

The third time bin Laden visited, Thomas said the al-Qaeda leader told the camp "something big was going to happen".

At the time, the camp trainees were evacuated to the mountains every night and there was a fear the "something big" was an attack on Afghanistan, Thomas said.

Asked by Ms Neighbour whether he thought bin Laden's reference to "something big" was to September 11, Thomas responded: "In hindsight."

Thomas said when he learnt about the attacks on New York's World Trade centre buildings on the BBC he felt shock and disbelief.

He escaped into Pakistan after the attacks and it was during his time there that the prosecution alleges Thomas accepted US$3,500 ($A5,000) cash and a plane ticket home to Sydney from al-Qaeda operative, Khaled bin Attash.

But Thomas' defence counsel Jim Kennan SC argued there was no proof bin Attash was a member of al-Qaeda.

The court heard in the weeks before Thomas attempted to leave Karachi in January 2003, bin Attash approached him with a message from bin Laden, who wanted an Australian to work for him.

Thomas said bin Attash commented that Australia needed an attack like those in Tanzania and Kenya, referring to attacks on embassies in those east African countries, and he could provide US$10,000 (NZ$16,400) to anyone willing to carry out a similar operation.

Thomas told both Neighbour and Munro that the money and plane ticket given to him was organised by Pakistanis sympathetic to the Taliban.

He said bin Attash "hijacked" the situation, claiming he had organised the money and ticket.

As Thomas planned his return to Australia, he had a Taliban visa in his passport substituted with a Pakistan visa, because, he told Mr Munro, he felt a Taliban visa was a "one way ticket to Guantanamo Bay".

But the ploy failed and when he was arrested as he tried to leave Karachi airport in January 2003, his fears of being detained were realised.

He was held in Pakistan for almost six months and mistreated, including being hooded, handcuffed and chained to the bars of a "doghouse-like cell", Mr Kennan told the court.

Thomas told Ms Neighbour he was strangled, suffocated, refused water and threatened with execution by Pakistanis while American officials were present.

Ms Neighbour told the court under cross-examination that Thomas became extremely agitated, anxious and emotional when talking about these events, and the pair had agreed to cover them in a second interview.

Thomas was a picture of all of those emotions as he sat in the court dock, watching the footage of himself from three years ago.

The onscreen image was a slimmer, healthier version of Thomas than the figure in the dock.

During the trial, the neat beard present in the interview had gone, Thomas appeared several kilos heavier, with bags under eyes and his forehead creased into a worried frown.

He often sat with his head or his chin resting in his hands and regularly wrote notes delivered with earnest to his solicitor.

The frown lifted only when Thomas' wife or friends walked past the dock, prompting a smile and mouthed greeting.

Both the prosecution and defence agree Thomas did not intend to use the accepted funds for a terrorist act, he was simply desperate to get back to Australia.

Regardless, he stands accused of the offence of receiving funds from a terrorist organisation, al-Qaeda, and the jury will shortly decide whether or not he is guilty.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Karzai's brother 'met ex-Taleban'

The Afghan president's brother sat with former Taleban leaders at a religious meal hosted by the Saudi King Abdullah last month, the BBC has learnt.

The meeting is regarded as a possible prelude to talks between the Afghan government and the Islamic movement.

Reports suggest negotiations took place during this meeting, although this has been strongly denied by both sides.

Recently, British and US officials said a resolution to the conflict would require negotiations with the Taleban.

'No formal talks'

Last month the king of Saudi Arabia played host to an extraordinary cast of political players during a religious meal.

The BBC understands that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's older brother, Qayum Karzai, was in attendance, as well as former Taleban leaders.

Also present was the former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and a delegation of at least 15 Afghans.

In addition, men representing every political movement in Afghanistan "at some point or another" were at the meal, the Taleban's former ambassdor to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was also present, told the BBC.

He said that there was an eagerness in the room to find a solution to end the violence in Afghanistan but denied that any "formal talks" had taken place.

For their part, both the Afghan government and the Taleban have also flatly denied that there were any negotiations.

But while it is not clear what was discussed in Saudi Arabia, the meeting of leaders and politicians appears to be far more than a coincidence.

In the past, Saudi Arabia has acted as a broker between the Taleban and other parties. It was one of only three countries (Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates were the others) to recognise the Taleban government in the mid-1990s.

The presence of the former Mr Sharif could also be significant. Mr Sharif played a significant role in brokering a deal between various warring mujahideen factions in Afghanistan during the early 1990s.

'Political means'

In recent days, in Kabul and in Western capitals, there appears to be an emphasis on pushing for negotiations with the Taleban.

On Sunday, there was a flurry of interest after the UK's most senior military official in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, said that there could be no military solution to the conflict.

Then the UN special envoy, Kai Eide, weighed in on Monday, saying: "If you want to have relevant results, you must speak to those who are relevant."

And finally, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday that the only way to win the war was "through political means".

But any negotiations with the Taleban will be fraught with difficulties - it's not clear whether the movement even wants talks.

The Taleban's senior leader Mullah Omar, in his traditional end of Ramadan message, made no indication that he was willing to speak to the Afghan government, instead, insisting that foreign troops leave the country.

There's also doubt about what role Saudi Arabia could play.

Some analysts say that the Saudis are still furious after Mullah Omar reversed his decision in 1998 to hand over Osama Bin Laden to Prince Turki al Faisal, the former Saudi head of intelligence. Mullah Omar then also insulted the Saudi kingdom and its rulers.

Whatever is happening there appears to be momentum - but nobody seems to know in what direction that will take Afghanistan.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Crossing Over, for Life - Indian Express

Crossing Over, For Life", Indian Express (12 March 2003).

Pallavi Srivastava

New Delhi, March 11: I attract stray people and stray dogs,’’ quips Bob McKerrow, over the noise made by a pack of dogs outside his Vasant Vihar house. The head of the regional delegation, South Asia, for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is talking about the 25 years he has spent in the subcontinent. And about Mountains of our Minds (India Research Press; Rs 895), his book on Afghanistan that has just been released by former President K.R. Narayanan.

McKerrow, who hails from New Zealand, came to the subcontinent as a 23-year-old Red Cross volunteer to deal with the issue of refugee resettlement when Bangladesh was formed. Since he has an academic background in seismology, McKerrow specialises in earthquake and disaster management for the Federation. His book contains verses that he wrote during his two stints in Afghanistan, in 1976 and then in 1993-96. The book starts with this verse: We live in the street of death / We die in the street of life / This is Afghanistan.

The poems are accompanied by photographs, which have also been taken by the author. While each picture lends graphic details to his words, it also has a tale to tell. The poem titled Child is accompanied by the photograph of a wounded little one, his face bruised and his sweater soaked in blood. The lines are: Dead child I see you there / Blown apart—I stare, / Why was it you and not me? / At least now you are free. The deaths and injuries he has seen as a Red Cross worker seem to have toughened McKerrow. He talks about blown-up limbs, child amputees and dead bodies, even as he reaches out to grab a plastic ball thrown in our direction by his toddler son. But a poignancy never leaves his eyes. Being with mountains, and dreaming about them is his way of coping with the internal conflict. ‘‘People take vacations in Thailand, etc. I take mine in Ladakh or the Hindukush,’’ he says.

Though McKerrow feels at home in India, New Zealand remains close to his heart. ‘‘With any other country, I’d support India in a cricket match. But opposite New Zealand, there is no question about which side I’d cheer for,’’ he chuckles. He isn’t, however, excited about the visit he is making to Kabul this week with a bag full of copies of his book. ‘‘I know I will be disappointed,’’ he says. And as if reading the disbelief on your face, he adds: ‘‘Afghanistan would have sorted itself out without any outside influence.’’ He will spend a month there, before returning to Delhi. Then he will work on his next book, on Afghanistan’s history. ‘‘I will pretend to be the Hindukush range. I will write about how people have come and trampled over me for centuries.’’ The poignancy is still there in his eyes.