The battered sign high on the rough stone wall says “British Cemetery”. Step through the heavy wooden doors to a subdued world of unkempt lawns and ragged roses and you might almost be in a graveyard back home. All that’s missing is a tumbledown Anglican church.
But wander for a moment through the headstones – some rough-hewn from boulders, others with careful engravings – and the local name Kabre Gora, or Graveyard of Foreigners, seems more fitting. Many mark the graves of European and American adventurers, civil servants and missionaries who died far from home. Amid the tranquility it also offers lessons on the meaning of sacrifice and service.
It was created by and for the British, during their disastrous run of 19th Century adventures in Afghanistan. The first bodies buried are thought to be those of 150 soldiers who died during the First Anglo-Afghan war of 1839-40. About 10 of their gravestones are left, now set into the southern wall.
Memorials for the soldiers who helped oust the Taliban – and keep them out – cover the high walls. British, New Zealand, Australian, German and more.
But it is not just a military cemetery. The majority of the gravestones scattered through the grass belong to missionaries, the carved crosses, religious ranks or Biblical passages hinting at a life spent in service give them away. There are the aid workers, such as Bettina Goislard (1974-2003) who worked for the UNHCR. There is an American engineer, Frederick Newgard (1908-1946) and Charles Clarke (1910-1955), who died working for the International Civil Aviation Organisation. (Some are pictured at the Friends of British Cemetery website.)
Some of them may have made this country their home. Others may have been passing through. Almost all of them, in their different ways, thought they were contributing to a better world.
Next year our combat troops will end their combat missions and return home. Afghanistan will in some ways be left to fend for itself. We will help train officers for their army, a story about which I wrote this week, and of course many of the aid worker and UN officials will stay.
But ours seems to be a world increasingly turning inwards, away from dangerous or difficult tasks. The decision not to intervene in Syria, for example, seemed to be based on a simple unwillingness not to get involved (although, as I’ve said elsewhere – there were good reasons not to intervene now, but we should be ready at a later date) – a poor reason to be sure. Our politicians are desperate to cut and run from Afghanistan. Every hurried “peace process” or Number 10 summit seems little more than a fig leave, an opportunity to say: Well we tried, we’ve done our bit, now where’s the exit.
The world is a difficult and dangerous place. Those who find a moment of quiet contemplation in the British Cemetery can see the costs all around. But it is also a humbling reminder of an age of openness and optimism, a sense that we could make a difference and indeed had a duty to try. And we owe it to the men and women buried or commemorated in the British Cemetery not to forget Afghanistan in the future.