Afghanistan's 'graveyard of foreigners'
- 9 June 2012
- From the section Magazine
Few countries in the world have been invaded as often, and by so many other nations, as Afghanistan, where many soldiers and civilians of various nationalities are buried in Kabul's Kabre Gora, or "graveyard of foreigners".
There is an odd kink in Martyrs Road in the Sherpur district of Kabul. It forces the traffic - from cyclists to rattling yellow taxis - to slow down suddenly, in what looks almost like a mark of respect.
But no-one looks up at the weathered metal sign on the wall on the bend which reads "British Cemetery".
It is a high wall. From outside you cannot see in and, once inside, it muffles the sounds of Kabul.
When you pass through the wooden gates into the small, tree-lined graveyard you have a feeling of entering another world - and another era.
The cemetery was created in the 19th Century, during Britain's past wars in Afghanistan.
Some 160 soldiers from that period are thought to be buried here, although that is just a small fraction of the casualties from successive battles fought to keep Kabul in British hands.
They first took the city in 1839 with little trouble.
It was a straight land-grab to stop Russia getting in first. But an Afghan uprising soon began and, two years later, the British were forced out in a now well-chronicled disaster.
Nearly the entire Kabul garrison of 16,000 British and Indian troops, their families and servants, were slaughtered by Afghan forces as they tried to retreat.
British troops marched back in the same year, razing much of Kabul to the ground in revenge.
But they tried to learn their lesson - that while invading may be relatively simple, occupying Afghanistan was impossibly costly - and initially they adopted a hands-off approach from their bastions in British India.
Yet three and a half decades later, they were invading again and the second British-Afghan war was under way.
Most of the soldiers buried here are from that time, and the remains of their original headstones are now set into the southern wall, shaded by nearby trees.
Glass-covered displays record their stories.
There was Lieutenant John Hearsey, of the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers, shot through the heart in December 1879. There is also a mass grave for dozens of unnamed infantrymen from the 67th Foot Regiment, mown down by Afghan fire as they tried to storm a strategic hill.
The British did retake Kabul but the war lasted several more years and they were back again in 1919, before London finally decided Afghanistan was just too much trouble. Britain signed a treaty accepting its empire would never stretch beyond the Khyber Pass and granting the Afghans their independence.
At the other end of the cemetery's southern wall, there are 10 newer marble plaques.
They bear the names of scores of service men and women who have given their lives in the fourth British war in Afghanistan - the current one. And 10 plaques, it seems, are not enough.
Many of those who have died since the US-led invasion in 2001 have yet to be recorded here.
But it is perhaps more appropriate to use the Afghan name for this place - Kabre Gora or graveyard of foreigners. There are ad-hoc memorials here for soldiers from the US, Germany, Italy and many other nations of the Nato alliance who have sent forces.
But it is not just a military cemetery. I have come here with Norine Macdonald, an enterprising Canadian researcher and lawyer, who is helping the British embassy to look after the graveyard (prompted by the burial here of a friend, an American eye doctor shot dead in 2001).
On my last visit several years ago, the graveyard looked very neglected but now the flower beds are well-tended.
New wooden benches have been brought in and this peaceful garden of graves has become a symbol of Afghanistan's extraordinary history of conquest, superpower intrigue and strategic value.
From Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, to the empires of the Mughals, the British and the Soviets - and now the many nations of the US-led coalition - few countries have been invaded so many times by so many others.
And there are also aid workers, journalists and even hippies from the 1960s interred here.
Norine shows me the graveyard's best known residents - Sir Aurel Stein, a British-Hungarian archaeologist, and Henning Christensen, a famous Danish explorer, who both died here in the 1940s.
We pass another grave with Russian script, although it is not someone linked with the Soviet invasion. It turns out to be a Cossack who fled here in the aftermath of Russia's 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
Eventually, I open the wooden gates and step back into 21st Century Kabul.
As I walk away, I pass a convoy of heavily-armoured American vehicles, wheezing their way through gridlocked traffic.
Afghanistan's latest invaders may be tiring now, but few Afghans believe they will be the last to step on their soil.
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