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Keepers of British war graves pay the price

Keepers of British war graves pay the price

Author: Sandra Laville
Publication: The Daily Telegraph, UK
Date: November 8, 2001

Introduction: 'The shouted we were Muslims protecting a Christian graveyard'

For more than 100 years the Bakhush family has tended the graves of British soldiers, guarding the resting places of the men who died in the second Afghan war, and welcoming relatives of those who were killed defending an outpost of the Empire.

At 9 o'clock yesterday morning they paid the price. In a vicious attack at the cemetery on the outskirts of Quetta, in south-west Pakistan, Rasoul Bakhush, 78, was beaten with sticks, his son Afzal was left fighting for his life and his daughter-in-law was kidnapped by a group of pro-Taliban extremists.

His hands shaking, Mr Bakhush, a Muslim, wept as he described how 10 men had arrived at his home next to the cemetery gates asking to be let in.

"I thought they were coming for a funeral," he said. "So I opened the doors, but they jumped on me and beat me with sticks.

"They were shouting that we were Muslims protecting a Christian graveyard. I had no weapons, nothing to protect myself."

His 25-year-old son Afzul came to his aid. But the young man sustained serious head injuries when the men beat him and kicked him, leaving a trail of blood at the cemetery gates.

"I was helpless. They were hitting and kicking him," the elderly man said. With Afzul unconscious on the ground the men snatched his wife, jumped into their pick-up truck and drove away.

Police were called but by last night there was no word of her whereabouts.

"Nothing like this has ever happened before," said Mr Bakhush, who was born in the small house next to the cemetery. His grandfather knew Sir Robert Sandeman, the British administrator who established a permanent settlement in Quetta in a series of treaties in the 1870s.

"Our family has been here since the 19th century. We worked for the British, we dug their graves, we helped to bury them. I was born under British rule. Things were a lot better then; there was more justice. Now we are attacked. We are just peaceful Muslims doing the job we have always done. We have played no part in what is happening in Afghanistan but we are suffering for this."

A month ago, Mr Bakhush had been forced to hide inside his house when demonstrators broke into the cemetery after Friday prayers and demolished several of the colonial graves. Since then, police and troops have been guarding the cemetery each Friday after prayers.

Other attacks by Taliban sympathisers in protests at the American-led bombardment of Afghanistan have been deadly.

Ten days ago, 15 Christians were killed at a church service in Bahawalpur in the Punjab by five gunmen, and on Monday night a Christian guard was shot and killed in an attack on Quetta airport.

Despite several threats to his family, Mr Bakhush had tried his best to continue his work. In the past few days he repaired the damage to the graves of some 15 British soldiers after the pro-Taliban demonstration on Oct 8. Smashed crosses have been cemented together and paint splashed over the tombs has been washed off.

"I wanted to repair the damage done because my family has always worked for the British," he said. "We were looked after under their rule and it made me sad to see these gravestones broken, so I did my best with what I had to put it right."

As he waited for news of his son, who was unconscious in the Sandeman Hospital, Mr Bakhush changed out of his bloodstained clothes to complete repairs on the British graves, determined to restore their dignity.

"We are scared, but these people will not drive us out," he said.
 


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