Bringing home Maori war dead 'impossible'

By Paul Harper

NZ War Grave in Benghazi, Libya. Photo / Supplied
NZ War Grave in Benghazi, Libya. Photo / Supplied

Repatriating the remains of Maori soldiers who were killed in the two World Wars would be "nigh on impossible", the chief executive of the RSA says.

His comments come after Ngapuhi leader David Rankin called for the bodies of Maori war dead buried overseas to be brought back to New Zealand, in the wake of the attack on graves in Libya.

The gravestones of all 11 New Zealand soldiers buried at the Benghazi War Cemetery and at the Benghazi British Military Cemetery were among 200 World War Two graves desecrated earlier this month.

Mr Rankin, who lectures on Maori culture, said leaving the body of a warrior in a foreign territory was a source of shame for an iwi.

"For too long we have ignored our toa (warriors). Their spirits are crying out to be returned home, and we need to act on that before further desecration occurs."

"For seventy years, we have had the RSA, which is a Pakeha organisation, dictating to us where the bodies of our ancestors should lie.

They want them in foreign cemeteries, but our tikanga says that the bodies must always be returned home."

RSA chief executive Stephen Clarke said the suggestion of repatriation has come up before but said it would be "nigh on impossible".

"It has never been the RSA dictating the policy, and we resent the suggestion that it is a Pakeha organisation. It's made up of both Pakeha and Maori and that has been very important part of our history right back to 1916. Just as they served together they came together when they returned.

Mr Clarke said the New Zealand Government has a commitment to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission that the men and women will remain in the countries where they fell.

"From the RSA perspective, we believe the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does a wonderful job. Those graves and cemeteries are very special places and very dignified, and when New Zealanders go over to pay their respects they always comment on what a wonderful resting place it is for our service personnel."

"The sense of going over there and seeing how well looked after those graves are, and that they lay side by side with their comrades, whether they were Maori or Pakeha, provides a sense of comfort."

Mr Rankin said it should be up to the descendents of fallen soldiers to decide whether they should be repatriated, but "every Maori knows these rules".

"If Maori want to leave their dead there, so be it."

Mr Rankin did not know how many Maori soldiers were buried overseas, but said it would cost "millions".

"We don't want taxpayers money, we want as Maori ourselves to actually fund it and bring them home.

"It would cost millions, but actually as Maori we do have the money."

Mr Rankin offered to put up $50,000 to start a fund to have the bodies of Maori soldiers buried overseas repatriated.

"If we can pay $100,000s of taxpayers' dollars on having shrunken heads returned, then it is fair enough that Maori come up with the money to have our ancestors repatriated.
"We have family cemeteries where I come from and we have stones in these cemeteries, these are stones which actually have no one underneath them.

"We want them home to put them under those stones."

With unrest throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Mr Rankin said further attacks will occur in the future.

"I had no problem until they started smashing up these stones and desecrating these sites. Before that they were looked after well.

"By leaving our Maori warriors, even our Pakeha soldiers - they also gave the ultimate sacrifice, and letting these creeps, these crazed Arabs smash these stones and call them pigs and dogs is actually an offence to our country."

"Why are we leaving our dead in places where they can be attacked?"

Mr Clark said a similar attack could happen again in the region, but at this stage is a one off.

"Desecration has happened at different places at different times, including Europe, and every now and then we get a desecration of war memorials here. They are usually isolated, and where we find comfort is the damage and the desecration is put right by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission."

"We are sure the recent desecration of the graves will be put right by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as soon as they are able to do that."

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