Mareto Tima was a planter, born and brought up on Aitutaki. He gave his age as 26 years when he enlisted in the army as a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
It was drawing towards the end of World War I; perhaps it seemed a grand adventure as it did for some young men; perhaps a terrifying duty as it did for others.
Mareto was in good health when he joined up in June 1918; he was given a certificate in lieu of discharge a year later.
It must have been a profound job to leave the army just as winter began to bite in New Zealand a year later, and to return home to the Cook Islands.
But two months later on August 10, 1919 – just two months after he was discharged from the army –he was dead. He thought he had finished with the war, but the war hadn’t finished with him.
Mareto Tima’s cause of death was later listed as tuberculosis – spread through the armies of the Empire from the trenches of the Western Front, the training depots of Suez, back to the enlistment camps of the colonies, and eventually sneaking home with him deep in his lungs.
Tima was last month named as one of six Cook Islands men to be included on the New Zealand and Commonwealth Rolls of Honour, joining an estimated 10 million soldiers from 150 nations and dependencies to die as a result of his war service.
His body has lain for 100 years in a grave by the Cook Islands Christian Church in Titakaveka. The New Zealand Ministry of Culture and Heritage has announced it will inspect, upgrade and maintain his grave in perpetuity, as one of six Commonwealth War Graves in the Cook Islands.
No photo remains of Mareto Tima – little but his army records, his headstone, and a few memories handed down. His niece, Reina Ngatia Hanchard Koteka, 82, is so grateful to find out that her uncle has been honoured and their family can remember him for his sacrifice.
Even his grave had lain forgotten for many years. The surface had cracked over time, as a lemon tree and a lime tree spread their roots beneath it.
In the last little while, though, the family of Mareto have been able to learn more about him and the grave has been cleared of weeds.
When Reina was young she used to play near Mareto Tima’s grave and used to ask her father about him.
“My father told me my uncle was a very humble man,” she says.
Mareto was the eldest of six siblings. He had two brothers, Metuatini and Vaka Tomo, and three sisters, Teetu, Ta and Miimetua.
He would have planted taro and bananas back in Aitutaki, Hanchard Koteka believes, and she is interested to find out more about him to see if he has any descendants.
Because unlike others who were still in their teens, Mareto was in his late 20s when he died. As a young man, he had married Vainetutai Tima. When he died, she was left a widow.
Reina’s father is Vaka Tomo Tima, who was Mareto’s younger brother. “It has been a blessing from God that Mareto has finally been honoured,” she says.
Cook Islands Chief Archivist Paula Paniani, researcher Cate Walker and her husband Paul Morrissey are in Aitutaki this week searching for the marked and unmarked graves of Cook Islands’ war veterans.
On their first day on the island, they found 10 WWI soldier’s graves. They found another 14 the following day, as they draw closer to finding the 55 WWI graves believe to be on the island.
Walker says they have spoken with many local community members, who have given them a great deal of information.
This week, they located the headstone of Private Tearii Taria, one of the six men named last month for inclusion on the Roll of Honour. His headstone is in the village of Aratea.
His grave was located in an area previously used for burials, but in 1967 this area was reclaimed to be used for agriculture or roads.
Fortunately for the team, a woman saved Taria’s headstone from among other military memorials. She knew its historic value and built a beautiful memorial in her front yard.
Nearly 500 Cook Islanders served in World War I. Some died and are buried among the poppyfields of France and Belgium. Some returned to die and be buried in Australia or New Zealand. Most came home – but the war came back with them.
Even if the injuries and illnesses of the war did not kill them directly, as they did Mareto Tima and Tearii Taria, most were scarred. That much is well documented by historians and by their descendants who saw the trauma their fathers and grandfathers carried to their graves.
There are other names that may yet be added to the list of war dead and included on the Roll of Honour: privates Aruake Tuaine, Akatea Aiaia, Mate Paora and Tom Tupu all died before 1921 from injuries and illness that may have been carried home from the war. Theirs are stories for another day.
For now, the urgency is to find the graves of all Cook Islands’ war dead before they are forever lost beneath the spreading ground shrubs, and broken apart by the roots of the lemon and lime trees.
Walker says: “The most valuable members of every community are the elderly members, and we ask that the younger generation ask their mamas and papas if they know of any WWI soldiers buried on their land so this important history can be documented and preserved for future generations.”