The High Commission donated two brush-cutters and safety equipment for keeping the grounds in order, while police officers will take part in a monthly clean-up roster at the site. One of the key members of the Nikao Cemetery restoration Project, Paula Paniani, told an official handover of the equipment at the RSA ceremony yesterday morning that she was thrilled with the police joining in.
“It’s a burden off our shoulders,” she said. “I’m rapt.”
The small band of volunteers, led by Paniani, Australian Cate Walker and Bobby Nicholas, has spent the past 18 months cleaning up the old cemetery, which had been allowed to be overrun by plants.
During the work the graves of more World War I soldiers were uncovered taking the total at the site to 19.
Paniani said there were likely to be more and that’s why the cemetery was of such important historical significance.
“Today is a special day, because we have concrete help from the New Zealand High Commission and the police. Thank you all.
“By maintaining the cemetery our Nikao residents will get the respect they deserve.
“These men fought for our freedom between 1914 and 1918. Then there are the 74 cancer patients who came here hoping for a cure.
“Love and thank you to the volunteers and sponsors. It was you all who turned this place into a beautiful place. Your restoration work has motivated others to come aboard.”
High Commissioner Peter Marshall said New Zealand was indebted to those Cook Islands soldiers who served in World War One.
“Those 500 went off to Europe and suffered greatly there. A large number went through to Egypt. A number died while away from the Cook Islands and are buried in New Zealand and Australia.
“The largest group buried anywhere in the world is a few metres from where we are standing today.
“New Zealand worked very hard to have the carvings and poupous in place as well as the sculpture based on the conch shell from Arras, where a Cook Islands group was tunneling.
“Mike Tavioni and his colleagues prepared the poupous and sculpture. What a wonderful contribution to this area. Since they have been put in place there have been a large number of people from the airport or walking by, and they have taken a renewed interest in this cemetery. That will continue.
“We are also very conscious that there are a large number of Australian and New Zealand cancer sufferers buried a few metres from where we are. They came here looking for a doctor – Milan Brych, and looking for a cure. They found neither a doctor, nor a cure.
“And they had to be buried within 24 hours of passing away. We want to look after those graves - it being the right thing to do … no question about that.”
Marshall paid tribute to the volunteers who had given up “their time, energy and money to look after the cemetery.
“And particular reference needs to be made to Cate Walker, an Australian whose mother is buried in that cemetery. She founded the Nikao Cemetery Restoration team and she has laboured for two decades to get recognition for this cemetery.”
He said: “Cate with her energy and her husband Paul have garnered a lot of support and raised the awareness of it.
“It was obvious we needed some way to sustain the cemetery going forward.
“Cate, in particular, had not received satisfaction from certain government ministries within the Cook Islands. It’s not for me to comment on that, but there were all sorts of reasons.
“We needed a circuit-breaker … that was Police Commissioner Maara Tetava. I went along to him and said, ‘we have an issue here can you help?’ It took him about 30 seconds looking at the ceiling. And you could see his thoughts going around and he said, ‘absolutely, we can do that’.”
Tetava’s plan is to include the cemetery clean-up in the monthly station cleaning roster.
“It is the right thing for us to do. No doubt about it,” he said.
“I saw graves down there that are from returned service people – our own people. I got goosebumps there when I walked through.
“We haven’t done enough to help out and I applaud Paula, Cate and your people.
“We are here to support you. We will be here for the long haul.”
The commissioner added: “It is a privilege for us. We will probably get bagged in the media, but that doesn’t bother us.
“This is not police wasting their time, but police contributing to what needs to be done and it is the right thing.”