Signs detail cemetery’s long history

Friday February 02, 2018 Written by Published in Local
Walker (second left) with (from left) her husband Paul, Australian Lynne Keath and family, and other members and supporters of the Nikao Cemetery Restoration Project, including Liam Kokaua (far right) and Paula Paniani (kneeling at front). 18013122 Walker (second left) with (from left) her husband Paul, Australian Lynne Keath and family, and other members and supporters of the Nikao Cemetery Restoration Project, including Liam Kokaua (far right) and Paula Paniani (kneeling at front). 18013122

‘For the struggle and terrible pain that stopped your wandering steps in this distant place, for the longing and grief that remained in the hearts of your beloved parents, sisters and brothers.’

 

So reads the English translation on the grave of Romanian-born Australian Aurel Onigas, one of the 65 ill-fated patients of cancer quack Milan Brych buried opposite the airport in Rarotonga’s Nikao Cemetery.

Onigas’s grave had a new headstone unveiled yesterday, thanks largely to the efforts of Australian Cate Walker, whose mother Gloria is also buried at Nikao, another victim of Brych’s deception.

Two new signs detailing some of the history of Nikao Cemetery were also unveiled, one outlining the sordid saga of Brych and the dozens of terminal cancer patients who followed him here to the Cook Islands in the late 1970s.

The other explains how Nikao Cemetery is the resting place of “the largest group of Cook Islands WWI New Zealand Expeditionary Force Anzacs buried in any cemetery or burial ground in the Cook Islands”.

Around 500 Cook Islanders volunteered to join the New Zealand military during World War One. Many of those later interred at Nikao were from the outer islands and had no family land on which to be buried.

As Paula Paniani from the Cook Islands National Archives said of Nikao, “There is a lot of history in this cemetery. It could be the good and the bad and the ugly, but hey,  it’s history”.

Paniani is a key member of the Nikao Cemetery Restoration Project, a group spearheaded by Cate Walker, who has been a frequent visitor to Rarotonga and the cemetery after reading a newspaper article about graves being washed out to sea 20 years ago.

Since then Walker has made it her mission to see the cemetery restored and over the past 18 months especially, she and other volunteers have battled to clear overgrown graves and salvage crumbling headstones.

“This project has become my whole life basically,” said Walker yesterday.

“I call my husband a cemetery widow, because I just spend so much time on this. But it’s something that I started, and I believe that I have to see it through to the end.

“I have never considered the Nikao Cemetery restoration project as my project,” she added. “I see it instead as a community project, of which I hope the local community will take ownership. Our work within the Nikao Cemetery is ongoing and we need local volunteers to continue beautifying this site.”

Local man Liam Kokaua, who has family connections to Nikao and earlier this week attended a working bee at the cemetery, read out a eulogy at the unveiling for Onigas, written (and translated) by Onigas’s niece Maria in Romania.

He described a man beloved by his family, who escaped Communist-ruled Romania after World War II and eventually made his way to Australia by way of Serbia and Italy.

Also present at the unveiling ceremony yesterday was Australian Lynne Keath, whose father Basil was another cancer patient lured to Rarotonga by Brych, only to die just nine days after arriving.

The unveiling happened to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Basil’s death. “I’ve been wanting to come here for 40 years,” said Keath, who thanks to Walker, was only recently made aware of exactly where her father was buried. Previously she knew only that he was somewhere on Rarotonga.

“If I had come over even just five years ago I wouldn’t have found him,” said Keath. “And I wouldn’t have known anybody to get in contact with, so it would have been just, ‘I wonder which one it is?’

So it was by fate that I was able to come this year.”

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