“Today the landscape of the Kingdom of Belgium features hundreds of cemeteries, each cemetery beholding the graves of hundreds and thousands of soldiers.
“I attended a number of cemeteries in search of any Cook Island soldier who may be buried on Belgian soil, and with the assistance of a Belgian war expert, we found the grave of Private Kiro Luke Adam, who died on the 7th of October 1917, and was buried at the New Irish Farm Cemetery.
“Born on June 1, 1893, Kiro was 24 when he died – so young. The inscription in the cemetery record reads: ‘Private Kiro was the step brother of Manual Luka of Tupapa - Avarua, Rarotonga’.
“There, we held a prayer service conducted in our Reo Maori by my official secretary to honour and share, in spirit, the ‘aroa’ of his beloved homeland, and to uplift his name in prayer for the human sacrifice he gave, to a foreign policy, for a foreign nation.
“We said prayers at all the other graves that we found of our fallen soldiers.
“With teary eyes we looked at the surroundings, and we were shown the battlefields within sight and vision from where we stood, from Kiro’s grave.
“The locations of all the cemeteries scattered around the landscape of Belgium also provided a vivid reminder of how it was most convenient to bury the thousands of fallen soldiers closest to the battlefield.
“And with this knowledge our imaginations wandered – the awkward conditions of the battlefield, the sight of rough terrain, all kept as they were then, the cold blitzing winter, and it was there that we really felt the sorrow and isolation Kiro would have experienced, from being far, far away from his homeland whilst obeying the instructions of his commanders on the battlefield.
“Kiro’s grave reference cites that ‘he was killed in action’. Such a short sentence, but powerful words that resonate deeply with history, and human emotions.
“Furthermore, I gained many more experiences from attending the invitation of the mayor of Arras in France to honour the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Arras, on a very, very cold morning of Sunday, April 9, in France last year. The Battle of Arras was a British attack against the German defences near the French city of Arras, from April 9 to May 16, 1917.
“We were taken through the underground bunkers where our very own soldiers – namely Private Angene Angene of Rarotonga, Private Solomona Issac of Aitutaki and Private Tau Kopungaiti of Mangaia – left behind evidence of the Cook Islands presence on foreign soil, such as the Lord’s Prayer (though in the Tahitian language), etched in a small corner of a rock structure in the underground bunker of Arras. (The Bible we used then was in the Tahitian language, as ours had not been translated yet.)
“We were extremely grateful to be in the company of close family members of our three soldiers on this special guided tour of the Arras Tunnels, including Issac Solomona, the grandson of Solomona Issac, and his wife, whom I believe are both present here this morning.
“Our very own Pa Marie Ariki and a group who travelled from New Zealand were also there with us for that special occasion.
“I was not only moved with this experience, but immediately felt the presence of our soldiers there on that very, very cold morning.
“I witnessed aspects of the remnants of our soldiers, who with their fellow comrades dug out those trenches with the might of human strength and courage. To the Solomona, Angene and Kopungaiti families, we salute you.
“I then extended to search for the grave of Private Apu Tepuretu, and found his place of burial at the Quarry Cemetery in the region of the Somme in France, with the inscription: ‘Private Apu Tepuretu, 19 years old son of Tepuretu and Miriama of Tupapa, Rarotonga, died in action’.
“The late Araitia Tepuretu, older brother of Apu, has told on occasion of when his brother’s head was half blown off and died in his arms.
“So, this morning, just take a special moment of silence, when the time comes, and reflect on that moment, if it were you, in Araitia’s place. To the Tepuretu families, we salute you.
“I also wish to share of what turned out to be a long but persistent search for the burial place of Private William Caffery.
“With our travelling expert, who was able to locate the cemetery, we drove for some length of time to another township of France named Longueval.
“Private William Caffery is buried at the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery amongst the unidentified soldiers memorial block, with his name listed amongst 3796 unidentified war casualties.
“Their memorial block is built alongside 5569 head stones of identified soldiers buried in the cemetery – 9365 graves in the one cemetery.
“On the record of the cemetery file, it reads: ‘Private William Caffery, killed in action on the 30th of September, 1916, the husband of Rongomate of Mangaia’. And so, to the Caffery and Rongomate families – we salute you.
“Finally, I witnessed the burial place of Private William Vavia, who died of wounds on the 1st of October 1916, son of Mr and Mrs Williams of Mauke, Makatea, Cook Islands. Private Vavia is buried in the Flatiron Copse Cemetery in the region of Bazentin, France.
“And so, to my dear people present at this morning’s parade, it was my greatest honour, not only to attend an official invitation to represent our country at these commemorations in Belgium and France, but I was very keen and determined to search and visit the graves of our very own fallen soldiers in the short time we had in these two European countries.
“The experiences were deeply moving and will always remain with me, as I stand to commemorate their service and pass on my tribute to those families left behind.”