Belgium was caught in the middle of some of the bloodiest fighting of WWI and its countryside, towns and villages were ripped apart by millions of high-explosive shells.
More than 60 million soldiers served between 1914 and 1918 – including 500 Cook Islanders – and an estimated 11 million were killed and a further 24 million wounded.
One Cook Islander died on the bloody Western Front - Private Kiro Luke Adam Manuela - and his body rests there today at the New Irish Farm Cemetery in Ypres.
Directly around him lie the well-kept headstones of almost 5000 Commonwealth soldiers who perished in Flanders’ fields of slaughter.
Then, rippling out in the area that surrounds Manuela’s cemetery, there are more than 600,000 graves of other soldiers who were killed in action, or died from their wounds or disease.
Amid such military carnage, one man’s tragic death has led to the forging of new bonds of comradeship from very different peoples half the world away from each other.
Private Manuela was born in 1893 and was living in Auckland and working as a gardener when he enlisted in the New Zealand Army. When he was killed in action on October 7, 1917, Manuela was serving with the NZ Pioneer Battalion.
He is the only Cook Islander buried in Belgium and his story gained prominence when the Cook Islands was invited to participate in the Empty Chairs exhibition in Ypres’ In Flanders Fields Museum.
The museum wanted to display one chair from every country that had lost men during World War I and sent out a request to Rarotonga for something appropriate.
Isaac Solomona, who is the former Editor of Debates at the Cook Islands Parliament, was instrumental in sending an atamira to be part of the Empty Chairs exhibition.
International couriers DHL had offered free pick-up and shipping from the Cook Islands Parliament to the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres and soon the traditional chair of chiefs was winging its way to Belgium.
Accompanying the atamira was a garland ei.
“Someone suggested we add the ei as it is based on the tradition of us putting ei on family who went to war,” Solomona said.
“There was a culture where they put it on the men and when the ship sails away the men drop the eis on to the ocean. If it floats back to shore that means you are coming home. If it floats by the current somewhere else – you were not coming back.
“It connects with the chair, which is empty, signifying that some men never came back.”
Recently another ripple of connectivity reached the shores of Rarotonga from Belgium in the form of gifts sent to the family of Private Manuela.
One such gift was a small clay figure – one of 600,000 made to represent each man who died during five epic battles between the Allies and Germany. The art installation project was called Coming World Remember Me and spread out over three hectares.
The figure was given to the National Museum and will take pride of place among its ANZAC collection.
Members of Manuela’s family were given beautifully made small wooden boxes by Jan Fieuw, the person who makes and donated the “A Message in a Poppy”.
Inside the poppy boxes were Manuela’s details and a metal poppy cast out of melted down shrapnel from the area of the battlefield where he is believed to have fallen.
Solomona donated his box and metal poppy to the museum.
At the gift presentation there was a video shown of the memorial ceremony held last year at the graveside of Private Manuela.
It was led by Marijke Vandevyvere who read a moving letter to Private Manuela.
The atamira and ei were by the grave, continuing the ripples of love and friendship across the waters.