Data: 23-07-2004Autore: VALENTINO MATTEIListe: ARTICLES IN ENGLISHCategorie: CronacheTag: #today, manifestazioni, maori, nuova-zelanda


The 20th May 2004 began like any other typical early summer day: hot and humid. In the early afternoon the New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, arrived at the Commonwealth Cemetery at Cassino to remember those who died in those tragic days of 1944. Among the many fallen there were also the men of the 28th Maori Battalion, so many of whom sacrificed their lives fighting till exhaustion in the battle to occupy the railway station and the town of Cassino.

And so the memorial ceremony began, a solemn yet simple service in memory of the fallen men from New Zealand, attended by the returned veterans, relatives of soldiers, and the New Zealand official representatives who mixed freely as individuals among the crowd.
This may seem an unimportant detail, but it contributed to making the occasion more reverent and intimate, with attention focused solely on the memory of those who were there in 1944 and who now, dead or alive, are still present in spirit: this was their day!

All the ceremonies in remembrance of the fallen New Zealanders included the participation of a Maori culture group who were a constant presence and support at the memorial proceedings. They performed their traditional rituals aimed initially to purify their “areas”, then to protect their “people” and finally to remember and commemorate their fallen.
The ceremony at the British Commonwealth Cemetery included many different participants in the religious service, at the conclusion of which, as for all the other ceremonies, the people attending moved around the graves in the cemetery.
Some were looking for a grandfather, a father, an uncle, some for a commanding officer, while others sought their mate and friend of many adventures, who perhaps died in action following a bomb blast when only luck decided that they themselves wouldn’t be there too, buried alongside their “brother in arms”.

Only four veterans of the 28th Maori Battalion have returned to Cassino this day. These four I watch, slowly and sorrowfully seeking the graves of their “brothers”, sadness written on their faces wet with tears. Their expressions are a clear indication of the terrible things which these old veterans had lived through and endured. Even today, 60 years later, they carry the marks and wear the pain of the wounds that will never heal.
While everyone looks around the graves, including the Prime Minister alone and with no escort, standing in a complete silence next to a grave, some veterans, relatives, and young people begin to gather. One of the four Maori veterans, back in Cassino for the first time after 60 years, together with the niece of the fallen soldier, has found the grave of his friend. There is a strange feeling, almost mystical; one can sense the emotion. In that suspended moment a Maori ritual starts, similar to the one we are used to seeing on TV when the New Zealand rugby team takes to the field. One by one everyone is getting closer: the Italians watch intrigued, whereas the New Zealanders present join in. The elderly are performing karakia (prayers) and moving with some steps of the ritual action chant, called a “Haka”; the younger chant and move with passion and energy. At the end of the haka the gathering breaks up with sadness, almost as though those present are not wanting to again leave behind the fallen friend.

While we are walking towards our cars, I notice a boy who looks about thirteen: he is wearing a jacket, a white shirt and a black tie, noticeably too big for his build. On his jacket he has a rich display of medals. Intrigued I ask him for an explanation and he says that he is wearing his grandfather’s formal clothes. He explains that his grandfather had died the previous year, and that to pay tribute to him, he had decided to wear it in occasion of the Sixtieth anniversary to honour and respect all his grandfather’s brothers in arms.

In leaving the cemetery, Walter Nardini and I try to find the veteran Wikiriwi, but sadly we learn that he had died during the previous year.
The memorial ceremonies end in the central square, where the Maori culture group is also scheduled to perform.
This occasion starts with a veterans’ parade through the city streets and ends with a waiata (song) that talks about the 28th Battalion, remembering its history, sacrifices and fallen soldiers. It is a particularly moving moment: everybody standing up as a mark of respect including the four Maori veterans, standing below the stage, hugging each other throughout the duration of the waiata, their faces wet from tears and, at the end of the song, greeting each other according to their custom, with a hongi, the pressing together of noses.

And so the New Zealand memorials end with much clapping and emotion among the people present. During the afternoon in the Museum, Roberto Molle had been talking to many New Zealand veterans and visitors; one of these, the leader of the New Zealand Armed Forces Maori Cultural Group, was disappointed not to find the New Zealand uniform there. Roberto showed him the display mannequin of the Maori soldier which is in a seated position and with a rather tired expression. Roberto then says that perhaps the Maori soldier is resting. The visitor’s reply is spontaneous and emphatic: with a ferocious glare and bulging eyes, in a strong voice he replies:

“Maori never sleep!” (un maori non dorme mai!).

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