Hatred forgotten in remembering fallen

FOCUS ON PEACE: Italian De Bortoli Valentino, 92, fought against the Kiwis at El Alamein but is now their ally.
FOCUS ON PEACE: Italian De Bortoli Valentino, 92, fought against the Kiwis at El Alamein but is now their ally.

Chants calling the faithful to noon-day prayers at the El Alamein Mosque rang out over the 1000 people gathered at the war cemetery nearby.

The Moslem chanting came as an English minister ended a Christian prayer and an Indian colonel began a reading from Hindu scriptures. It pushed home the point of Saturday's international commemorative service at the cemetery for the 70th anniversary of World War II battles in the area.

The focus was on remembrance of those who died in the battles and on the duty of all to bring peace to the human family.

In this spirit, 92 year-old Italian De Bortoli Valentino reached forward from his chair and embraced 93 year-old New Zealander Norman Leaf.

"We fought the New Zealanders, but we are friends now," the former parachutist said.

Leaf responded that the old enmity had gone - "but the sadness is always there".

Leaf was one of 21 New Zealand veterans of the North African Campaign attending the service.

New Zealand Defence Force personnel played a prominent part in the multi-national service, just as their grandfathers had in the battles. Chief of Army Major-General Tim Keating and Minister of Defence Jonathan Coleman laid a wreath on the catafalque at the heart of the vast cemetery. It was one of many wreathes from around the globe.

The Kiwi veterans sat next to former foes from Germany and Italy, as if to demonstrate the ideals from The Book of Ecclesiastes expressed at the New Zealand service the day before - "A time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace".

Outside the cemetery, in the dingy little town of El Alamein, it was a time to protest. People leaving the service were confronted at the gates by about 30 placard bearers demanding compensation from the combatant nations of World War II for the millions of explosive mines they had left buried in the sands over thousands of square kilometres.

Friday's New Zealand service was smaller and more contemplative. The Defence Force Maori Cultural Group gave it a distinctively Kiwi flavour. It allowed the veterans to walk among the headstones as the sun went down. Several pored over the graves of old comrades, seeming to know they would not pass this way again.

Saturday's service was crammed and exhausting in the heat of midday. The veterans, seated under large umbrellas, had difficulty hearing the speakers. Dick Spraggs summed it up as "just another memorial service". He regretted the familiar Last Post was not played.

Some of the New Zealand contingent attended the Australian service, earlier on Saturday. This service included Greek involvement. Australia and New Zealand each fielded one army division at El Alamein, with sailors and airmen also fighting.

The bodies of 1200 Australians and 1100 New Zealanders lie in El Alamein War Cemetery.

Greymouth couple Matt and Linda Lysaght, who had uncles fighting in North Africa, attended the international service but regretted missing the New Zealand service. They were on an English company's guided tour of the battlefields, which did not include the Friday service.

"We felt it was important to come here," Linda said.

"Lest we forget," said Matt. "And we didn't forget."

The New Zealand delegation to the commemorations departed the small airport in the desert by air force jet yesterday.

The Press