...John’s death was recounted in a typically overblown obituary published in Al Jihad, an Arabic language magazine published by Arab fighters then based in Peshawar. “The Muslims of the European continent offered a martyr to start a new page of the history of such a glorious jihad,” it reads beneath a photograph of the Clonmel man looking sombre with a luxuriant beard and turban. “He carried his weapon to take part with his brothers in the battle of conquest . . . he was shot in his heart and, God willing, martyred. Muhammad Omar, who did not marry although he was 27 years old, met his Lord while pleasing Him . . . Glory be to He who guided him to Islam and jihad and granted him martyrdom. Let him enjoy it.”
John’s father received many letters from those who had known his son in Pakistan and Afghanistan. One, from a mullah named Fazal U Rahman, hailed him as “our great mujahid”. He continued: “We, as Muslims, believe Muhammad Omar has followed the path of truth and courage against those who disobey their creator – Allah.”
Two months after John was killed, his father received a letter from the Department of Foreign Affairs containing his son’s passport, an identity card he used in Karachi, and some documents, including his will. The Burke family had inquired about the possibility of repatriating his remains from Afghanistan but Ireland’s honorary consul warned that this would be “extremely difficult” for a number of reasons.
“As he was fighting against the Afghan authorities no assistance will be forthcoming from the Afghan government,” the letter reads. “Your son is buried in an area controlled by Muslim extremists who may not, under their religious law, allow the exhumation of remains . . . In addition . . . there would be major transportation problems involved.”
A letter from one of John’s associates in Pakistan put it differently: “He lies buried where he wanted to be . . . it does not seem proper and advisable to get his body back to Ireland because it would be against his wishes and irritating for his blessed soul.”
More than two decades have passed since the day John Burke answered a knock on the door at his home in Clonmel only to be told his son had been killed fighting in Afghanistan. “It was very hard,” he recalls. “My only hope was to see if I could get his body home. I wrote to everyone I could think of to see if they could help. The Red Cross eventually found out where he was buried out in the desert but there are still questions over whether it is his actual burial place. Other people have said he was buried in a cemetery somewhere.“We still don’t know how he was killed, whether it was a shooting incident or whether he was killed when he stepped on a mine.” Now and then, John takes out the file of yellowing letters sent by his son to puzzle yet again over why he chose that path. “It really shocked me. I never thought he had gone that far into it,” he says.What a sad story. He could have run off and joined, say, the circus, or the French Foreign Legion. But since he signed up with the dudes who believe Allah's rules rule, he's lying dead and alone in some remote Islamic backwater, leaving behind a father, a shell of a man, with nothing more than his memories...and questions.
When the attacks of September 11th, 2001 brought Afghanistan back into the headlines, the memories came flooding back, and John found himself wondering if his son had survived would he too be fighting with the Taliban. Sitting in the family’s livingroom, there are reminders all around of the young man who later became known as Muhammad Omar. Framed photographs hang next to landscape scenes painted by John junior. On a bookshelf stands a windmill he constructed out of matches. “It is still devastating to think about it even after all these years,” John says, shaking his head. “Sometimes I find myself talking to his photograph here in the room, asking him why did you do it . . . I just can’t find the answers.”