New memorial helps ease pain

Wednesday October 10, 2018 Written by Published in Local
Barbara Zupanovich and Debbie Harris at the restored grave of cancer victim Mark Gasiorowski who died aged 20 in 1978. 18100901 Barbara Zupanovich and Debbie Harris at the restored grave of cancer victim Mark Gasiorowski who died aged 20 in 1978. 18100901

Decades of pain were eased at the Nikao Cemetery on Monday afternoon with the blessing of the restored memorial to Mark Gasiorowski.


The young Australian was only 20 years old when he died from cancer in 1978.

On Monday, his former fiancée Debbie Harris and sister Barbara Zupanovich attended the unveiling of his memorial and that of another young Australian Alan Davidson.

For Harris it was her first return to Rarotonga since she was here 40 years ago with her fiancé. For Zupanovich, it is her first visit to the island.

Harris said: “It is emotional for me and very different to what it was like 40 years ago. Things have progressed a lot.

“Being here has given me a sense of calm, because I never actually knew if Mark’s headstone had arrived. I’d always wanted to come back, but I guess life got in the way.

“Then I stumbled across the Facebook page for the Nikao Cemetery Restoration Project and saw that they had recovered Mark’s headstone so then I knew that it had arrived.

“Then Cate (Walker) made contact and the wheels were set in motion.”

Harris is here with her partner Frank Pike and Zupanovich with her husband Robert. The group is from Perth, in Western Australia.

Harris said: “While we are here we are here doing something. We’ve rebuilt the grave. It’s amazing what we have been able to do – with help from the volunteers – in a few days.”

Zupanovich said sadly: “The tragic situation is that the grave had been washed away. So we have just rebuilt a memorial.”

Harris added: “We have given him back his place in the cemetery. Basically, we have put another piece of the jigsaw together.” Both women were full of praise for Walker and the local volunteers who devote so much time to restoring the cemetery. “Cate has done an amazing job as have the Cook Islands’ volunteers. This wouldn’t be possible without everybody, including those who make donations.”

The Zupanovichs flew out for home on Monday evening, but Harris and Pike will be staying on in Rarotonga for another week or so.

“We are going to make the most of our time here. We will come and help in the cemetery.”

Zupanovich said: “We have been restoring quite a few graves, we did some more this morning. Debbie’s recognised some people from during her time here. It was very respectful and very kind.

“It is very sad, so many people in this cemetery. So many have been forgotten. It is really sad.

“We went to the hospital while we were here and Debbie found the room where Mark passed away and we went to the accommodation, which is now called the Coral Sands apartments in Arorangi. “We had a walk around there and Debbie knew which apartment they stayed in together and walked to the beach and some of the same coconut palms. It’s nice to have that connection. I kind of understand Mark’s journey a bit more now. The journey he had here with Debbie.”

Harris said: “I guess I was lucky in one aspect because I got to spend the last three months with him on a beautiful island. Whereas, unfortunately, his family were left behind.”

Then she added sadly: “But we always thought we were going home.”

On Milan Brych, the therapist who claimed to be able to treat cancer, but who left more than 70 patients in the cemetery, Harris said: “Obviously I dealt with him and spoke with him on most days. He was very charismatic and very convincing and, if not for anything else, he did give a lot of people hope.

“Whereas back home they’d been given nothing. So if there’s anything good to come out of it, that may be it.”

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