The Gaza family tending World War graves for 100 years
The neatly regimented lines of white gravestones, trimmed grass and flowering borders conjure up the vast war cemeteries of northern France and Belgium.
But this final resting place for soldiers killed in the two World Wars is in the Gaza Strip. It makes for an unusual green spot in the overcrowded territory, badly hit by the modern-day Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The dedication and expertise of the small team of local workers is clear. Remarkably, all come from families where this job has been passed down through the generations.
“I feel I’m the son of this cemetery,” says Ibrahim Jaradah, the current head gardener for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), who is marking exactly 100 years since his great-grandfather began doing the same role.
Now 32, he was born in the house where he still lives on the site and grew up in the garden among birdsong and butterflies.
“When I was young, it was my dream to work here,” Ibrahim tells me, describing how as a child, he helped his father with office tasks, planting seeds and making compost. “I learned from my family to love our work.”
“We feel it’s very important. These people gave their lives for their countries, and we’re trusted to take care of this historic place.”
The Gaza War Cemetery is one of two belonging to the CWGC in this tiny Palestinian territory. It contains graves for 3,691 dead – 3082 British, 263 Australians, 184 Turkish (Ottoman), 50 Indians, 36 Poles, 23 Canadians and 23 New Zealanders as well as smaller numbers who were South African, Greek, Egyptian, German, French, Yugoslavian or not identifiable.
The vast majority are burials from the First World War, when many of those killed were men in their 20s and 30s.
In 1917, Gaza saw three decisive battles between the Egyptian Expeditionary Force – a British Empire military formation – and Ottoman troops, until they finally captured the city.
The simple gravestones typically list the names of the fallen, their rank, regiment, the date they died and their age. There are Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus who are each buried with others of their faith.
“When we see the different names, of course we’d like to know who were these people, who were their families? What were they doing in their normal life?” Ibrahim reflects as we walk through row upon row of graves.
Ibrahim’s great-grandfather, Rabie Jaradah, started working for the Imperial War Graves Commission (which became the CWGC) in Beersheba in 1923.
His family became refugees during the fighting that followed the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. They fled here to Gaza, where he was soon asked to take responsibility for its cemeteries. Rabie’s son, also called Ibrahim, went on to bring his son, Essam, to help as a gardener when he was still a schoolboy.
Nowadays, tight border controls imposed by Israel and Egypt make it very difficult for foreign visitors – apart from diplomats, charity workers and journalists – to travel to the Palestinian territory. I needed an Israeli press card and a permit from Hamas, the militant group which governs Gaza, to enter.
But Essam Jaradah, who has retired, remembers different times.
“It was safe here, we used to have very big numbers of visitors. We would sit with them or show them around and life was much more beautiful,” he says. “I used to see people’s emotions, the tears in their eyes at their grandfathers’ graves.”
Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, there have been rounds of intense, deadly, destructive fighting between armed Palestinian groups and Israel.
The cemetery has been hit three times by missile strikes. On one occasion, nearly 300 headstones were damaged and had to be replaced. The turf and flowers need to be replanted after each serious flare-up when the staff are unable to work.
“Each time we come back, we have to return things to how they looked in the past,” Ibrahim explains. “We work in a situation that’s full of challenges.”
These include Gaza’s daily power cuts, severe water shortages and import restrictions which make it hard to replace machinery and sometimes to get fuel for lawnmowers.
Ibrahim says he and his staff have learned to be resourceful and draw on their families’ collective knowledge.
I meet Mohammed Atalah, who is 23, weeding between the graves which his father and grandfather also tended. “I love the job, every part of it,” he says. “When I walk out in the morning it gives me energy to see this green place. I feel it’s an honour to work here.”
Respecting the dead
The cemetery is dotted with local visitors. Young mothers with little children chat by an Indian war grave and three friends shelter from the sun under a jacaranda tree.
“It’s a beautiful, magnificent place. I enjoy sitting here. It’s so green, natural and historic,” one of them, Karim, tells me.
Um Iyad, wearing a black niqab or face veil, hints at troubled thoughts as she walks along solemnly with her daughter.
“We’re upset, and in the Quran, it’s said that if you’re upset and have something on your chest, then you should visit the graves,” she says. “I came here to relax my soul.”
Ibrahim exchanges a few quiet words with those spending time in the grounds. Sometimes he shows school groups and university researchers around.
“It’s so important to respect all dead people, whatever their nationalities or the reason they’re here. If the people in Gaza didn’t respect or accept the cemetery you wouldn’t see it like this,” he says, gesturing towards the immaculate gardens.
He believes that everyone, wherever they are from, takes away a powerful lesson.
“We feel they’re affected by the young ages of people buried here,” he says. “We hope that they’ll see that this is the effect of wars and that peace is the best thing in the world.”