Em­pire of the dead

In ceme­ter­ies all over the world, more than a mil­lion ser­vice­men lie buried where they fell, com­mem­o­rated by the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion, now in its 100th year. In Gaza, Tom Row­ley meets three gen­er­a­tions of a fam­ily who are among the 900 garde

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In the War Graves Com­mis­sion’s 100th year, Tom Row­ley goes to Gaza to meet a fam­ily whose job is to walk among the fallen

‘We are taught to take care of all dead peo­ple, re­gard­less of their re­li­gion or politics’

When­ever he spends a day with the dead, which is of­ten, Ibrahim Jaradah dresses with care. Some­times he wears a shirt and smart trousers. Other times, it’s the navy suit he wore to pro­pose to his girl­friend last year. His brown shoes are al­ways im­mac­u­lately buffed. The dead, of course, are in no po­si­tion to judge. Even so, Jaradah has never thought of wear­ing any­thing else to this ceme­tery, which he has known for all of his 26 years, and where he now works. ‘I must of­fer them re­spect,’ he says, by way of ex­pla­na­tion. ‘My boots should al­ways be clean.’

Be­sides, there’s the fam­ily name to think about. His fa­ther, Es sam, and his un­cle, Muham­mad, had al­ready been work­ing here for decades be­fore Jaradah got his con­tract last month. And, be­fore them, Jar ad ah’ s grand­fa­ther – Ibrahim Sr – ran the show. Next year, there will have been Jaradahs in charge here for al­most 60 years.

Ibrahim Jr, who was born in the fam­ily home, next to the ceme­tery( as were his fa­ther and un­cle ), feels the weight of ex­pec­ta­tions. ‘It’s a very big re­spon­si­bil­ity,’ he ad­mits.

Each of the 900 gar­den­ers who work in all cor­ners of the world for the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion feels a sim­i­lar re­spon­si­bil­ity. Their task – to hon­our the dead of the First and Sec­ond World Wars where they fell – is a del­i­cate one. Few, though, must han­dle it more del­i­cately than the Jaradahs of Gaza, whose mis­sion – passed down from fa­ther to son for six decades now – has been to care for a war ceme­tery in what of­ten re­mains a war zone. There was the time a mob armed with Kalash­nikovs burst into the ceme­tery to protest the mis­treat­ment by coali­tion sol­diers of pris­on­ers at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. There was the time Ibrahim Sr cow­ered be­neath a ta­ble as an Is­raeli bull­dozer – at­tempt­ing to clear un­der­growth to search for mil­i­tants – top­pled part of the perime­ter wall, which col­lapsed on to six head­stones. And there was the time, three years later, when shells blasted 350 of the head­stones, leav­ing scorch marks on the grass.

Through it all, the Jaradahs have stayed put, look­ing af­ter their dead – our dead, re­ally.

Squeezed be­tween two car re­pair shops, a tree-lined drive leads to a neatly clipped lawn with 3,691 head­stones ar­ranged in rows–ex­actly as if this were France or Bel­gium. In the mid­dle of the cramped con­crete prison that is Gaza (with few ex­cep­tions, no one has been al­lowed in or out since Ha­mas came to power in 2007), this is, as Muham­mad puts it, ‘par­adise’. Car­na­tions and gera­ni­ums flour­ish; the only noises are bird­song and, five times a day, the call to prayer from the neigh­bour­ing mosque, its minaret pok­ing up from be­hind the olive trees.

And now it is Ibrahim Jr’s turn to up­hold the fam­ily’s high stan­dards. His grand­fa­ther, who be­gan work­ing here in 1958 and soon be­came head gar­dener, proudly shows off a pic­ture of his name­sake as a tod­dler, clutch­ing a lit­tle red toy car – stand­ing in the ceme­tery even then. ‘I wanted him to feel an at­tach­ment,’ Es­sam says.

It seems to have worked. I bra himJr trained as an ac­coun­tant but al­ways wanted to work for the com­mis­sion. His cur­rent con­tract lasts for only a year, but Es­sam hopes he will

suc­ceed him as head gar­dener one day, just as he re­placed his own fa­ther. ‘I’m a son of the ceme­tery,’ says Ibrahim Jr, point­ing to the graves. ‘I’ve grown up with th­ese men.’

His ap­point­ment comes at a busy time for his new em­ployer. This year marks not only 100 years since Gen Al­lenby led the Egyp­tian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force through Gaza in a cam­paign to cap­ture Pales­tine from the Turks – leav­ing be­hind many of the men in the Jaradahs’ ceme­tery – but also the cen­te­nary of the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion it­self. A royal char­ter es­tab­lished the out­fit, then known as the Im­pe­rial War Graves Com­mis­sion, on 21 May 1917.

Today, there are ceme­ter­ies in 154 coun­tries, from Albania to Zim­babwe, Italy to In­done­sia. In all, there are 1.1 mil­lion head­stones to look af­ter, as well as hun­dreds of memo­ri­als list­ing the names of 700,000 troops whose bod­ies were never re­cov­ered. It is, as the com­mis­sion’s first di­rec­tor of works put it, Bri­tain’s ‘em­pire of the dead’.

On one re­cent day, sev­eral hun­dred re­place­ment bor­der plants were be­ing de­liv­ered to Kan­chanaburi War Ceme­tery in Thai­land, while gar­den­ers in New Delhi were col­lect­ing fallen leaves. In Fiji, a con­trac­tor was tak­ing pic­tures to send to his man­ager, show­ing his lat­est work. In Ghana the Princess Royal was lay­ing a wreath at the Chris­tians­borg War Ceme­tery, on the same day her hus­band, Sir Tim Lau­rence, the com­mis­sion’s vice chair­man, was in Cyprus, award­ing a medal to a gar­dener who has served for 26 years.

The sun never sets on this em­pire, ei­ther. Just as the com­mis­sion’s Asia Pa­cific man­ager, Paul Price, was pick­ing up his um­brella and clock­ing off for the day, the en­quiries team in Bri­tain was get­ting started, tak­ing a call from a woman try­ing to trace her fa­ther, an air­man who died over Ger­many. In the words of the com­mis­sion’s of­fi­cial his­tory, theirs is an un­end­ing vigil.

It be­gan by chance, when a for­mer news­pa­per edi­tor called Fabian Ware, who was posted to France with the Red Cross at the out­break of the Great War, be­gan to record where men had fallen. Grad­u­ally, he per­suaded the War Of­fice to make his work of­fi­cial, and the com­mis­sion was born.

Today, it looks af­ter all Com­mon­wealth graves from the two world wars: the first is that of a 17-year-old called John Parr, a butcher ’s boy f rom a ter raced house i n F i nch­ley, nor t h Lon­don, who died be­fore fight­ing be­gan in 1914; among the last is that of John Love, a South African air­man who died on 31 De­cem­ber 1947 (the last date el­i­gi­ble for burial in a War Grave, by the com­mis­sion’s def­i­ni­tion).

From a bru­tal­ist of­fice block over­look­ing a round­about in Maiden­head, Berk sh i re, t he com­mis­sion spends it s £65 mil­lion an­nual bud­get main­tain­ing each and every grave in per­fect con­di­tion – no mat­ter how far afield. It em­ploys en­gravers, stone­ma­sons and black­smiths, but most of the staff, like the Jaradahs, are gar­den­ers. It even claims to be the world’s largest hor­ti­cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Its di­rec­tor of hor­ti­cul­ture, David Richard­son, has a par­tic­u­larly apt Twit­ter han­dle: @gar­den­the­world. From his desk in Maiden­head, he must en­sure stan­dards are main­tained, even at the ceme­tery that is an eight-hour drive across the Namib desert or in those on the Asi­ago plateau in Italy, which are cov­ered in snow for half the year and which the gar­dener reaches on skis. Since there are two sea­men buried there, his gar­den­ers’ re­mit stretches lit­er­ally to Tim­buktu. In his 30 years at the com­mis­sion, Richard­son seems to have vis­ited most of the ceme­ter­ies him­self. Once, he says, he had to be flown out of Sierra Leone dur­ing a coup. ‘Not many peo­ple are evac­u­ated in the course of gar­den­ing,’ he says with a chuckle.

The com­mis­sion is in cel­e­bra­tory mood: a spe­cial cen­te­nary gar­den at this month’s Chelsea Flower Show will mark ‘100 yea rs of g reat ga rden­ing ’. Yet t here ca n be no rest ing on lau­rels, metaphor­i­cal or oth­er­wise: there is the equiv­a­lent of 1,000 foot­ball pitches’ worth of grass to mow every week. A 702-page hor­ti­cul­tural man­ual keeps gar­den­ers on their toes, list­ing all roses ap­proved for head­stone bor­ders: ‘Be­fore new va­ri­eties are placed on the ap­proved list, tri­als are car­ried out and as­sess­ments made on the Rose As­sess­ment Form.’

Over the years, lit­tle has changed: there are still two alpine plants in front of each head­stone, a rose at least every four or five graves. Plant­ing is ‘gen­er­ous’, says Richard­son, in­tended to evoke a n English count r y ga rden. All g rass must have straight edges; weeds are a no-no.

‘It’s a bit like a jug­ger­naut,’ ad­mits Richard­son. ‘We’re tin­ker­ing at the edges.’

Each gen­er­a­tion of the Jaradah fam­ily has passed on its hor­ti­cul­tural knowl­edge to the next. Ibrahim Sr es­tab­lished the nurser y, be­tween the house and the ceme­tery, where they grow all their own flow­ers. In time, he taught Es­sam which would flour­ish in the heat, and which would not. They have had suc­cess with bougainvil­lea, chrysan­the­mums and jas­mine, but not with roses. ‘We wanted to grow them,’ says Ibrahim Jr, ‘but the plants did not suc­ceed.’

The fam­ily’s hor­ti­cul­tural roots – and its con­nec­tion with the com­mis­sion – go back even fur­ther than Ibrahim Sr. His fa­ther, Ra­bie, was also em­ployed by the com­mis­sion as a gar­dener, be­gin­ning work in the 1920s in a ceme­tery in what was then Pales­tine. In 1947, as plans were drawn up to cre­ate the state of Is­rael, the fam­ily, like thou­sands of other Pales­tinian refugees, fled to Gaza. Ibrahim Sr, who was nine at the time, re­mem­bers how they rode there on camels by moon­light. Within a decade, his fa­ther had died and he had taken over from him.

Now aged 80, Ibrahim Sr of­fi­cially re­tired 15 years ago, but still works from dawn to dusk. He has a wheel­chair, but he prefers to push his Zim­mer frame around the ceme­tery or walk be­tween the graves with a stick, wear­ing slip­pers and a hear­ing aid with his grey pin­stripe suit and tie. He in­jured his knee in a fall six months ago but has lost none of his en­thu­si­asm for work. ‘I don’t worry about the money,’ he says. ‘I don’t worry about the time. If I re­tire, I die.’

He was made MBE for his ser­vice in 1994, but was un­able to le ave Ga z a for t he i nvest it ure. I ndeed, de spite tend i ng Com­mon­wealth graves for so long, none of the fam­ily has been able to visit Bri­tain – nor any Com­mon­wealth countr y. Not that Ibrahim Sr thinks he has missed out. ‘I re­ally wanted to stay here. I feel like a tree in this place. I’m rooted here.’

Many of the fallen here died tr ying to claim Pales­tine for Bri­tain, in the same year the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion promised a ‘na­tional home for the Jewish peo­ple’ in the coun­try. Yet the Jaradahs do not view the men whose graves they tend as po­lit­i­cal ac­tors; merely as fel­low hu­mans, felled be­fore their time.

‘Polit ics, polit ics, polit ics,’ says Ibrahim Sr dis­mis­sively. ‘Politics is bad.’

‘In our re­li­gion, we are taught to take care of all dead peo­ple,’ adds Es­sam. ‘We pro­tect them and we love them, re­gard­less of their re­li­gion or politics.’

Few visi­tors now dis­turb the quiet of the ceme­tery. Be­fore Ha­mas took power, coach par ties would some­times ar­rive. Now, even de­scen­dants of the dead can­not visit. It has been three years since any­one has man­aged to visit their fore­bear’s g rave. In their place, the Jaradahs have in­cor­po­rated th­ese men into their own fam­ily.

‘I love them very much,’ says Ibrahim Sr. ‘I want to pro­tect them. They are like my chil­dren.’

Af­ter the Bat­tle of Water­loo, bod­ies were piled in a mass grave. From the Falk­lands on­wards, sol­diers were flown back to Bri­tain, to be in­terred on home soil. So it was only dur­ing the First and Sec­ond World Wars that the de­ci­sion was taken to bur y troops in in­di­vid­u­ally marked graves, where they fell.

From the be­gin­ning, no dis­tinc­tion was made for rank. Bu­glers and bri­gadier gen­er­als, cadets and cap­tain s were all given the same Port­land head­stones, 30in by 15in. But one cru­cial break with uni­for­mity was al­lowed: rel­a­tives of the dead could choose a per­sonal in­scrip­tion to go be­neath the name. To sum up their loved one’s life, and the mag­ni­tude of their death, they were per­mit­ted up to 66 let­ters.

Today th­ese rel­a­tives – and the men they lost – speak on through th­ese words. One pop­u­lar for­mu­la­tion be­gins, he gave his life… he gave his life for vic­tory, reads one; for duty, reads an­other; for the em­pire; for the glory of god.

he gave his life for a right­eous cause. That was ca­su­alty num­ber 97,832 – Pte Wal­lace Henry le Poidevin from Guernsey. He was 20 when he fell, in Bel­gium on 14 Oc­to­ber 1917.

he gave his life for a world peace.’ Num­ber 2,457,110 – Cana­dian Sg t An­cil Baker, who died in Scot la nd in 1942, at the age of 25.

he gave his life for a com­rade, wrote the rel­a­tives of Pte Alexan­der Ren­nie. And those of L/cpl Ge­orge Den­ham. And of Tpr Fran­cis O’brien.

he gave his life for a bet­ter eng­land. Num­ber 49,094 – CSM Wil­liam Cham­ber­lain of the Gre­nadier Guards. He died in Novem­ber 1914 and is buried in Boulogne Eastern Ceme­tery in France, across t he chan­nel f rom Ja ne, t he wife he lef t be­hind in Ley­ton.

he gav e his life for you a nd me, wrote t he fam­ily of Cpl Henry Pearce.

There a re oc­ca­sional glimpses of g r ief: missed be­yond words, reads one head­stone; i gave him, but only god knows at what cost – from his bro­ken-hearted mother, tes­ti­fies an­other. … from aunt nel­lie, … from his lov ing sis­ter dora, … from his sor­row­ing wife and chil­dren.

In Gaza, the words cho­sen by the fam­ily of Pte C Frew of the Royal Scots Fusiliers still ring out from his head­stone. Their 20-year-old was too dearly loved to be for­got­ten. A few rows away lies Sg t CF Thorn­ton of the Royal Air Force, who was 22. he died that we might live, reads his in­scrip­tion, mam, dad & dorothy. al­mond­bury, hud­der­s­field.

There are now no liv­ing sur­vivors of the First World War: Harry Patch, the ‘last Tommy’, died in 2009. The num­ber of vet­er­ans who can re­call the sec­ond is dwin­dling. Graves that were once sites of pilg rim­age by com­rades of the fallen, by moth­ers and fa­thers, are today vis­ited, if at all, by great-great­nephews. The War Graves Com­mis­sion was once be­sieged by phone calls from par­ents anx­ious to find their sons’ rest­ing places; now the en­quiries team re­ceives the most emails on Box­ing Day, af­ter con­ver­sa­tions about fam­ily his­tory with el­derly re­la­tions over Christ­mas.

The method of re­mem­brance might change – the com­mis­sion is work­ing on a new web­site and con­stantly up­dat­ing its smart­phone apps – but it will never cease. Its royal char­ter charges the com­mis­sion with com­mem­o­rat­ing the dead ‘in per­pe­tu­ity’.

The Jaradahs are aghast at any sug­ges­tion that it might be oth­er­wise. ‘Their names live for ev­er­more,’ says Ibrahim Sr, echo­ing the words from Ec­cle­si­as­ti­cus that are in­scribed on the giant ‘stones of re­mem­brance’ at each ceme­tery. ‘It must be. It must be.’

When King Ge­orge V made a pil­grim­age to the war ceme­ter­ies in Flan­ders in 1922, he was struck, as many would be af­ter him, by the row upon row of head­stones – the scale of the ceme­ter­ies bring­ing home the enor­mity of the suf­fer­ing.

‘I have many times asked my­self whether there can be more po­tent ad­vo­cates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed mul­ti­tude of silent wit­nesses to the des­o­la­tion of war,’ he said then.

Of course, war went on. In­deed, a mov­ing pho­to­graph from 1939 shows two uni­formed squad­dies in a ceme­tery in France, bow­ing their heads to the fallen of the last war be­fore head­ing off to fight the next.

The Jaradahs re­main hope­ful that, some day, man might be ready to heed the lessons of the ceme­ter­ies. They, at least, do their bit to pass on the mes­sage. Most days, par­ties of school­child ren visit, a nd Ibra him Jr al­ways points out t he eight Jewish g raves, with their Stars of David, which have never been dis­turbed in all th­ese years of con­flict. ‘We can live in the same place if we die in the same place,’ he tells them.

One day, Es­sam hopes, the whole of Gaza might be as tran­quil – in every sense as peace­ful – as their ceme­tery. ‘This is the past,’ he says. ‘But for us it rep­re­sents the fu­ture.’

‘I love them very much. I want to pro­tect them. They are like my chil­dren’

Tyne Cot Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion ceme­tery, Pass­chen­daele, Bel­gium

Pho­to­graph by Wis­sam Nas­sar

The Jaradah fam­ily, ( from left) Muham­mad, Ibrahim Sr, Es­sam and Ibrahim Jr.

Gen Al­lenby’s en­trance into Jerusalem, 1917. Ca­su­al­ties of his cam­paign were among the first to be buried in the Gaza ceme­tery

Pho­to­graph by Wis­sam Nas­sar

Grave­side plant­ings in the Gaza War Ceme­tery are part of what is prob­a­bly the world’s largest hor­ti­cul­tural op­er­a­tion.

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