An unlikely oasis for Canada's fallen peacekeepers

Remembrance Day feature on Gaza War Cemetery

Beautiful and peaceful, two words I never expected to use in any description of Gaza. And yet, they were the first that sprang to mind when I recently visited a quiet corner of that often chaotic strip of land in the Middle East.

My destination was the Gaza War Cemetery near Gaza City, the resting place of 23 Canadians buried among the thousands of mostly Commonwealth soldiers and peacekeepers who died in the region.

Their lives and their service, I felt, deserved greater recognition, particularly as Remembrance Day approached. But as my visit to the cemetery progressed, it quickly became clear that there were others there to be honoured as well.

Consider the complex history of the Gaza Strip. From the First World War battles, when the British captured the region from the Ottoman Empire, to the present day conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the area has witnessed too much bloodshed and too little peace.

But this particular spot is an oasis of tranquility: row upon neat row of proud headstones and majestic monuments, laid out on well-manicured lawns with carefully weeded flowerbeds.

What's more, since the cemetery first opened nearly 90 years ago, it's all been the careful work and nurturing of one family.

'It's my duty'

Ibrahim Jeradeh is 71 now and officially retired as head gardener but still actively watching over the cemetery's near immaculate grounds.

He remembers when his father looked after the gardens. Now two of his sons are doing their bit today. Three generations of Palestinians who have dedicated their lives to tending the final resting places for the foreigners who died here.

"It's my duty," Jeradeh told me, "to keep every grave here in a good way."

There are actually two sections to the Gaza War Cemetery.

The first is a vast stretch of groomed lawn, dedicated primarily to those who perished during the First and Second World Wars. Among the thousands buried here is Flight Sgt. Reginald James Bowes, a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, who was killed in 1942.

Then, there's a smaller section surrounded by a low wall and an arched gate adorned remarkably and elegantly with wrought iron maple leaves. This area is reserved exclusively for Canadian peacekeepers, all of them members of former prime minister Lester B. Pearson's original international force.

Our peacekeepers

At Pearson's suggestion, a UN Emergency Force was established in 1956 in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis. That mission ended in 1967 but in those 11 years, 22 Canadians lost their lives while on duty, acting as buffers between the Egyptian and Israeli armies. (At the time, the bodies of Canadians who served overseas were not brought home, as is the case now in conflicts such as Afghanistan.)

Hundreds of Canadians served with UNEF 1, as the force was known. And as I researched the history of this cemetery and the Canadians buried there, I heard from some of the veterans who proudly recalled the work of comrades who died.

They remembered men like Signalman Phil Crouse, the radio operator who died while making vital dispatches; Cpl. Joseph Albert and Craftsman Dale Roster, whose vehicle was sideswiped by another Egyptian military vehicle in the middle of the night; and Cpl. Emmanuel Olivier, who fell from the roof of a building being used as the living quarters by the UN.

I also spoke to Lia Bons in Peterborough. She was just a 13-year-old Ontario schoolgirl when her brother Adriaan died in Gaza in 1964. Apparently Trooper Bons and his partner Cpl. Paul Wallace were assigned to find and retrieve some Bedouin lost in a minefield. Tragically their jeep hit an explosive device and they were killed instantly.

A message of thanks

No one from the Bons family was at the funeral. Lia Bons has still never visited her brother's grave. It troubles her to this day, but she does find enormous comfort in the knowledge that a Palestinian man whom she has never met, tends tirelessly to the burial plot.

She asked CBC to deliver a message of thanks to Ibrahim Jeradeh on behalf of her entire family. "Just knowing that he's taken care of so well gives us peace and a bit of closure," she said. "We thank you very, very much."

Jeradeh is both humbled by Bons's words and apologetic. He told me he remembers the Canadians, all the blue-bereted Canadians who came to Gaza, as friendly and nice and he's sorry some of them had to die here.

They came to make peace, he said, not to be killed as though they were in a war.

What happened to the Canadian peacekeepers back then, is as heartbreaking to the Jeradeh family as what happened to some of their graves a couple of years ago. On rare occasions, the violence that erupts in present day Gaza Strip leaves scars on the cemetery as well.

In the summer 2006, during an Israeli operation against Hamas militants, a bulldozer plowed through one of the outside walls of the Canadian section. Five headstones were knocked down and damaged.

Ibrahim's son, Essam Jeradeh, told me he had tears in his eyes that day. His eyes welled up again just talking about the memory. "We couldn't do anything," he explained, "They were shooting all over. The dead have the right to sleep peacefully."

Fixing up the site

He points to a few cement markers, their surfaces now marred by imperfections. I could hear the pain in his voice as he continued, "I had to pick up all the pieces and put them together and make them look as good as possible."

These headstones may eventually be replaced. But that process is complicated.

Ongoing security concerns have made it impossible for experts with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to enter Gaza and properly assess the damage to the Canadian section. Indeed delivery of new headstones to replace the bullet-marked ones in the other, larger section of the cemetery is on hold as well, pending a true ceasefire.

(Canada is a contributor to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, giving $7 million last year alone.)

Still, for all the challenges the Jeradeh family face, they always seem to rise to the occasion.

"For anybody who likes his job, there is no difficulty," Ibrahim Jeradeh explained. Even as he spoke, he continued to pick at the weeds that might blemish the beauty of this cemetery, while his son Essam clipped at the stray blades of grass that could otherwise tarnish the tidy borders that frame the Canadian headstones.

So to all Canadians and others who lost friends and comrades, sons, fathers or husbands — Gaza may be half a world away, a foreign, violent, and often inexplicable place — but rest assured, your loved ones are well-looked after and tonight, they are sleeping peacefully.