Gaza - It's 11 a.m. on November, 11, 2009, and this correspondent along with his interpreter Hassan Jaber and driver Ashraf al-Masry (and five lovely lizards standing silently, too), are alone among the neat graves of 22 Canadian service men who died carrying out peacekeeping duties in this area between 1957 and 1967.
The small, tidy cemetery with a stone wall around it and wrought iron maple leaf gates at its entrance, sits at the southeast corner of a massive Commonwealth War Cemetery of 4,000 graves from the First and Second World Wars.
There, three foreign visitors stand silently at the main memorial wall.
Standing on the recently cut Canadian lawn, is a wreath with nine poppies and a red "Canada" ribbon. It apparently was placed here earlier this morning, by a local associate of the Canadian mission in the Palestinian Territories.
It's a lovely warm day in Gaza today, the temperature in the high 20s and not a cloud in the sky.
Just after our two-minutes of silence, a local resident, Moin Dallul, 60, walks quietly into the cemetery. He pauses before the headstone of Private E.J. Fickling, who died here in 1966; then moves on.
"I come here about once a month," he explains. "Some times I bring my family. It's such a quiet clean place."
That's certain, in contrast to the overpopulated conditions in the rest of the closed off Gaza Strip.
"It reminds me of our history," he adds. "And of better days."
List of dead, with dates they died:
- C.S. Porter, Corporal, 37. April 1959;
- H. Morewood, Major, 45. July, 1959;
- R.H. Allan, Trooper, 24. Nov. 1959;
- A.T. Hurst, Private, 31. Feb. 1960;
- G.A. Gauthier, Corporal, 26. Feb. 1960;
- R.J. Wiley, Trooper, 24. Sept. 1961;
- J.M. Albert, Corporal, 35. Nov. 1961;
- D.S. Roster, Craftsman, 20. Nov. 1961;
- E. Olivier, Corporal, 38. Dec. 1961;
- G.G. Thompson, Sapper, 37. May 1962;
- E.G. Groom, Corporal, 40. Oct. 1963;
- E.D. Harper, DFC, CD Wing Commander, 39. Nov. 1963;
- J.K. Hermann, Sergeant, 33. Dec. 1963;
- L.R. Morin, Private, 31. May 1964;
- P.R. Wallace, Corporal, 33. Nov. 1964;
- A.A. Bons, Trooper, 22. Nov. 1964;
- J.A.D. Lamothe, Private, 20. March 1966;
- R.V. Edwards, Flying Officer, 23. April 1966;
- J.M.L.P. Picard, Flying Officer, 27. April 1966;
- J. Lorienz, Sapper, 33. July 1966;
- P.M. Crouse, Signalman, 25 Aug. 1966;
- E.J. Fickling, Private, 31. Oct. 1966.
The Commwealth and Canadian war cemeteries are located in the Toofah neighbourhood, a poor residential district in northeast Gaza City. They sit about a kilometre from the Israeli border.
Turning off the main street onto a narrow dirt lane, you find yourself flanked by two rows of towering green Cypress trees.
"They were about this high when I planted them," said Ibrahim Jeradeh, motioning to his knee's height. "We got them from Holland."
Mr. Jeradeh, 72, succeeded his father as head groundskeeper of these cemeteries in 1958. He, and now his sons Issam and Mohammed, have cared for these graves amidst all the years of turmoil and conflict since then.
Issam was five when the last of the Canadian soldiers were buried here in 1966.
"I remember them lowering the boxes into the graves by rope," he said, "and then lighting candles.
"It made an impression I'll never forget."
The Canadians have been the only ones buried here in the years since the Second World War. Most of the 4,000 Commonwealth soldiers interred here perished in battles against Turkish forces in the First World War.
There is one Canadian soldier among them: R.J. Bowes, 22, who was killed in fighting in the Second World War.
Five of the headstones in the Canadian graveyard were replaced this year. In 2006, an Israeli bulldozer knocked down the yard's wall and the headstones during an operation against Palestinian militants.
The headstones spent some two years at the Israeli border, until permission was granted for them to pass into Gaza.
Issam Jeradeh, now 48, has been head groundskeeper for seven years, but he started working in the cemetery when he was 15. "When I was very young, I used to play here among the graves with my friends, 'til my father would chase us away," he laughs.
Unlike most Gazans, Issam, his brother and father have no yearning to leave this small strip of two million people.
"Most people say that Gaza is a prison ... or a cemetery," he said. "Not us."
"This place is our life's work," he said, looking out over the rows and rows of tidy graves.
"It is our lives."
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