Living among Gaza’s dead

Families living in squalor inside Gaza City’s el-Sheikh Shaban cemetery are calling for international intervention.

Gaza City –  Hesham el-Moghraby stands in the centre of his living room, looking down at two large tombs. He takes his baseball cap off, runs one hand over his head, and puts the cap back on.

“There is no other place that I know,” Moghraby tells Al Jazeera from inside his family’s dark shack, which brims with piles of salvaged tyres, firewood, plastic tubing, old shoes and scraps of metal.

‘Most of the time, the kids go to sleep hungry’ [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

This is Moghraby’s life inside Gaza City’s el-Sheikh Shaban cemetery.

The 43-year-old cannot say exactly how he ended up living in a makeshift home between gravestones; all he knows is that his family has lived here ever since the Nakba, the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians from their lands.

“It’s horrifying for the kids,” he says, noting they are taunted at school because of their peculiar living circumstances. It is also difficult to provide for the family, Moghraby says, when he makes just a few dollars a day taxiing residents around town in his horse-drawn cart.

“Most of the time, the kids go to sleep hungry,” he says. “They [contend with] insects and rats.”

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Dozens of people have made their homes inside the el-Sheikh Shaban cemetery. None want to live here, but they say they have nowhere else to go.

Some areas of the graveyard, which was hit by bombs in the 2014 war, look more like a dump than a cemetery. It has become part graveyard, part scrapyard, and part shantytown. In one corner, a bedraggled cat feasts on a dead bird, while the overgrown graves are blighted by residents’ trash: discarded food packaging, splintered wood, bits of wire and cloth. Children play with marbles upon the flat stone surface of a large tomb.

“It’s very depressing. It’s hard for the kids,” resident Abdul Raouf el-Harrem tells Al Jazeera. “They don’t have any place to play, so they play between the graves.”

Two freshly painted graves mark the recent deaths of two men [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

When other Gazans visit the graveyard, they become angry at the children scampering amid the tombstones, residents say; sometimes, they yell or swat the kids away.

But signs of life are everywhere in the littered cemetery. Laundry hangs between wooden posts, drying in the gentle afternoon breeze. A little boy pushes around a small cart made of milk crates on wheels, while a young girl plays hula-hoop with two rings of plastic held together with tape. All things here – even the houses – seem patched together from an assortment of discarded junk.

Outside Moghraby’s home, set apart from the rest, two freshly painted graves mark the deaths of two men in the 2014 war, including one who lived in el-Sheikh Shaban. Residents are acutely aware of their proximity to the spirits of the dead, Harrem says.

“We sleep above graves, on top of dead people,” he says. “We see stuff at night. The kids wake up terrified at night, shouting ‘save me, save me’.”

Seventh-grader Mohammed Sonbul acknowledges he does not want to live here anymore, but with a child’s bravado, he denies that he fears the graveyard.

“Nothing scares me but Allah. [I] go out even in the night and play here in the graveyard,” Mohammed boasts, as his friends nod and grin. “Other kids get scared, but I don’t.”

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Although the graveyard is public land, residents say the government allows them to live here because it will not pay to relocate them. Instead, restrictions have been put in place to prevent them from expanding or building new homes.

Monzer Mughari, director of the properties department with the Palestinian Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs, acknowledges “the government should find alternative homes for these people”, but cannot not say whether or when that may happen. 

‘I just want a life for my children, to get out of here’ [Megan O’Toole/Al Jazeera]

“The ministry has told the municipality to stop supplying [graveyard residents] with services, and to impose restrictions and fines… All of these actions are only to protect the borders of the Muslim cemetery,” he tells Al Jazeera. 

Meanwhile, graveyard resident Camelia Kuhail stares into the gaping, rubble-strewn hole that was her home before the 2014 Israeli air strikes. She says the people living in this graveyard are suffering even more now, and they need the international community to step in.

“I just want a life for my children, to get out of here. There’s no food, no materials to cook for the kids… I stay awake all day and night to watch my children [so they] do not get hurt,” Kuhail tells Al Jazeera. “It is dangerous, but where can we go?” 

The local government has not helped, Harrem says, so intervention must come from outside. The residents do not have enough money to relocate on their own, and while previous pleas for international assistance have gone unheard, Harrem says their situation has worsened since the war.

He looks down at the fresh grave of his friend, a man who lived, died and was buried here.

“We want help,” Harrem says quietly. “We want to live somewhere, anywhere other than a graveyard.”

With a report from Samy Zyara

Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole

Source: Al Jazeera