Loai Ahmed April 2021
As a young boy growing up in war torn Gaza, you learn pretty quickly that life is precious and fragile. I am 28 now, and a graduate of Gaza University, a soccer player who played for Palestine and a coach, and I am excited to be beginning my graduate studies in Istanbul. But most Gazans of my generation never leave their childhood behind because, between the ages of 10 and 21, we had to survive three wars. Surviving meant coming to terms with death, making friends with our mortality.
One minute you could be going to class or watching
the World Cup with friends, and the next minute, you could be fleeing a
bomb exploding on you or next to you. Most of the victims from the last three
wars are kids or teens like I was back then, so you learned to run fast, pray
hard and trust your luck holds.
There weren’t any spots to run away to, no fortified sanctuaries to shelter in, and even in quieter times, there was no escape from that persistent fear that eats into your very bones. Gaza is crowded with 2 million souls packed into a slither of land beside the Mediterranean. A place of retreat is not easy to find. However, there was one place.
It was less than 30 minutes’ drive from our original home in the Al-Shati Refugee camp, a place we called the British Cemetery but is officially known as the Deir El Balah War Cemetery. The place of course had graves, 700+, but more than that, it had grass and open space. You could go there and breathe because it was calm somehow, and you could smoke, and maybe even sneak a kiss from that girl in your class, but that was about all. Nothing ever happened here, so no one would bother you. Well, that is not exactly true. The Israeli’s bombed it in 2009. Usually people bomb targets to put people into graves, not bomb those already in them. Go figure! But like for the dead, it was equally a place for the living to rest, in peace.
All that I knew about my favorite place of retreat changed
dramatically in 2016, and from an unsuspected source. I applied to go to
Washington DC on a leadership program called New Story Leadership (NSL) which brings Palestinians and Israelis
together as peers, to learn about American democracy and bring those lessons
home. I expected it to be run by Americans, of course, but the founder was an
Australian guy called Paul Costello, and he was full of surprises. Once I got
to know him, he seemed to know a lot more about parts of Gaza than I did.
Especially he had stories of this place near my home, Deir El Balah, and the
war cemetery that was our refuge. He said Deir
El Balah was once a sizable World War one military base, one that
was part of the Second Act of what he called “the ANZAC legend,” where what
began in defeat in Gallipoli ultimately ended in victory in Gaza. I had
never heard the word ANZAC before,
and wanted to know more. He welcomed my curiosity because he said that not
enough Australians or New Zealanders knew about Gaza and its forgotten ANZACS.
I started to get even more interested and went back to the graveyard near my
home to photograph the graves and sent them on to Paul. He was so thrilled.
That is when I asked him, “Can I do a project on this place? Can we work
together and get that story out into the world?”
Paul was really enthusiastic, but he had other reasons besides my interest. I learned later that Paul’s birthday is April 25th, Anzac Day, and that his parents were combat veterans serving in the RAF during World War Two. That is how his Mum and Dad met and fell in love. Somehow, war was the reason he even exists, and so he was somehow destined to dedicate his life to peace. The more he knew about Gaza, the more he felt moved to find those lost stories that might help end the killing. The graveyard at Deir El Balah, for him, was a missing piece of the ANZAC puzzle, a place that might help people learn the true cost of war. He said being killed was tragedy enough, but to have your sacrifice forgotten was like dying all over again. Those 50 forgotten graves haunted him.
So began our four-year project to bring this story to life- to render 50 forgotten graves of the ANZACS of Gaza back into memory, especially for ANZAC day 2021.
Visiting the graves-Gaza Armed with my new understanding, I went back to the graveyard to lock it in my memory. It was close to Anzac Day 2019. Instead of searching for serenity, I was there to explore how these graves came to be here. I was imagining these lost lives and the grief that each grave must have etched into the hearts of those Australian and New Zealand families who, unlike me, were never allowed to visit their son’s final resting place. They could not visit back then, I presumed, and with Gaza under siege, I know for certain they cannot visit here now. No one can.
Who were these people? They have names and emblems that I soon learned to recognize- the Australian and New Zealanders among them, their emblems of Silver Fern for New Zealand and Rising Sun for Australians among the 700 other graves. I had gotten to know the difference. They had the dates of their birth and death but with research, I got to learn so, so much more.
I had started to imagine the real people that they once were. I go to a grave with the name inscribed Earnest Douglas Turner. What was his story I thought?
I discovered- He was from Inverell, NSW from a property north of
the town called “Ascot.” He enlisted along with his younger brother Frank when
he was barely 19 and disembarked from Sydney. He died on April 21st, 1917
of his wounds. His family got a letter from his commanding officer to say:
son had been in my troop for the last 18 months and I have never had reason to
complain of either his conduct or work. He was one of the boys who became
endeared to me by his character and good work. He was always of a quiet
and retiring disposition and never complained of the hardships he had to
undergo. I might add that his character has been an influence and an
example amongst those with whom he had been living during the last two years
and several of his mates have since remarked to me what a true, noble and moral
life he always led. I grieve deeply at the loss of one so young and
brave. But with us who have been his comrades he is missed as a true and
noble friend and, I might add, a lad whom I was proud to have under my
command. You have lost a noble son whose place can never be filled.
He has given his life for his country and those whom he loved, and ‘Greater
love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’.
Here is his grave as I visited it that day.
Inverell, NSW is where Paul’s son’s family live. I wonder if anyone in Inverell remembers Earnest Turner, or if anyone still lays a wreath for him on Anzac Day? The local war memorial is built into the entrance of the swimming pool that Paul takes his grandkids swimming whenever he is home, and the name E Turner is listed on the Honor board.
In his picture he looks so young, so proud. He was 21. He even looks like me. What a waste of a life? Or was it? I don’t know. But he ends up here, not far from where I grew up.
At least I got to grow up!
I move to stand beside the grave of a New Zealand soldier inscribed Fred Albert Crum, the oldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Crum of New Lynn. He attended the Avondale school and then Auckland Grammar School. He works first in the junior civil service and signs up for the Field Ambulance and serves first in Gallipoli, and then, Palestine. At 22, this is where he dies. He was in ANZAC Part One and ANZAC Part Two, fighting the same enemy, with Ataturk still the same old opponent. Only this time, the results are reversed.
When we research Fred Crum, we also discover pictures that Fred Crum took earlier on in Palestine, of soldiers having to put down horses wounded in a Turkish air attack and not expected to survive. Fred was with the Field Ambulance that relied on horses, and the photo makes one think how important these animals were. They brought them from Australia, these ‘Walers” some 136,000 of them, and only one returned home. And the officer in charge of the horses’ training was one Banjo Patterson, the famous poet and author of Australia’s song “Waltzing Matilda.”
The ANZACs become General Allenby’s crack force, liberating Be’er Sheva in the famous cavalry charge, and marching through Jaffa Gate into the Holy City of Jerusalem before Christmas 1917. He knew these soldiers well from the Boer War in South Africa.
I wonder if the people back in Ashburton in
New Zealand will lay a wreath for Fred at the service on this Anzac Day? He is
the same age as my brother.
I know something of this grief because in every war, I worry about losing my brother, just as many Gazan families have in the three wars that have scarred our childhood memories. But at least when we bury our dead, we can go visit them. Here is a beloved son of New Zealand, who rests near my home, and his family probably never got the chance I have of visiting here today. I wonder what they would want me to do. Say a prayer at least? Pay my respects? Lay a bunch of flowers? I do all three.
Each grave marks a life, not a death, a story that was never told or told and then forgotten. And they were my age-or even younger. There are 37 Australian graves and 13 New Zealand graves. It was as if we could talk because they, as victims of war, were being visited by a modern-day victim of war. Their war had ended. Mine has not.
I was not sure what this quest means for me. Was I seeking peace too? Was I seeking to make Gaza part of this magic of memory turning the defeat we experience back then into a memory of victory now? I just knew I could not stop, because somehow ANZAC was starting to mean as much to me as a Gazan as it might to any Australian, or New Zealander. The memory of 1915’s defeat in ANZAC was remembered now as something more, like we remember 1948 and the “Nakba.” Earnest and Fred and all the 48 others are part of an enduring story. Keeping their memory alive is a way to resist that final dying, which ends in forgetting. Sadly, when we forget war, we usually end up doing it all over again.
But I had to learn more. What was ANZAC anyway and why did Paul say this is where the ANZAC story ended. Where did it start? I had to go find out, and so I set out to Turkey to see where some of these soldiers began their battle. Last Fall, I traveled from Gaza to Turkey. Getting out of Gaza is like getting out of goal, and my ticket of leave was to see the Dardanelles. They went from Gallipoli to Gaza, and I was going from Gaza to Gallipoli.
Istanbul is now under lockdown and COVID has changed the normal travel opportunities. Usually there would be thousands of young Australians and New Zealanders making their pilgrimage to Gallipoli, but not this year, it seems. If I am to get there, I am going to have to find my own way. I talk to the locals here and when I mention ANZAC to my young Turkish friends, they have no idea what I am talking about. But when I do the same for someone here over 60, they smile with a knowing look, and are happy that me, a lad from Gaza, knows their story. What they don’t know is how it is becoming mine.
It is a story that every Australian and New Zealander learns as a kid. There are movies and songs, so I don’t have to retell it to you, but what struck me most was the shared optimism and the bravery. The Aussies and the New Zealanders were so much like the Turks, the subjects of an empire that controlled their lives, their destinies. I know what that feels like, believe me!
This is where they came ashore at dawn, and this is where they fell, and these graves are the mirror of the graves near my home. So much death among those so young. I know that story too well.
But the part of Gallipoli that spoke to me most was the Ataturk memorial commemorating his famous speech in 1934 where Mustafa Kamal, the leader of the Turks at ANZAC in both Gallipoli and Gaza, and now as President of the new Turkey, says,
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore, rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies (the name for the allies) and the Mehmets (the name for the Turks) to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
I was astonished. The Victor embracing the vanquished? It made me want to say the same thing about the graves in Gaza. Can we stage an Anzac Day in Gaza? Even with COVID19 and the threat of Hamas to lock us up and Israel to blow us up? Can we honor these 50 lives 100+ years later? And can it be native Gazans doing it, not visiting dignitaries in suits?
I called my mother and my brothers and said, we must hold a ceremony in the graveyard on April 25th. We have to honor our dead, who died on our soil, and hail them like Ataturk did, as our brothers, our sons. My Mum is up for it. She is amazing. She said she will get my brother and our soccer team from Gaza Plays Peace, the little youth organization I set up as a project when I applied to NSL and they will play an Anzac tournament in the afternoon.
So, if all goes to plan, on April 25th or thereabouts, this Gazan kid will be visiting the graves of the ANZACS in Gallipoli and Lone Pine to lay a flower and say a prayer, while his Gazan brothers and Mum and family will pay a visit to Deir El Balah to say prayers and lay a wreath and recite what is said at every dawn service in Australia and New Zealand. I wonder how often that is heard in Arabic?
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
I know that Australians and New Zealanders get up at the crack of dawn and they lay wreaths and play the last post and recite three words “Lest we forget,” which in Arabic is لن ننساكم ما حيينا and then retreat for breakfast. But this will be a first, in that the ANZAC beginning and end, from Gallipoli to Gaza, will be remembered by us as 2 parts of one story.
But let me tell you something, dear reader.
A Gazan celebrating ANZAC Day and saying “lest we forget” is not some modern-day wired-up teenager remembering a movie he saw, or a lesson learned in history class. This is someone who knows the cost of war, someone who has lost loved one’s last year in the March of Return, and the year before in a drone attack and come from grandparents who were driven from their homes near Tel Aviv in 1948. I come from a war zone that is always burying it’s dead, in a war that seems to never end. In the end, we are not strangers to the ANZAC story. Your boys’ graves from 1917 are in our backyard resting not far from our own boys’ and girls’ more recent graves from 2014 and 2009 and 2018.
Your ANZACS died to liberate Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. Modern Israel did not exist then. When the war ended, our hopes were in the hands of the empire who had freed us, the British Empire that the ANZACS has signed on to defend. But despite all sorts of promises, we were bartered for power and betrayed. So, the fight that cost the ANZACs their lives, the fight for our freedom though mercifully over for them, it is not over for us.
As we honor and salute the ANZAC’s sacrifice, we invite you to become part of our story too, my story, so that one day, our homeland will allow the families of ANZACS to visit Gaza as freely as they visit Gallipoli. On that day, together we will celebrate the freedom for which they died, and for which we struggle, 100 years on, and which we too will finally win, Inshallah.
Happy Anzac Day. Shukran شكرا Happy Birthday Paul.
Loai Ahmed – Paul Costello April 2021