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Damage to Gaza War Cemetery shows challenge of caring for monuments in conflict zones

This Remembrance Day, the Gaza War Cemetery – where nearly two dozen Canadians are buried – is closed to visitors as the Israel-Hamas war enters its sixth week.
Some of the final resting places of fallen Canadians are in regions affected by armed conflict in more recent years, posing great challenges to those whose job is to preserve the gravesites. A military representative pays his respects during a Remembrance Day ceremony to honour war veterans who fought in the British Armed Forces during the World Wars at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the central Israeli town of Ramla, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Oded Balilty

This Remembrance Day, the Gaza War Cemetery – where nearly two dozen Canadians are buried – is closed to visitors as the Israel-Hamas war enters its sixth week. 

So are all other cemeteries and memorials in the Palestinian territories and Israel maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which has been taking care of monuments around the world for more than a century. 

"The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is concerned by the recent damage at the Gaza War Cemetery, where 3,217 Commonwealth casualties from the First and Second World War are commemorated," a spokesperson for the commission told The Canadian Press in an email. 

"We are monitoring the situation closely and are working to support all our dedicated colleagues and their families in the region. Their safety remains our foremost concern."

The extent of the damage to the cemetery located in Gaza City is unclear. The commission said that it’s "currently not in a position to comment" further on the matter. 

But the cemetery highlights the challenges of maintaining the final resting places of soldiers in parts of the world affected by more recent outbreaks of violence and war. 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for the commemoration of 1.7 million men and women who died for the Commonwealth during the First and Second World Wars, including more than 110,000 Canadians. It also cares for gravesites where soldiers who were part of other missions are buried.

The commission, which receives annual funding from Canada and other member countries, maintains war gravesites – including graves of several hundred Canadian veterans buried abroad after the Second World War – at approximately 23,000 locations in 150 countries. 

Those locations include cemeteries and memorials in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Israel as well as Gaza, where grave and tombstone upkeep can be difficult or downright impossible amid waves of intense violence. 

Most of the Canadians buried at the Gaza War Cemetery were not casualties of the two world wars. They were part of a United Nations peacekeeping operation in the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s, according to the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission's website describes the Gaza cemetery as an "oasis of calm," tended to by generations of one family, along with other dedicated staff. It also details past efforts to fix the damage to the site caused by previous outbreaks of violence. 

"It is very much a sacred and solemn duty that they have accepted and that they continue to carry out," Tim Cook, the chief historian at the Canadian War Museum, said of the commission.

"I'm almost certain that most Canadians do not know that there are Canadian service personnel who are buried around the world, having served in multiple campaigns and armies and navies and air forces."

Some of those personnel are buried in war cemeteries in Iraq, where "the current climate of political instability" has made it "extremely challenging" for the war graves commission to do its work, a message on its website says. A "major rehabilitation project" is planned once the political climate has improved there. 

The commission also says on its website that parts of the Maala Cemetery in Yemen, where some members of the Royal Canadian Air Force were buried, have reportedly been damaged due to ongoing violence in that country. It's currently not safe for commission staff to do the necessary repair work, it added.

Veterans Affairs Canada said in an email statement that it "continues to work closely" with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and other member nations "to ensure all Commonwealth cemeteries and memorials are maintained to the highest standard."

Cook has visited many Commonwealth cemeteries over the years and he calls them "sacred" places. 

"They are filled with history. They are steeped in sorrow," he said. "And they are very powerful spots."

In the email to The Canadian Press, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission noted that its sites experience "serious and complex damage" not just from conflict, but from various environmental conditions as well – such as an eroded seawall at a cemetery in Sierra Leone. 

"The Commission is not concerned about the future and sustainability of its work under such circumstances," the spokesperson said. 

"We have passionate, dedicated, and experienced staff who work to ensure the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the World Wars are remembered in perpetuity."

Cook, who has written 17 books on Canadian military history, said the longevity of the commission's work lies in the fact that it's "for all of the fallen from the Empire" – even if they have no living relatives or descendants to visit their graves.

"History is always there for us to discover it," he said. "And there may be periods when we as individuals, or communities, or a country don't care much about our history, but history will always care about us."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2023.

Sonja Puzic, The Canadian Press