When I was a child, I used to pass by the el-Ma’madany [“Baptist”] graveyard in Gaza City with my dad whenever we went to the market. I always cried and held my father’s hand tightly because I had heard that people lived among the tombs. That was such a scary thought!
When I grew up, I had endless curiosity; I wanted to learn more about everything around me. But this graveyard remained shrouded in mystery—until a few days ago. When one of my neighbors died, I was hesitant to go to his funeral since I didn’t know him personally. But finally, I went. I walked in his funeral procession along with hundreds of his relatives, and went to the el-Ma’madany graveyard, my old nightmare, to bury him. This was my first chance to find out if the story was true.
And…it was. I trembled when I saw dozens of people camped out among dead, looking at us while we buried our friend. I wondered if we were the strangers, because we had invaded their “big house,” or if they were, since they had left our world to live among the graves.
I left the crowd of people and gradually crept closer to those “strangers,” pretending to look for a grave of a relative of mine. I got closer and closer until I saw entire families living in small, makeshift homes made of tin plates. Kids and their parents watched the funeral while playing games on and beside the gravestones spread among their homes.
I decided to strike up a conversation with one of the men by asking if he knew where to find the grave of a relative.
“Do you know where the Arafats’ graves are?” I asked a man who I learned was Mohammed Khail, 34, after shaking his hand.
He guided me to some of my relatives’ graves, with his little daughter following us.
“I was wondering why you guys are living here,” I said tentatively. “Did you lose your homes during the last war on Gaza?”
“I was born between the tombs,” he said.
His words shocked me. My heart started to beat fast.
“My parents were expelled from their village [in the land now called Israel] during the 1948 Nakba” [catastrophe], and they fled to Gaza,” he explained. “They were hopeful of finding a home, but no one helped them.”
His parents found shelter in the cemetery, building a sort of house from tin plates. But what was supposed to be temporary became permanent as their poverty and the lack of resources in Gaza only deepened. Mohammed earns a few Israeli shekels (a couple of dollars at most) per day driving residents around Gaza City in his horse-drawn cart.
“Over time, our home became too small since our family grew, so we built some more walls and enlarged it,” Mohammed explained. Today, he lives in the cemetery with 14 of his family members, including his parents, kids, brothers, sisters and in-laws.
Asked how he could bear living among the dead, Mohammed challenged me. “How is living among the dead is worse than living among the living? The people who breathe are why we are here. They haven’t helped us.”
I looked at his daughter, who I guessed was about 9 years old, and asked how she felt about living in a cemetery.
“It’s very cold. But we play here because we don’t have other places to go,” she said. The girl was shy to talk much but added, “Graves don’t scare us. We’re used to them.”
Her father interjected, however, that, “It’s very dangerous for the kids here. There are lots of stray dogs and big, nasty insects, rats, snakes and lizards. I just want to get out of this area to start a new life for my family.”
I called an official from the Palestinian Ministry of Waqaf [endowment] and Religious Affairs who refused to mention his name. He told me that he has urged the new unity government to find a solution for these people, “but I am sure there are no plans for them right now.” In fact, he admitted that in 2015, his ministry had asked municipal officials to impose restrictions on cemetery living so the cemetery can be better policed.
I left for home sadly, wondering if the new government would help them find alternatives so they live more like humans. Or will they continue to be buried alive like they are now?