Forty years of giving dignity to Gaza’s dead
BEIT LAHIYA, GAZA STRIP // Most Palestinians living in Gaza are accustomed to seeing violent death.
But even here, Abu Mohammed is more familiar than most.
For 40 years he has volunteered to prepare bodies of those killed in conflict with Israel by cleaning and wrapping them in the bleach-white linen, called the kaffan, that Islam requires for burial.
Working through uprisings and now another war that has killed more than 270, the septuagenarian has enshrouded countless remains of children, women and friends – as well as fighters – killed during struggles since the relatively hopeful years of the first uprising against Israel in the late 1980s to the darker, bloodier conflicts that followed.
“We all accept that we could die in our struggle. This is how I pay my respect those who actually did die for Palestine,” he said from the small morgue at the Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahiya, a city in northern Gaza city.
On Friday, the casualties brought in to the morgue included three children from the Musallem family – Mohamed, 15, Wallah, 13, and Ahah, 11. They had been sleeping in the same room in an apartment close to the Israeli border when an artillery shell hit.
It is morbid work, acknowledges Abu Mohammed, who owns a company that sells construction materials. But his role is an important one, his colleagues say.
He takes no money for his services, which are available at all times of the day, whether during peace or war.
“This guy has driven to the hospital during airstrikes, bombings, during times of war when most people think it’s too dangerous to step outside their homes,” said Eyad Abu Zahar, a general surgeon who manages the emergency room at Kamal Adwan Hospital.
“Sometimes families call him at 4am. He never says no.”
Ahmed Al Hanti, 20, a medical student at Gaza’s Al Azhar University who volunteers at the hospital, described Abu Mohammed as a virtual legend in northern Gaza.
“Everyone knows him. Of course his services are a religious requirement, but he never stops working.”
A grandfather of 40 who wears crisply ironed dress shirts, polished loafers and a keffiyeh, Abu Mohammed, 75, whose given name is Ahmed Tarroush, sometimes is the butt of macabre jokes by his friends.
“They tell me they don’t want to shake my hand because they’re afraid they’ll die – immediately – if they do,” he said. “They’re joking of course.”
But no one jokes about Abu Mohammed’s commitment, stamina and courage under fire. That is when he tends to the martyrs – those killed during wartime, including men, women and children.
Religious tradition dictates that they are accorded special treatment. They forgo the Ghaseel al Mayet, or traditional burial washing, and are instead wrapped in plastic and then the kaffan because, Abu Mohammed said, “they must be sent to God with their own blood”.
During Israel’s three-week war on Gaza that began in December 2008, he prepared 450 bodies for funeral.
He spent most of that conflict, which killed as many as 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, struggling to keep up with the constant stream of corpses that overwhelmed the hospital’s modest morgue of five refrigerators.
“We were dressing the martyrs as fast as we could, but there wasn’t enough room,” he said. “I was at the hospital more than I was at home.”
The seemingly wanton destruction during that conflict drew accusations of war crimes against Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza.
That included Israel’s shelling of Al Fakhoura school in the nearby refugee camp in Jabalia on January 6, 2009, that killed 44 people who had taken shelter in the facility. One of those was a close friend, Abu Shafiq, of the Deeb family, who died along with his sons, daughters and mother, said Abu Mohammed.
He used to stop by Abu Shafiq’s home to share a cup of coffee and chat about politics. On that January day, he prepared Abu Shafiq’s corpse and those of his family.
“I was sad when I saw him. But I’m a hardened man who has a hardened heart. I felt I could cry. But no, I will never cry. Abu Shafiq was martyred and I knew he went to God.”
Abu Mohammed learnt the religious rules for burial as young man, from a local sheikh who took him under his wing. This, along with the trust of the community, allows him to offer his services.
During the first intifada, or uprising, that began in 1987, Israel would wrap the bodies in plastic for him, he said.
Killed at rallies or in clashes, the bodies were left near a checkpoint. Because of the curfews imposed at the time, Abu Mohammed and only three family members of the deceased were allowed to retrieve the body for a quick, small burial that would not attract large crowds of angry protesters and sometimes failed to meet religious precepts.
“Sometimes we had to bury them without the kaffan.”
The second intifada that began in 2000 was punctuated by Hamas suicide attacks on Israeli civilians and harsh retaliation by its military. It was even more demanding than the first, Abu Mohammed said.
By Thursday morning in the current conflict, which began on July 8, he had prepared 16 bodies.
Abu Mohammed is a refugee from Ashdod, now an Israeli city, where his family used to farm grapes before being forced to flee by Jewish forces during the fighting in 1948 that led to Israel’s creation.
“All that the Palestinians know is hardship,” he said. He vows to return to his ancestral home, just 20 kilometres beyond the concrete wall that Israel built around Gaza.
But he also is preparing younger generations for the inevitable death and destruction that he said will require Palestinians to endure until that day. That is why he has asked his nine-year-old grandson, Abed, to begin helping him prepare bodies at the hospital.
“I have to make his heart strong. He has to see death because, as a Palestinian, his existence means death. He must be ready to fight and face death,” Abu Mohammed said.
“We are forced to do this in Gaza.”
Updated: July 19, 2014 04:00 AM