'I buried 137 bodies in one day': Gaza gravediggers turn to mass burials

Cemeteries have been overwhelmed by the number of dead from Israeli strikes on the Palestinian enclave

Breeze blocks are used as tombstones at the Deir Al Balah cemetery in the central Gaza Strip. AFP
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Gaza gravedigger Saadi Al Hasan Al Sulaiman had to bury 137 bodies in a random mass grave in a single day, as the main cemetery reached its capacity.

“In a small space of six metres, I had to bury 45 bodies,” said Mr Al Sulaiman, 63, who has been in charge of the Deir Al Balah cemetery in central Gaza for decades.

“I buried 137 bodies in the mass grave,” he told The National on Friday. “I have never buried so many bodies in my whole life.”

More than 10,800 people, including at least 4,300 children, have been killed in Israeli strikes and shelling on the besieged Palestinian enclave since the Hamas attacks in southern Israel on October 7 that killed 1,400 Israeli soldiers and civilians.

In its quest to “eradicate” Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, Israel has hammered the Palestinian enclave, claiming it was hitting military targets but striking houses, tower blocks, ambulances, hospitals, schools and cars.

No one can know where their family is buried. All I can say is that we have mass graves of unknown bodies
Saadi Al Hasan Al Sulaiman, overseer of Deir Al Balah cemetery in central Gaza

As the war entered its second month this week, most cemeteries are either full or inaccessible, so gravediggers and relatives of the dead have had to improvise.

Before Deir Al Balah cemetery reached capacity, Mr Al Sulaiman said he had buried hundreds of bodies there, mostly of children and women.

“We had at least 600 martyrs here to bury and then there was no space any more, no blocks, no cement. Nothing is left,” he said.

“No one can know where their family is buried. All I can say is that we have mass graves of unknown bodies.”

Bodies have piled up outside hospitals, on roads and in parks, in refrigerated lorries, and even in an ice cream van.

Mass burials have been authorised by clerics in Gaza.

Local authorities said they were inclined “to perform our rightful and moral duty toward those martyrs to bury them”, so they had prepared mass graves in multiple areas.

Residents told The National they are increasingly burying people in their backyards and farms.

“I offered my land to a family that lost relatives so they can bury their loved ones. They had nowhere else,” said one resident.

Mr Al Sulaiman, who has lived through several Israel-Hamas conflicts since 2006, said he never could have imagined the scenes of death he is witnessing now.

“I can't sleep – I can't close my eyes after all those children’s bodies I had to bury.”

Updated: November 10, 2023, 5:59 PM