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Lalage Snow, an award-winning freelance photojournalist, has covered war and unrest in the Middle East and Afghanistan since 2007, making Kabul her home for over five years. Her first book, War Gardens, explores the lives of those whose gardens serve as an antidote to their war-ravaged environments.
Here, Lalage discusses the reasons why people garden in war zones – as what might seem like a trivial activity to some in light of the situation, may serve a sense of purpose to others.
Mohamed Kabir (105). He had a small patch of scrubland in the middle of a ruined palace in Kabul where the Afghan National Army had an outpost. He told me he had worked with his father as a gardener in the palace grounds when the palace was being built and had wonderful (if a little fanciful) stories about the palace in the early twentieth century, drinking tea with the then queen beneath apricot trees and elephants. He described an Afghanistan only poets and writers could ever imagine. When we met he was employed to tend to a ‘kitchen’ garden for the soldiers stationed there – growing vegetables off which they could live. He brought to work with him one day a number of seeds from his own garden at home to grow flowers. In the middle of the ruins of the palace his scraggly garden was a sight to behold. Geraniums, sunflowers, rudbekia, maize, marigolds… nothing matched, nothing looked pretty by our western standards but he said ‘everything here is from paradise.’ I asked the soldiers based there what they thought; ‘Green is happiness, green is peace; who doesn’t like that?’, they said.
When war broke out in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 the supermarkets began to close as food imported from CHina and Russia began to dry up. The interior of shops then was not unlike what we see now with Corona pandemic; empty shelves, no produce, price hikes etc. In Ukraine the supply chain was so fractured shops were abandoned and boarded up and the civilian population began to return to the old ways of subsistence gardening – which, incidentally had been popular during the soviet era. I met countless people who were having to think – and grow – creatively in order to supplement their meagre income. Victor and Lubvov lived in a small village which had been used as a rebel checkpoint for a number of weeks. They had a large productive garden which they not only lived off but sold the surplus crops to passers by. When they returned to the village after the army had defeated the rebels the only thing left growing were two small peppers.
I met Zleika in Hebron – a city divided into two. Her front door was on the main street of Hebron – al Shuhada street – which was off limits to any Palestinian. in order to reach her home she therefore had to clamber through a longwinded network of alleyways and stairwells. she had a balcony overlooking the blocked off road and it was surrounded by a chicken wire fence. I assumed it had been put in place by the Israeli army to stop her from climbing down into the street and disobeying the law. In actual fact she had caged herself into her balcony to keep the Hebronite settlers (who are commonly acknowledged to be some of the most fanatical and violent of all) out. In the photograph you can see shadows of the rocks that settlers have thrown at her. But Zleika continued to garden in plain sight and with rocks clattering around her because ’to garden here shows that I am not beaten.’
Not so far away from Zleika I met Milly, a former English teacher originally from Chicago. She was a kind and gentle woman and I found it hard to reconcile this countenance with the idea of her being an illegal settler. Her garden was a little shabby however – which I put down to shmita – the Jewish practice of leaving land fallow for a year every so often. She suddenly said, as my fixer and I were leaving, ‘I guess I should tell you, if you are writing about gardens . . .‘This garden became really important to me after I lost my son.’ She went on to explain that one sunny afternoon a few years ago her son had been driving along a road not too far away when some angry Palestinians started throwing stones at his car. ‘One went clean through the windshield and killed him instantly. He veered of the road and crashed in a ditch. When the ambulance came, they also pulled the body of my grandson out of the wreckage.’ I realised then that Milly was just a mother shrouded in deep, deep loss. Her garden was too. it wasn’t shmita which has caused it to fade, but grief. ‘Losing a child, it is the hardest thing in the world. So that is why I garden. It helps me grieve, and when I am here, I am filled with sunshine. I mean, even if it is dark. Anyway,’ she trailed off and stared at the ground, ‘I hope it is helpful for you. For your project. To understand.’
Gardening harnesses time. In days of crisis and worry to garden is to be sure that there is a future. It is to know that in two weeks, months, years this thing that I plant will still be growing; it will have roots. One of the most inspiring people I met was Ofer Grunweld, a bonsai specialist in the botanical gardens of Jerusalem. As an artist living and working in a place so hotly contested by three major religions of the world, Ofer was always trying to find links between them. But bonsais tell their individual histories, according to Ofer. ‘Each tree swallows itself whole once a year and there’s something in that perpetuity, like an echo. When you look at the rings of a tree it is like going back in time; they are trying to tell you their story. Sometimes you might find a charred layer from three or four hundred years ago and you think, what happened then? Why was the tree on fire?’ It is a beautiful mystery.’ Ofer was working with some of the oldest olive tree roots which had been torn up by developments and building in the west bank. They would have otherwise been sent to firewood had he not salvaged them. Some of the trees there were 2000 years old. ‘as old as time,’ he said. ‘When you work with a living organism you have to let go of your ego and work with the tree, not against it. The trees outlive us. They outlive our children, our grandchildren and so on. So long as they are looked after.’
Find War Gardens on Amazon here.
Images courtesy of Lalage Snow. Details as follows:
Image 1 – Mohamed Kabir
Image 2 – Ofer
Image 3 – Peppers growing on a plot
Image 4 – Victor and Lubvov
Image 5 – Barbed wire fences
Image 6 – Milly
Image 7 – Zleika
Image 8 – Lalage Snow