War Gardens – A journey through conflict in search of calm

Patricia Cleveland-Peck reviews this fascinating book by Lalage Snow

If anything proves the value of gardens this book does. We lucky gardeners living in peaceful places are subliminally aware that being outdoors surrounded by green vegetation and colourful flowers does us good. Indeed there are organisations promoting gardening as an antidote to depression and stress. How much more important a space to grow things can be to people whose lives have been, or are being, ravaged by war, devastation and death is revealed in this powerful, sad but ultimately uplifting book.

Its author Lalage Snow, a photographer and war correspondent is no stranger to conflict areas but her mission for this book is to find and interview those brave souls who carry on gardening in the face of almost unbelievable difficulties. The places in which she looks for them are familiar to us from news bulletins; Gaza, Afghanistan. Helmand, Ukraine, names which read like a litany of combat and strife.

The gardens range from the 11-hectare Babur’s garden in Kabul, originally created by the Mughal Emperor around 1528 but which later suffered a series of degradations until in the 1990s it found itself on the front line and was utterly destroyed. After the fall of the Taliban however, it was restored as faithfully as possible and is now an attractive and much loved garden/park used by the local population.

This is a success story involving a beautiful garden – at the other end of the scale are people like Sameer in Jericho whose mushroom farm is completely empty, forced out of business by devious Israeli competition or Zleika in Hebron whose tiny balcony is entirely enclosed in a cage because the Israeli settlers throw stones at her.

Between these we meet dozens of ordinary people who struggle to make things grow in hostile, war torn lands. Some do so for food, some to try to make money to feed their families and some just to have the respite of something lovely to look at. A number cling to their scraps of land long after their neighbours have fled to safely not just because they are too old or have nowhere else to go but because they feel the land is who they are.

Quite often what is being described is a pathetic patch which would hardly count as a garden to us. In the Ukraine only two walls remain of Lupvov’s house and her garden, once so productive, has been obliterated. Now she has just a couple of beans. It was seeing her pear tree destroyed which forced her temporary move to another village. “I loved that dear tree,” she said. “It was always so generous in the autumn.” She returned but alone and old she has nothing with which to rebuild her life. “Not even a needle and thread.”

One theme which runs through this book is the fact that these people rarely hate or disparage ‘the enemy’ which has put them in these dire unbearable situations. Most just lament the fact that as human beings they cannot get on together. We also learn that the soldiers at Camp Bastion have made tiny gardens. They too need the comfort of living plants.

Lalage Snow writes very well, describing the people and places vividly and truthfully. Through her we see Lupvov sitting on an upturned bucket shelling her few beans, wearing holey red leggings, a green T-shirt and a sun hat. We see the 105-year old gardener who answers Lalage’s question as to why he planted flowers in the ruins of a forgotten palace, by saying that he is a poor man and although he can live without food he couldn’t live without seeing green leaves and flowers.

As well as introducing us to these people and places Lalage Snow shares with us her own feelings and experiences. We learn that although most, but not all, the gardeners are friendly on one occasion when on her own, a man tried to be far too friendly. She escaped safe but shaken. We see her tired, hot and sweaty within a ‘nasty blue nylon burka’ with her grubby trainers poking out of the poor disguise as she collects these some of these stories. We see and hear the shells her driver dodges.

She ran risks and suffered fatigue and discomfort to give us this book and I for one feel gratitude – mixed with a strong dose of humility. Here in my tranquil Sussex garden if ever I feel inclined to get fed up about a few weeds and pests I shall try to think of the people I have met in these pages.

Read it, you won’t forget it…

War Gardens Published by Quercus P/B @ £12.99
PB ISBN 978 1 78747 071 2
EBOOK ISBN 978 1 78747 070 5