Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A visit to Quneitra.

Located at the southern end of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains lies the Golan Heights, an area surrounded by four countries: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. With its fertile soil and abundance of water, the rocky plateau has been a scene of battles between regional powers for several centuries over who controls the land.

Originally part of Syria, the land was lost to Israel on June 10th, 1967, the last day of the June War (for Arabs) or the Six-Day War (for Israelis). It was briefly recaptured in 1973 during the Ramadan War/October War (for Arabs), or the Yom Kippur War (for Israelis), when Egypt and Syria launched simultaneous attacks on Israeli-controlled Sinai and Golan Heights, but Israel regained control in its subsequent counter-offensive. It was only in the negotiations following a ceasefire that Syria was able to regain some 450 square kilometers, a demilitarized United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) zone a couple of kilometers from the 'de facto' border between the two countries. At the eastern edge of the zone lies Quneitra, a city which was completely destroyed when Israeli troops withdrew in 1974. For many reasons, Syria has left the city almost exactly as the Israelis left it.

When I visited Syria at the end of February, Quneitra was the first place I visited. Although situated only 60 kilometers southwest of Damascus, I hired a driver because public transportation to the area doesn't come with frequency and would have required changing microbuses at Garage Sumariyah in Damascus and then a change to a service taxi (shared taxi) from the town of Khan Arnabeh, plus I had also heard recent rumors that you couldn't enter the U.N.-supervised zone unless you have your own transport. The road that heads down to Quneitra is picturesque, going through fields and farms, many of them producing vegetables, especially the olive, which is a specialty of Syria. When the snow-covered Mount Hermon of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains started appearing on the right, it was a sign that we were getting near, and soon we could start seeing some vehicles with 'U.N.' stickers.

Since Quneitra is part of the UNDOF zone, there was a gate, where Syrian officials stopped our car to check my passport and permit, which I had arranged in advance at the Ministry of Interior in downtown Damascus. It was a mere five minutes until they gave me back my passport and a Syrian officer hopped on the car to guide us around the demolished city. As we went on, houses with roofs lying on the ground and walls completely knocked or torn down started to appear on both sides of the street. We went through sites where there used to be shops, a mosque, a church, a school, and also a hospital, but obviously, all were vacated. The government does not encourage former residents to come back, and the few who still remain in town cater for the U.N. troops and visitors.

At the western edge of the battered city were barbed wires, which mark the 'de facto' border, beyond which is effectively Israeli-occupied land. There is an unofficial border crossing that primarily allows Syrian Druze from the Golan Heights to cross one way through the passage to study, work and live in the rest of Syria. Only those who receive special permission are allowed to cross the border and come back for the Habil pilgrimage. More recently, apples produced in the Golan have been shipped across the border into Syria. However, no way is the crossing open to anybody else, obviously, as the two nations are officially still at war.

It truly was a ghost town with an eerie atmosphere, but it's not as simple as that. We were able to get off the car and walk around in some places, but could hear nothing. Just voices of us and the sound of our footsteps, plus the occasional wind. On the walls of some buildings, we could see Arabic inscriptions as well as those written in Hebrew, probably left by the Israeli soldiers. The Arab-Israeli conflict is one that is extremely delicate and has been complicated by the powers influencing the nations in a tangled web of relations. Israel was heavily criticized by the United Nations for the city's destruction, while Israel has criticized Syria for leaving the city as it is and claimed the Syrians added further damage to exaggerate. However, we have to remember that it's the locals who are the most affected. Their houses were burnt down by the Israelis, and now Syria is telling them they can't go home. The entire population is now scattered around the country.

On the way out of the area, we saw two groups, probably families, picnicking on grassland near the crushed buildings. Syrians like picnicking, and perhaps those were just some people longing for their peaceful return to their motherland.

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