Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Dispossessed People, A Destroyed Village, And Vivid Memories

My first day trip away from Damascus was to a place called Quneitra.  Quneitra is in an area called the Golan Heights.  The Golan Heights includes a section of land that comprises the border between Syria and Israel.  In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel annexed territory from Palestine, and also annexed the Golan Heights from Syria.  Israel wanted a buffer zone to protect against attacks from Syria.  Following the Yom Kippur War on 1973, a delicate arrangement was arranged between Israel and Syria, brokered by the U.S. In which Israel agreed to relinquish 450 square kilometers of the annexed territory.   

Enter, Quneitra.  Quneitra was the administrative capital of this region of Syria, the Golan Heights.   Israel's decision to relinquish a swath of the annexed territory back to Syria was not without consequence for the Syrian's of Quneitra.  As Israel withdrew from the 450 sq km, they destroyed everything in their path.  First, they evacuated 37,000 Syrians, and then they systematically and effectively wiped Quneitra off the map.

Quneitra is now a ghost town.  Banks, museums, shops and homes are at ground level, reduced to fist-sized chunks of concrete intermixed with mangled rebar.  Larger buildings such as mosques, schools, and hospitals have been shelled heavily with pockmarks scarring the remaining pillars and walls.   

The Golan is a particularly green and lush area, especially by Middle East standards.  The day I visited Quneitra, the wind was quite strong and light rain was being whipped around by the rain.  Fog sat on the horizon, limiting visibility.  Among the calm and quiet and beauty of the landscape, were scenes of the most destruction and desolation that I have ever seen. 

After traveling through the center of the town and traversing the barren staircase that once provided access to the 4 stories of the Quneitra hospital, we headed closer to the border between the UN controlled zone, and the rest of the Golan, which Israel now occupies and controls.  Looking out on the horizon, into the annexed Golan, you could see houses and cultivated fields.  I asked our driver if Syrians still live in the homes that we could see in the distance.  He assured us that many Syrians still live in the Golan, but family or friends who want to visit must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Interior.  Many young people leave the Golan for many years to finish school and then return to live with their families.  These Syrians who travel back and forth in the territories, face Israeli and UN troops and are made to cross many checkpoints after applying for numerous required permits.  But after talking about the Syrians, our driver reminded us that Israeli settlers also live in the Golan.  The settlers came in 1981, solidifying Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights.   

Continuing down the road to the border gate, I saw a sign in the distance.  I squinted and made out a sign which stopped me dead in my tracks...  

“Welcome to Israel” 

There were also Israeli flags dotting the barbwire fence which demarcated the border.  It felt so unfair.  I didn't know what to say or do.   

One of the other people with us, asked our driver, “Is that Israel over there?”

“No, it's Syria.  It's all Syria.” 

Getting back in the car, my eyes were glued to the window of the van, to see once more the destruction and devastation that was brought upon Quneitra.  As I talked with the driver on the way back, I found that he was from Quneitra. 

“Wow I didn't know.  Do you remember 1967?  Do you remember 1973?  Do you remember it all?”

“Of course.  I remember it all.  I remember everything.  It's hard to forget.”