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Published: April 10th 2008
Within the troubled history of the Middle East, the Golan Heights hold a particularly inauspicious name. Fought over in both 1967 and 1973 between Israel and Syria, this piece of land was finally placed under UN control with the Syrian and Israeli forces staring sternly at each other from across the minefield laden no-man's land. Quneitra was the area’s regional capital, housing 37,000 residents, but during the dispute, Israel evacuated the population and rampantly destroyed the town. Today the UN De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) is controlled by Japanese, Indian, Austrian and Polish forces.
The previous day to this journey, I was fortunate to meet an adventurous Japanese solo traveller called Reiko. We met each other in the bustle of the Umayyad Mosque, and after watching her interact with the local people who were charmed by her almost continual infectious laugh and smile, I knew that here was someone who enjoyed travelling as much as me. I suggested that we head together to Quneitra the following day, and she was eager to accept this suggestion.
The first step of the journey to the DMZ was to obtain an entry permit to the area from the Ministry of the Interior. Reiko and
I travelled on a cloudy morning towards the well secured Ministry Office and handed over our passports. Whilst waiting, a Japanese student arrived and Reiko was most excited to be speaking her native language again. Within 15 minutes we were handed the permit for Reiko and I to travel to Quneitra. We only discovered later that the Japanese student had to wait two hours for his permit, so we were lucky to get away in a much shorter time.
Another taxi ride saw up disembark in a typically frenetic bus station on the southern outskirts of Damascus. Here we boarded one of the multitude of mini-buses and crammed into the seats. We were the only foreigners on the bus, and were met by more than a few curious stares and welcoming smiles. The bus bumped and rattled along as we passed the white capped mountains that I flew over a few weeks earlier that heralded my entrance into the tortured lands of Lebanon.
After a rickety hour, we arrived at the small town of Khan Arnabah, a non-descript village that is the final outpost of civilisation before the isolated interior of the DMZ, where an extremely affable taxi
driver called Brahim offered to drive us towards Qunetira for a reasonable price. The roads now were less populated than previously, until finally it appeared we were the only vehicle in the area. Empty fields swept passed our window as a distinctive white UN vehicle journeyed from the other direction.
We eventually arrived at a checkpoint and the corpulent security officer asked to see our passports and entry permit. He grabbed them in his rough hands and strode away. He spoke to some people near him, made a phone call or two - all whilst waving the passports and permit in the air around him. He obviously had no idea what to do with the Japanese and Australian visitor gazing at him from inside the yellow taxi. Brahim sensed what was occurring, and immediately approached the security guard, and after a few gesticulations between the parties, Brahim had the passports and permit securely in his hand, and we quickly sped off.
Finally, we were confronted with a boom gate across the road - this was the official entrance to Quneitra. This time the security personnel here did know what they were doing, for after taking the passports and
permits for inspection, we were joined by a guide (whose name we never did discover) for the journey into the DMZ. His purpose in riding with us, in the words of other security personnel, was that "he knows the mines". This ensured that we didn't end our day trip on a particularly unfortunate note.
The boom gate rose and still with Brahim at the wheel of his taxi (he had been seconded by the military to drive us around) we entered the hushed surrounds of Quneitra. I’m sure if we were being escorted by Israeli military officials that they would have painted an image of the immoral Syrian aggressors, but as it were, we were subjected to sights and stories as to why the Israelis were the immoral aggressors. For the initial part of our journey, the once thriving town seemed like a normal, albeit subdued place. However, as we drove, it was possible to glimpse grey piles of rubble in-between the lush trees, and totally razed former houses, with only the intact roof sitting flat against the grass - the rest of the building seemingly destroyed from within.
The first stop in our tour was the Golan
Hospital, an L-shaped building that was totally guttered after the evacuation. The Syrians use this hospital as the focal point of any visit, for in terms of propaganda value, it is the strongest and most powerful image within the DMZ. For not only did the Israelis ransack the hospital, but they engaged in a senseless destruction of everything within the building, spraying automatic machine gun fire into every wall and roof. Even Reiko’s normally ebullient laughter was silenced by these bullet-ridden walls. It was another sobering testament to the senselessness of armed conflict, and we were subsequently shown churches and mosques whose mute, damaged edifices spoke volumes of the destruction people can inflict on their fellow human beings.
Parts of Quneitra had not been razed, and these silent sullen streets were eerie for their quietness. For where there was once a thriving market place, all that remained was the forlorn facades of shops and restaurants. The only sense of any life was the surprisingly good condition of the roads, and the occasional birdlife that thrived in conditions that conflicting nations had made unfit for human habitation.
We passed more structures with crumbling stone and twisted metal as we
Ruins amongst the trees - Quneitra, Syria
The hills in the distance are on Israeli land.
approached the final stop on our two hour journey. Halting at an area particularly infested with barbed wire, we had arrived at the border crossing between the Syrian part of Quneitra and the Israeli crossing approximately 500 metres along an empty road, save for a modest blue and white UN border post inbetween. I was invited to take as many pictures as I wanted in any area where any form of photographs is normally prohibited - as I was told that the Syrians are “working for peace.”
At this point, an Indian UN Peacekeeper arrived, and during our initial greeting, I was able to recall enough Hindi during my previous travels in India to engage in a stilted colloquy with him. I then needed to translate our simple conversation to those around me - so here I was in a UN controlled DMZ speaking Hindi, Arabic, Japanese and English - and it was this moment, more than any other time in all my years of travelling - that I felt closest to being a citizen of the world.
After some heartfelt farewells, we left the border area and deposited our unnamed security guard back at the original checkpoint
- he had completed his job of steering us away from landmines well today, for both Reiko and I still had all our limbs intact. As we drove away from Quneitra, Reiko’s mood lifted and that laughter of hers, though initially restrained, did return with its usual energy. But again, I had been confronted by the grimness and tragedy of war - and it is unfortunately a tale that is all too prevalent in the Middle East. For despite all the advances we have made in many fields of endeavour, we still have not progressed beyond the primal and violent means with which we too often resolve disputes.
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