Posted by Joshua on Sunday, December 14th, 2008
Dispatch from Damascus Special Edition 3-The Golan and Quneitra
Ali Khan, (07/12/2008)
Ever since I had met the UN peacekeepers at the Indian Embassy, I wanted to go and visit their base and the Golan Heights. The officers at the Embassy were very helpful in getting me the required permissions. Luckily, I managed to get a ride on a diplomatic car, which inevitably makes things a bit easier. My co-passenger was Astad Deboo, one of the most famous and accomplished performers of Indian modern dance. He was in Syria for a concert as part of the various cultural programs that have been so popular and have pushed Damascus onto the international stage as the cultural capital of the Arab World 2008. There have been music concerts, theatre, exhibitions with pieces loaned from the V&A in London and many other events. I hope that this momentum will last and carry forward into the forthcoming years. There are many Iraqi artists in Damascus who have fled the war and have carved out a niche for themselves but their voices and work needs to get international exposure and this can only be done if all the energy put into making this year Damascus’ year, is channeled into future events.
Other Syrian artisans seem to have also benefited and while watching the BBC this morning I was relieved to see a story on the thriving art scene in Damascus: an important and refreshing change from the usual political stories that are so widespread in the West. I have read stories on the Internet about how some people find Syria a stifling and restrictive as far as artistic expression is concerned. While I agree that there is always a lot of scope for changes and reform, particularly about freedom of expression, these can only be brought about gradually and systematically and will inevitably take time. In a country like India, which is often referred to as the biggest democracy in the world, we have systems of bureaucracy and governance that are at worst retrogressive and at best archaic but even there the change cannot happen overnight and might even take a few generations to take place. India, like Syria, is still recovering from the effects of brutal colonisation. One of the main methods used by colonial regimes to facilitate their rule, was to break and fragment societies so that a minority could rule a large group of people. Individuals and social or religious groups that can be played off against each other do not present a danger to the colonial governments. This inevitably leads to a fractured society in which the goal of the individual becomes survival. To a large extent, I feel that colonized countries often find it hard to develop as quickly as they are expected to because people are reduced to day-to-day survival. If society was to be viewed as a tapestry, then one could say that the intermeshing threads which bind together to create the whole are torn apart by colonialism. In order to weave this tapestry again, society needs to be re-created with new institutions, new ideas and new people. In India, we are stuck with old systems, old and often foreign ideas and people whose worldview is shaped by the occurrences of fifty years ago. Therefore, inevitably the change that we want and need, will take time and it will be a slow process, possibly even taking a few generations to finish. I do not want to seem to be defending current actions and policies but I do feel that the reforms we desire in India will only come about when new generations and new institutions replace older ideas. Change cannot happen overnight.
It is strange how one meets people in the most unpredictable places. I could not have imagined sharing a car with Mr. Deboo of all people while going to Quneitra. However, I could not have asked for better company. All the more so because we started talking in Urdu so that our conversation and observations would remain private. Our driver was a smartly dressed man who gave me the same talk that I have received from so many people, particularly those affiliated with the establishment, whom I had met in Damascus. He told me how he thought that Western people had no culture, except one of violence and war, and that they promoted sectarianism while there are no such communal problems in Syria. He was happy that Syria was ‘hosting’ the 2 million odd Iraqi refugees. When I asked if the prices of food and accommodation had increased as a result, he fell silent. I did not want to be antagonistic but a lot of Syrians I had talked to, particularly those from Damascus proper were shockingly negative about the refugees and I just wanted him to know that people like me who visit Damascus are not unaware of some of the realities. Apart from his party line comments, he was a gentle and warm man.
We left Damascus late in the morning and headed south. Mr Deboo and I talked at length about the recent carnage in Bombay and since he has lived in the city for so long, his loss was all the more personal and painful. Despite the sad conversation, it was a pleasant change to hear the jolly, slightly anglicised Parsi English accent. In between our conversations I would ask our driver about the villages we were passing through. The landscape was gradually becoming greener and more fertile. We reached new Quneitra after an hours drive and the new town was not much different from the other villages we had passed on the way. There was a main street lined with shops. The town was less dusty than Dumaiyyara, which I had visited a couple weeks earlier. Children had just finished school and little boys in their blue uniforms skipped down the street while the girls, in light pink hijabs, huddled together and giggling listening to music on someone’s mobile. Bored looking farmers sat on overturned crates surrounded by vegetables in Styrofoam boxes. Once in a while they would look around, shout something unintelligible and then relapse into their sphinx like states. I think there must be a common language for all the vegetable vendors in the world, particularly the ones that walk around selling fresh vegetables from door to door. The deep guttural proclamations coupled with the crescendo of their voices seem to me to be the same from Lucknow to Damascus.
After a short while we reached a UN check post that was manned by a single UN Peacekeeper in the distinctive blue beret. He was wearing dark glasses and as we drove by, he raised his eyebrows, nearly imperceptibly, in acknowledgment of my wave. We drove for about 2 kilometers more and then were stopped at another checkpoint. This time the post was manned by about 6 Syrians who wearing black leather jackets and looked like they hadn’t slept for a week. A portly man came up to the car and asked for the passes. The pass was a small piece of paper and he scrutinized it from various angles and read it so carefully that it almost seemed like he was reading a papal bull. I had read it earlier and all that it said was that “Approaching military zones is strictly prohibited” and of course it had our names and nationality. There was a small footnote at the end asking us to return the pass without making any copies of it. Predictably, he pretended to have found some small hitch and after a short exchange with the driver, he eventually waved us through. As we were pulling out of the check post another leather-clad man with a rather prominent belly got into the car and then turned around and said hello to us. Our driver told us that this was our ‘guide’ and that we should ask him any questions we had.
We drove in to the village and the first thing I saw was a roundabout with rubble lying around on all sides. Initially it was strange to be driving on such well-maintained roads while everything around us was reduced to rubble. Until 1967 the whole area was undisputedly Syrian and after the 6-day war Israel captured the area and defended it in the Yom Kippur war in 1973. In 1981 it unilaterally annexed the entire area, about 450 square miles, in a move that was condemned internationally and was declared illegal by different UN resolutions, not that those are taken very seriously by anyone. The area is mentioned in the infamous UN resolution 242 listing all occupied territories. Conflict is not new to the area. Around 800 BC, after the end of the United Monarchy the area was actually fought over by two Jewish kingdoms and King Ahab of Israel defeated Ben-Hadad I. According to Jewish scripture the area is part of the Canaan. It was also fought over by the Aramean kings of Damascus, Alexander the Great, the Romans and then in the 16th century it was controlled by the Ottomans, who retained power over it until WWI.
Now, Quneitra is a ghost town. Apparently, when the residents of Quneitra were evacuated, Israel made sure Israeli builders to whom the contracts had been given removed anything that could be taken apart or unscrewed. All that remains is concrete and rusted steel girders. We drove straight to the border outpost where Syrian control finishes and UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) patrolled land begins. The force was established in 1974 and they try to maintain the delicate peace that exists now. There has been no military confrontation for the past thirty years. At the border there were two trailers and a concrete building. “We will win this fight as our cause is just” was stenciled onto the wall and the quote was attributed to President Bashar al-Assad. A lone boyish looking soldier in an oversized uniform paced up and down next to the barrier as a UN Toyota Land cruiser crossed into the Syrian side. The UN officers stopped and Syrian soldiers searched the car. One of the UN peacekeepers at the Diwali party had told me that he had once gotten a lecture from a Syrian soldier because he absent-mindedly still had a crisp packet that be had bought in Israel. The foil had Hebrew letters on it and anything with even the slightest hint of being Israeli was strictly prohibited. The officers got out of the car and they turned out to be Indians. One was a Sikh with a UN blue turban and the other wore just a blue beret. They were on their way to Bosra and wanted to know the way. We said hello but only got a curt reply with a slight nod of the head in return. They were certainly not as warm as the sergeants and privates I had met in the Diwali party.
Our ‘guide’ led us towards the gate. There is a small covered platform on the side with a good view of the UN base, as well as the Israeli communications towers on the hill opposite. The Israeli base, though far away, looked imposing and at first glance one could see how technologically superior they were. Our guide told us that starting from 10 meters in front of us, the entire area was mined. The whole area is so green and fertile. I thought to myself that it was because of the abundant water and good soil that Israel refused to let the region go. The argument that it was part of Biblical Israel, Bashan, just seemed like a ruse. I think that about a third of Israel’s fresh water also comes from the Sea of Galilee which is in the region. The guide went onto tell us about how the Israelis had built a nightclub cum casino near the border and that it was really used by them to fornicate and meet ‘bitches.’ He said this in such a serious and sure manner that I had to try very hard to suppress my laughter. The way he pronounced ‘beetches’ was particularly amusing. I turned around to look at Jabal Sheikh, named so because a patch of snow that is permanently on the peak of the mountain gives it the look of an old man wearing a keffiyeh, so that they did not see my face. We were then ushered into the Lieutenant Colonel’s office and were offered a cup of Arabic coffee followed by extra sweet tea. The Lieutenant Colonel was a bald, chubby man with rosy cheeks and no mandatory moustache. He didn’t speak much and as he sat behind his desk, which had piles of papers, his oversized military cap, a well-thumbed copy of Oxford English Dictionary and mementoes left by various UNDOF countries. I imagined he looked like a Russian officer sitting in some obscure border in Kamchatka after the October revolution without any idea of what was happening outside office! He was very polite and showed a spark of life when Mr. Deboo was introduced to him and he was told that the latter was a dancer from India. When I was introduced his eyes reverted back to their distant and disinterested gaze. Perhaps he had already met Indians studying Arabic at Damascus University! After exchanging the usual pleasantries we downed our cups of tea and went out.
The guide then took us to an olive plantation. Representatives of various countries of the world have planted the trees as a gesture of peace and a symbol of hope. We were shown Cuba’s tree and of course the Indian one. In the distance on top of the mountain, the Israeli base loomed threateningly and Mr. Deboo and I joked that they were probably looking at clear pictures of our faces as we walked around and maybe the bees buzzing around us around were actually little robots! From there we drove to the Mosque and I asked if I could take pictures. The guide nodded vigorously and said that I should show people at home what the ‘Israelis had done.’ The mosque was a shell. The roof had caved in. We walked in and in the main prayer niche I saw graffiti. Someone had written ‘Viva Turkmen’ in big letters. On the other walls there was graffiti in some sort of Slavic language. Inside someone had written ‘Chechen Republic’ in big red letters. Next to it ‘Khalid’ had sprayed a proclamation of his love for Aman. I am sure Aman was a girl but just maybe he meant peace! I didn’t know what to think of it. On the one hand it violated the sanctity and holiness of the mosque. On the other hand the mosque was no longer used and since it was ruined by war, a sign of love, no matter how superficial seemed strangely appropriate. We got back into the car and drove to the Hospital via the church. The Church is right next to a Syrian guard post and so I had to be careful taken pictures. The interiors were covered in graffiti and all the doors and windows had been removed. The floor was covered in rubble and the shaft of lights coming in through the round windows spot lit little patches of concrete. The hospital is used as one of the most vivid reminders of how the village suffered. The whole building is covered in bullet holes and there is a sign above the entrance that read “Destructed by Zionists and changed it to firing target.” I saw a soldier in one of the frameless windows but as soon as our eyes met he ducked out of view. Next to the hospital are two UN bases. I was initially planning to meet my peacekeeper friends there but the ‘guide’ and the colonel had insisted that this was not possible and it was strictly forbidden for anyone to interact with the UNDOF personnel. Apparently there are still 5 families that live in the destroyed village. I asked our driver why they continued to live here when they could move to new Quneitra. He didn’t have an answer and the ‘guide’s’ answer that they wanted to live on their land did not really make sense.
The whole area is eerily peaceful with moss, conifers and wild grass growing amidst the rubble. It was hard to imagine people uprooting other people’s lives so entirely and I wanted to believe that the rubble was the result of a natural disaster and not human greed for power. The whole village has been demolished thoroughly and methodically. The twisted girders and contorted steel rods of the houses almost seem to express the pain and anguish of their owners suffering. We drove out of Quneitra and as we were leaving the guide pointed out a restaurant and urged us to eat there. It was lunchtime but neither of us thought it at all appropriate to eat surrounded by such devastating reminders of human suffering. According to him a lot of Syrians come to eat there because it has very good food. I couldn’t see any cars outside. As we drove out of Quneitra, the guide got out at the outpost, shook our hands warmly, apologised for not allowing us to meet the Peacekeepers and then said goodbye. The Land Cruiser hummed as we sped away. There was not much conversation on the way back. I stared out of the window at acres of grape vines and the wise looking Jabal al-Sheikh. It is saddening to see how so many of today’s conflicts are caused by unrelenting avarice, the desire to control natural resources, and a myopic view of history and religion. While the elite fight all over the world to advance their own interests, it is always the poor and the weak that silently bear the burden and often pay for the greed of others with their lives.
How much destruction will it take for people to wake up and realise the irreversible damage we are causing to the world and to each other? My friend told me that approximately 35 million soldiers have died in the wars of the 20th century. I do not even want to try and work out the number civilians killed deliberately or as ‘collateral damage.’ But, the violence is only becoming more and more widespread. The recent tragedy of Bombay, and the aftermath with India and Pakistan becoming more and more bellicose, is yet another reminder of how precarious the survival of our world is!