We went to get our Quneitra permits from the Ministry of Military Operations in Damascus. The town is in the demilitarised zone between Syria and the Zionist entity that has been run by UNDOF since the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. You pass through several checkpoints to get there. UN soldiers drive around in nice jeeps, with that smug I-work-for-the-UN-do-you expression (a kind of half smile mixed with steely resolve).
Quneitra, the capital of the Golan Heights, was lost to the Israelis when the Heights were captured in the Six Day War. In 1973, the Syrians briefly took it back before Israel took it again. When a ceasefire was signed in 1974, the town was returned to the Syrians, but had become unrecognisable.
Before the Israelis left, they systematically destroyed the town. The houses, already shell-damaged, were bulldozed. Everything that could be removed was stripped away, including water pipes and light fittings. Hebrew graffiti covered the walls. The aim was to make the town unlivable.
The tourist jaunt around Quneitra takes an hour. In a taxi accompanied by a Syrian military policeman, you stop at the big sights of the town – the mosque, the church, and the hospital, the most dramatic example of the destruction. We kept stopping the car so Rob could take photos. Mohammed, our allotted policeman, found this amusing in a faintly exasperated way. ‘Da’i’ah, Robert, da’i’ah bas.’
Nearing the end of the tour, he asked us if we would like to see some Israelis. Driving up to the border, or, as the Syrians call it, the demarcation line, we could see the blue and white flag waving only a hundred metres or so away across no man’s land. ‘What will happen if we throw stones at them?’ asked Rob. ‘They’ll shoot you.’ We contented ourselves with rude gestures.
ah, the old flowers-through-barbed-wire shot
He took us for tea with a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Syrian army and his sidekick, who had a little office in some Portakabins by the demarcation line. In perfect English, the Syrians told us the area was usually very peaceful. The last time shots were fired was a few years ago, and no-one had been killed from gunfire there for a long time. A child had been killed by a landmine a couple of years ago. The area was heavily mined by the Israelis; you are encouraged not to step off the paths. The Syrians do not know where the minefields are and livestock are often killed. And sometimes children.
There is some movement across the demarcation line, he told us. Because Syria considers people living in the Golan Syrian citizens, they are allowed to use their identity papers to come to Syria to study. Some come over to get married. It is, however, a one-way trip. A few years ago the UN allowed the Druze living on the Israeli side of the line to bring a few truckloads of their apples into Syria to sell. Symbolic peace apples. That’s what’s going to solve this conflict. For most people on either side, the line remains inpenetrable. Near to Quneitra there is the Shouting Hill, where people go to shout across the Heights to their friends and relatives living on the other side.
A small number of families still live in Quneitra, making their living from the UN employees, but the town is very quiet and very, very empty. Mohammed pointed out the old bank, the remains of the cinema, a former garage. It was as if the Israelis had subverted the very idea of a city; by turning it inside out, they made Quneitra the essence of a city when all the people have been stripped away. Concrete, tarmac roads, and silence. The Syrians, by leaving it untouched, have made it a city-as-memorial.