Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2000, pages 10-12

Special Report

A View From Damascus: Internal Refugees From Golan’s 244 Destroyed Syrian Villages

Text and Photos by JoMarie Fecci

The heart of the matter is the Golan. There can be no peace in the region without the return of the Heights to Syria.

For Syria the occupied Golan is more than simply 1,250 square kilometers of land. Before 1967, according to Madhat Saleh Al-Saleh, member of parliament, there were 249 Arab villages there. After the Israelis occupied the area, 244 of those villages were destroyed and the 147,000 inhabitants forced to leave. Only five Syrian villages still remain in the part of Golan that Israel occupies. These villages, in the mountainous north of Golan, were spared because U.N. forces arrived before they could be destroyed.

The displaced Golanis and their families now number about 500,000, most still living together in the places where their Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps were set up around Syria. The Israelis built 42 Jewish settlements in the area they occupied.

“The problem as portrayed by the Western media is ”˜what will happen to these settlers?’” says Al-Saleh. “What is never mentioned are the people who were kicked out in the first place. Now there are 500,000 people from the occupied Golan who are forcibly prevented from going home.”

The Golan Displaced

Three men excitedly hunch over a map of the Golan in Sati al-Ahmad’s office. They are marking the place where their village used to be—just near the eastern bank of Lake Tiberius.

For over 30 years these men have been “temporary” residents of what started out as an IDP camp near Damascus. They gave their camp the name Bteha, which was the name of their village. The streets, too, are named after those of Bteha.

The village itself was destroyed in 1967.

As a young man, Suleim al-Ali used to swim and fish in Lake Tiberius. “I remember my land. I had olives, wheat and chickpeas. I inherited the land from my grandfather. I wasn’t ”˜rich,’ but I was able to live normally with my family there. I was a farmer, but now I am in a city. Life is stressful—I have no land to work—there is just poverty and boredom,” says Al-Ali.

The government has tried to ameliorate the conditions of the Golan refugees. They were given priority for public service jobs and places in universities. While their children were able to adapt, the older generation has remained set in the traditional ways of the fellah.

When they were first displaced, the “new” Bteha was a refugee camp. Over the years the government built permanent dwellings for the residents. However, according to Antoine Chamoun, “The people refused to live in apartments. They wanted to reconstruct and live as they had been, in small villages of 10 families. But building a village costs more than building an apartment block.”

The original simple single-family houses the government eventually built have been expanded by residents as their family size grew. Now there are 22,000 people living in “new” Bteha. Al-Ahmad, as the president of the Municipal Council, represents them. He was 17 years old when he left the village he still remembers in his dreams.

“I remember very well what the Israelis did with us,” he says. “When it began, we fled the house to avoid the bombing. We were hiding in the fields near the village and they found us and made us get down on our knees in a semi-circle with our hands behind our heads and they emptied our pockets and took our stuff—even watches and identity cards.”

Mohieddine al-Omar had just harvested his wheat. He left it behind along with all his possessions when he fled. He thought he was leaving his house for only a few days. “Now there’s nothing left—no artifacts, no photos, nothing. But I never stop speaking to my children of the beauty and richness of our region. I remember every tree,” says Al-Omar.

The land is even important to those who have built successful new lives for themselves in Damascus or elsewhere. Mohammad Ali Bouri speaks several languages and has an excellent situation in Damascus. He fled on foot, with his mother and siblings, when the bombing started around his village back in 1967. But his success in Damascus hasn’t lessened his desire to return to the place where he was born.

“Every villager who was made to leave still has land in his name,” Bouri explains. “We would like to go back to our lands. Every one of us wants to live with our grandsons on our own land.”

The people of Bteha will not forget what the Israelis did to them. But they are willing to live side-by-side in peace after the Israelis withdraw from Golan. “We go toward peace sincerely. If the Israelis want peace, let them make it with us,” says Al-Ali. “Inshallah, sooner or later there will be peace and we will see the east bank of Tiberius. Then maybe we can swim in the lake again.”

On The Syrian Side of the Cease-Fire Line

The rich soil and availability of water combined with the varied geography make this area an agricultural paradise—with the fruits of all seasons available at the same time. The Jabal al Shaikh, or old man mountain (Mount Hermon), so named because it remains snow-capped all year round, provided the region with a plentiful source of pure mountain water. Now the the highest peaks on Jabal al Shaikh are crowned by two Israeli radar surveillance installations.

In Haddar, close to the cease-fire line, villagers are pruning the dead wood from apple trees, preparing for spring. Naif Rikab, 57, looks up to the mountain that dominates the landscape, then says simply, “We want peace and our land back. Who doesn’t want peace? But it doesn’t mean we don’t go on with our normal lives.”

He cuts a few more branches from the apple trees before speaking lovingly about the sweetness of his figs. Land for Rikab is not “real estate,” it is part of his identity.

His village has been separated from its sister village, Madjal Shams, on the Israeli side of the cease-fire line, ever since 1967, when the Israelis erected a “technical fence.” To communicate with relatives in Madjal Shams, Rikab must stand on one side of the “shouting valley” at Wadi Sulah, and speak to them via megaphone while they stand on the other side.

Remembering Quneitra

Merkava tanks firing can also be heard across the “shouting valley.” The Israelis are training, as they do almost every day, on their side of the cease-fire line, and the sound seems an echo of the past in the ghost city of Quneitra.

“Neat and orderly” rows of collapsed concrete houses are a surreal and silent witness to the methodical destruction the Israeli forces intentionally wrought upon the entire city as they pulled back from Quneitra in 1973, leaving it on the Syrian side of the line.

Some 53,000 people lived here before 1967. Now sheep wander through the rubble of their homes. The government has left the ghost town as it was found in 1973.

“It was a beautiful city—active and central,” says Suleman Taweed, remembering Quneitra. “Now it’s ruins. When [the Israelis] were there we didn’t know what they were doing. When we saw it destroyed, we were shocked. What happened to the city was uncivilized.”

JoMarie Fecci is a photojournalist based in the New York City area.

SIDEBAR

A View From Damascus: Why Shepherdstown Failed

“If Israel had been sincere at Shepherdstown we would have signed something there,” says Fayez Sayegh, director general of the Syrian Arab News Agency. “When Israel is ready to recommence in a serious manner, then we can start immediately.” Sayegh was present at Shepherdstown and is quite familiar with the problems that stopped the process there.

The Syrians had approached Shepherdstown with a real sense of optimism. “We saw that what put Barak in power was his desire for peace. The voters saw him as the successor to Rabin. Barak could have profited from this spirit to move forward in a way that his internal enemies could not use to hurt him. But now, with the passage of time, the enemies of peace seem to be encircling Barak and suffocating peace,” says Sayegh. The Syrian delegation’s high expectations only made the lack of progress at the talks more frustrating.

Sayegh charges that from the outset Israel wanted to put the “frontiers” issue to the back of the agenda. He recalls, “We were there in a meeting for normalization and security. Then when we went to the ”˜frontiers’ meeting the Americans were there, but the Israelis did not come. It was the same for the water meeting.” After intervention by the Americans, work was begun again. This time the Israelis were present, but they didn’t discuss the issues.

Explaining the main impasse that blocked further talks, Sayegh says, “It’s clear that frontier lines are the most important issue. Everything depends on frontiers. Security must be set on the sides of frontiers; the frontiers will decide the questions of water. The only issue that can be taken a bit apart is normalization, but there’s no sense to it if we can’t agree on frontiers. The ”˜Syrian position’ is for simultaneous work of four committees, but work can only go ahead if the frontier question is unblocked.”

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