The Ghostly Pearl – Christmas 1999

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Compliments of Wikipedia

Quinetra or Kunetra in the Golan Heights

Kuneitra is a small city located in the Syrian Golan Heights. It borders the no man’s land between Syria and the Israelis.

Getting to Kuneitra requires advance permission from the Syrian authorities and money to pay for the taxis that will take you the 30 odd miles into the gunsights of the Israelis. I went there at the end of a 2 week trip to Syria and Lebanon.

Kuneitra region is populated by people who came from the Caucasus about a century ago. The town was once a thriving centre, the “Pearl of the Golan” for the Syrians. It also became an armed centre in the 1950s and 60s with the establishment of Israel. The sounds of gunfire became as familiar as those of the traders.

In 1967, the Israeli Anny stormed the Golan Heights and captured Kuneitra. The Syrians recaptured it in the l973 Yom Kippur War. The Israelis retook it. Finally, with a little encouragement from Henry Kissinger (the U.S. state secretary), the Israelis handed back a portion of the Golan Heights, Kuneitra included. The pearl of the Golan was now but a shadow of its former self.

I was thinking of all this as we drove out of bustling Damascus and headed into the green open plateau of the Golan where the black basalt sometimes extruded. Village after village went by and, very soon, the first roadblock appeared. I was fine as I had my passport and slip of paper.

More villages, yet another roadblock and then we rounded a bend. To the front and right were the lovely slopes of Mt Hermon, a supposed site of Christ’s Transfiguration. On the rises to the front and left, a mile distant, we saw Israeli wind machines and communication dishes. In between lay the ruins of Kuneitra.

According to the Israelis, Kuneitra was simply destroyed by the wars. However, it is also known that Israel used Kuneitra when they trained Idi Aminis forces in street-to-street fighting in the early l970s. According to Syria, Israel handed back Kunietra but only after they had stripped it of wires, windows, furniture and fittings and then demolished it.

It hasn’t been rebuilt. Much of its population are housed in new villages further back the road towards Damascus. It makes sense Rebuilding Kunietra will be a huge task. Doing so a few hundred metres from the Israelis, with no final peace deal signed and further conflict always a possibility, might not be a good idea. Besides, there is a certain pride in that Syria will not rebuild the regional capital while the Golan is still dismembered. In the meantime, it is a Mecca for day—trippers from the local villages.

Our first stop was the Golan hospital, where we walked the ruined wards. One of the outer walls was pitted with bullet holes from the time when Israeli soldiers allegedly used it for target practice. We drove past dozens of houses, all collapsed like packs of cards. Grass encroached on the roads and bushes grew wild. Further on, we saw the intact shell of the Christian church, its spire scored by bomb fragments.

The city centre is recognisable, even if it’s only a set of hollow buildings. A series of shops wait for their next customers and the mosque looks like it only needs a lick of paint and some carpets. Nearby is the cinema. So is the cemetery.

Incredibly, in this ghost city, there were two houses with people living in them. According to my taxi guide, the Israelis originally gave people the choice of living under them or retreating into Syria. Either way, they had to abandon Kuneitra. When the city returned to Syrian rule, it was not repopulated. These people defied everybody and were rewarded by President Assad, who helped them rebuild their homes.

Finally, we reached two roadblocks with about 200 metres of two-lane roadway in between. Barbed wire stretched in both directions. The only people who can go any further here are UN personnel and sometimes brides heading off to a new life in Israeli-occupied Golan.

It was all so quiet and peaceful but it was the quiet of a graveyard. Was this what it was like in Athenry after it had been sacked by Hugh 0’Donnell 400 years ago?

I had been expecting vitriolic anti-Zionist propaganda from my taxi guide, a native of the Golan region. Instead, most of his commentary was matter-of-fact and hopeful for the future. He recalled his eternal gratitude to some Israelis. One day, out shooting, he brought down a bird which fell to Earth on the wrong side of the frontier fence. Up sped an Israeli patrol which retrieved the bird and flung it to him over a minefield.

On another occasion, his farmer parents were alarmed by gunfire from the other side. It turned out that some of their livestock had strayed close to a mined region and the Israeli border guards had fired the shots to scare them away.

Elsewhere in the Golan, separated families often talk to one another using loud hailers. With the movement towards peace in the Middle East, let’s hope that pretty soon these people can put their loud-hailers away and that maybe the rest of us might enjoy an open duty-free at Kuneitra Israel-Syria border.

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About this record

Written by Paul Holland

Published here 08 May 2023 and originally published Christmas 1999

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