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Families Shout Their Love Across Minefields in Golan Heights

New America Media, News Feature, Text and Photographs: Sarah Shourd Posted: Feb 23, 2009

Editor's Note: Syrians living in the Golan Heights under Israeli occupation often face tough choices between their futures and their families. Golan residents can go to Syria to study, but then the only way to meet their families back in the Golan is to stand across mine-strewn grass fields and shout their messages. Sarah Shourd (sarahshourd@gmail.com) went along for a recent trip. She is a teacher-writer-activist from California, currently living in the Middle East.

DAMASCUS, Syria--Approaching the Golan Heights from the east the first thing you notice is Jabal Al-Sheik. It stands tall on the horizon with its base tightly wrapped in a blanket of green and its snowy peak flashing in the sun. The mountain used to be an uncontested part of Syria. Then, in 1967, Israel seized control of it along with over 690 square miles of Syrian land, now called the Occupied Golan Heights.

Golan HeightsToday happens to be Valentine's Day. It's also the day a bus-load of students from Damascus are traveling to "Shouting Hill," where they will yell at the top of their lungs across a quarter-mile-wide grassy field covered with land-mines to their relatives on the other side.

It's the only way they have to express themselves. The students are part of a scholarship program sponsored by UNESCO and the Syrian government designed to get them out of Israeli-occupied territory for five years to attend the University of Damascus. The catch? When the five years are up they have to go back to the occupied territory. In the meantime they can only step foot on Golani soil once a year, during summer break.

I'm sitting next to Jawad Abu Zed on the bus. The more he talks the more I begin to understand that the Occupied Golan Heights, the place where he was born, is a perfect study in the cruel, bitter irony of borders. Even though Jawad is a Syrian citizen, the first time he was allowed into Syria was four years ago, as a student. He can travel anywhere he likes in Israel but he may never be able to return to his own country, Syria, once the program is finished.

In the meantime, in order to enjoy the privilege of visiting his own country he had to give up the privilege of going home. "Even if my father dies," Jawad says, "[Israel] won't let me go to Occupied Golan."

The Israeli government makes it as difficult as possible for Syrian youth to experience life in their real country. Phone calls are expensive and the connection is often bad. With the summer still five months away, there's nothing else for these families to do but meet at the opposite edges of Occupied Territory and shout across at each other. "At least I can hear them," Jawad says.

On the bus, one of the students passes around a metal thermos filled with hot, strong coffee grown in the Golan. We pass through the "Liberated Zone," land that Syria took back from Israel by force in 1973, where fresh grass grows over war scars. For decades, the Israeli government has tried to bring the population of the Golan Heights into the fold. "They control the schools and teach us only in Hebrew," Jawad says. "They want to make me feel that I am just like an Israeli, but no one in the Golan Heights wants to be Israeli."

The day for this trip was not chosen in honor of St. Valentine. We left the widespread enthusiasm for the Western-imported holiday behind in Damascus. Twenty-seven years ago, on Feb. 14th, 1982, the Israeli government made a decision to force the Syrian inhabitants of the Golan Heights to become citizens of Israel. Golanis responded by staging a general strike, burning identity cards and boycotting Israeli goods. After six months, Israel was forced to retract its decision and people were left with their Syrian citizenship safe and intact.

Listening to their stories, it seems hard to understand why Israel hangs onto such a small sliver of land despite the international outcry against its illegal occupation. But it all leads back to Jabal Al-Sheik. The first reason has to do with military strategy. The area around the Golan is relatively flat for hundreds of miles but "from Jabal Al-Skeik, the Israeli military can spy on Lebanese airports, Hezbollah and Syrian airports," Jawad explains. "It's the highest place in the area."

Perhaps even more importantly, the snowy peaks of Jabal Al-Sheik keep the Jordan River watershed full even in the driest season of the year. Rain and snow water collect in the Sea of Gallile, from which Israel gets 15-30 percent of the water it needs for the entire country. This reliable water source has attracted hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers who get to enjoy the cool, clean melt-off for no cost while Syrians have to pay for it.

"Israel steals water from us," Jawad says, "and then sells it back." At a time when Israel has admitted that it may soon have to import water and Syria has been suffering three years of drought, it's not difficult to understand why this important water source is so hotly contested.

We enter the last checkpoint, and a UN guard steps onto the bus. "Are all the students here from the Golan?" he asks. "Yes," the driver replies, "they are all from Golan."

Once off the bus, we join hundreds of people standing on the edge of a cliff that borders the Golan Heights. On the other side of the flat, green valley below us is the village where Jawad lived most of his life, Majdal Shams.

The view in the distance is punctuated with hazy mountains and more farmland. White and yellow houses are stacked up the side of a small mountain on densely packed streets. The whole scene looks quite idyllic, as long as you don't mind the face-off between UN and Israeli military forces and the barbed wire and ubiquitous tanks.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Jawad smiles as we make our way to the front of the crowd.

There are hundreds of protesters gathered on both sides and political speeches are being broadcast from a sound system in the back of a truck. "The Golan Heights has always been and will always be Syria," the voices insist, "and the Israeli presence is entirely illegal."

Soon the speeches let up and a brief moment of silence engulfs us. Then the shouting begins. Somehow the small voices of Majdal Shams reach across the empty expanse. One woman in a fuzzy purple coat with dyed blond hair yells to her sister across the expanse, "Neeena! How are you? It's me, Nawar!"

With his zoom camera, Jawad finds his aunt and his cousin waving from the other side. Even in the picture their figures are fuzzy and hard to make out, but soon he can hear them calling back. "My friend Ahd is there too, and my brother Byan," he says and shouts back at them. "This is very emotional for me. I won't even be able to kiss my mother or sister for five more months."

For the first time in eight years, there's some indication that Syrian-Israeli deadlock over the Golan Heights might be beginning to thaw. Negotiations for a comprehensive peace took place twice this year through a Turkish mediator. Sammy Moubayed, editor-in-chief of FWD Magazine says that, "Now, with a change in leadership in Israel and the White House, perhaps an agreement can be reached."

Jawad has completed his degree in English literature. In a few months he will have to go home. I ask him what his prospects are upon returning. "In the Golan, we have to work like dogs and our futures are limited," he says. "If I apply for a good job in Israel they won't accept me, even though I have a degree it means nothing until I finish their training. I will have to work for two years constructing Jewish settlements in order to make enough money for the training."

Jawad sighs and looks out the window at the fields of wheat dotted with volcanic rock. "When I travel to Shouting Hill, I feel happy that soon I will be with my family," he says, "but I also feel sad that we are in Occupied Territory. In some ways I feel more free in Damascus."

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