Voices from the Golan
ACCORDING TO WIDESPREAD PUBLIC PERCEPTION, the Golan Heights prior to the 1967 occupation was a largely empty land, inhabited by a few thousand Druze in the north, awaiting development and settlement by Israel. Yet the Golan was a thriving, if almost wholly agricultural, region with a diverse population of 153,000 living in 163 villages and 108 "farms" (large agricultural domains often established in Ottoman times). Some 70 percent of the Golan Heights was seized by Israel during the June 1967 war. The part that fell under Israeli occupation encompassed 139 villages and 61 farms and had a population of 130,000 people. 
Today, some 350,000 Golani refugees live in camps and residential areas mainly around Damascus. I recently had the opportunity to interview some of them, in the hope that their stories might shed some light on life in the Golan before the occupation and give some sense of the human dimensions of the issue. Before moving to the testimonies, however, a brief overview of the region is in order.
PROFILE OF THE GOLAN
On the eve of the 1967 war, the Golan reflected the ethnic and religious diversity of Greater Syria. Arabs constituted the majority of the population, but there were significant ethnic minorities. About 10 percent of the population was made up of Circassians who, fleeing the Russian penetration of the Caucasus in the mid- to late nineteenth century, had been settled by the Ottomans in various parts of their empire. The some 13,500 Circassians in the Golan were concentrated mainly in Qunaytra and the villages of al-Mansura, al-Adnaniyya, al-Qahtaniyya, 'Ayn Ziwan, al-Ghassaniyya, al-Juwwayza, Bir 'Ajam, al-Burayqa, al-Khushniyya, al-Faham, Fazara, Ruwayhina, and al- Faraj.  Turkomans, settled in the Golan as of the sixteenth century, constituted over percent of the population  and were concentrated in the central sector of the plateau, especially in the villages of Hafar, Kafr Nafakha, al- Sindiyana, al-Razzaniyya, al-Ghadiriyya, al-Husayniyya, al-'Ulayqa, al- Mughir, al-Dabiya, Na'aran, Dayr al-Rahib, al-Ahmadiyya, 'Ayn al-Simsim, 'Ayn 'Aysha, al-Juwwayza, and al-Mumsiyya.  Groups of Kurds and Armenians lived mostly in the town of Qunaytra, working as craftsmen and in commerce. The villages of 'Abdin and M'arraba were inhabited by Maghribis- Arabs and Berbers who arrived in the nineteenth century with Amir 'Abd al- Qadir, driven from Algeria in the nineteenth century after the uprising he led against the French colonization.  The Golan also included some bedouin tribes, some of whom had come from Palestine in 1948. Finally, the Golani population on the eve of the 1967 war included around 10,000 Palestinian refugees from 1948 living in Syrian villages, mostly in the central and southern sectors and particularly in the Butayha region. 
In terms of religion, some 85 percent of the Golani population was Sunni, but there were also significant minorities of Christians and Druze as well as smaller numbers of Alawites, Isma'ilis, and Shi'a. The Druze made up about 6 percent of the population and lived mainly in the northern sector in villages on the high slopes of Jabal al-Shaykh (Mount Hermon) and the plain, specifi- cally in the villages of Majdal Shams, Buq'ata, 'Ayn Qunyih, Mas'ada, Sahita, Qal'at Jandal, 'Arnah, Hirfa, Buqu'sum, 'Ayn al-Sha'ra, Rimah, Khirbat al- Sawda, Hadar, Hayna, and Mazra'at al-Maqrusa. The Christians, about 6 percent of the Golani population, were divided among Orthodox, Catholics, Maronites, and Protestants and lived mainly in the towns of Qunaytra and Fiq as well as in villages such as Khasfin, 'Ayn Qunyih, Majdal Shams, 'Ayn al-Sha'ra, Hayna, and 'Arnah. The Alawites lived mainly in the three northern villages of 'Ayn Fit, Za'ura, and Ghajar. The Shi'a and the Isma'ilis were relatively few in number, living mainly in Qunaytra. The Shi'a were principally of Lebanese origin.
The economy of the Golan was almost entirely agricultural. According to Syrian statistics of 1966, agricultural production between 1960 and 1966 showed yearly averages of 116,000 tons of grain, 13,000 tons of vegetables, 13,400 tons of milk, 67 tons of wool, 16 tons of honey, 2,000 tons of meat, and 18 million eggs. The animal wealth of the region included 37,000 cows, 1 million to 2 million sheep and goats (depending on the season), 1,300 horses, 7,000 beasts of burden, 200,000 poultry, and 7,000 beehives. At the end of 1966, orchards covered 40,000 dunams, including 2,700,000 fruit trees with an annual production of 22,000 tons of various fruits. 
OCCUPATION AND DISPLACEMENT
The Golan Heights fell under occupation on 9 June 1967. Within days, only 6,396 of the 130,000 people in the occupied zone remained-250 in Qunaytra (Muslims and some Christians), 521 in the village of Ghajar (Alawite), and 5,675 in the villages of Mas'ada, Buq'ata, Sahita, 'Ayn Qunyih, and Majdal Shams (primarily Druze, with some Christians).  In 1970, the occupation authorities destroyed the village of Sahita, which was near the cease-fire line, and confiscated its lands. Some of the inhabitants were deported at the time, but most were relocated to the remaining four Druze villages. The Arab population of the Golan today numbers 17,000 and is known for its "steadfastness" and unbending resistance to occupation, particularly during its six-month general strike following Israel's attempt to impose Israeli citizenship in 1981. 
Meanwhile, the 1967 war had no sooner ended than Israeli bulldozers began systematically destroying the abandoned villages. A month after the occupation, on 10 July 1967, the Israeli Labor party gave the signal to begin settlement of the Golan; four days later, the cornerstone of Mirom HaGolan was laid. Israel since has established a total of thirty-four settlements, with a combined population of 17,000, approximately the same as the current Arab population of the Golan.
In the immediate wake of the occupation, the displaced Golanis were housed in hastily erected camps or temporary accommodations. Over two- thirds of the refugees were concentrated in and around Damascus and about a quarter in Dar'a (Houran), with others going to central Syria (especially Homs) and farther north, and some remaining in villages near the Golan, such as Sa'sa' and Qatana.  Within months, the infrastructure of the temporary camps began to develop, with agglomerations of tents giving way to permanent residential areas with businesses and cinder block houses. Government efforts to absorb the natural increase of the refugees by building houses have not succeeded in alleviating the problem of overcrowding (in camps such as Wafidin, for example, up to four families live in one apartment).
During the October 1973 war, Syria lost an additional 510 km2 of the Golan Heights. This land, plus some 153 km2 of land that had been seized in 1967, was restored to Syria by the Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement of 31 May 1974. Under this agreement, Israel evacuated the town of Qunaytra, though not before totally destroying almost all its buildings. A number of the villages occupied in 1967-or the remains thereof-were also evacuated, including al-Hamidiyya, al-Burayqa, Bir 'Ajam, al-Rafid, al-Qahtaniyya, al- Samdaniyya, al-Asbah, and Sayda. In an attempt to encourage the refugees to return to these villages, the Syrian government built twelve housing projects on their ruins, but few people moved back: the second generation refugees had by then settled in Damascus as workers, office employees, artisans, or merchants, and few permanent job opportunities existed in the devastated area.
Today, the possibility of return seems less remote. But even if the Golan is given back to Syria, the problems loom large. All the villages have been de- stroyed and the features of the land have been almost erased; property boundaries will have to be totally redrawn. Equally important, the return of the Golan's former inhabitants will require, before anything else, the establishment of schools, hospitals, and other necessary institutions as well as an administrative infrastructure; the construction of new road networks, electricity grids, water networks, and telephones; and the provision of adequate job opportunities.
In the meantime, the refugees continue their daily lives with the same suffering, the same worries, and the same expectations.
Golan Heights in 1967.
INTERVIEWING THE REFUGEES
Between the village of Marj al-Sultan north of Damascus on the Homs road, and Mahallat al-Qadam to the south on the road to Dar'a, I spent sev- eral weeks in December 1999 interviewing a large number of refugees in the suburbs and villages where they are concentrated. I met them in their camps, in cafes, in their places of work. I entered the alleyways of their lives and heard, while reclining on the pillows of their modest homes, stories full of sadness, expectation, and hope. They never tired of telling and retelling their stories of life in the Golan, of difficult flight and exile, of continuing nostalgia for a homeland that has become ever more distant.
Of the scores of stories, I chose a limited sample that seemed representative of experiences lived, with differing details, by tens of thousands. Per- haps these testimonies are the most honest reflection of the ethnic diversity, religious plurality, and social differences that was the Golan Heights.
Yusif Tannous, Arab Christian, born in 1932 in the village of 'Ayn Qunyik, an employee of the United Nations international team of observers
I remained in Qunaytra until the last day of the war, never leaving my office at the United Nations, where I worked as an organizer for the observation posts. On the last day, I discovered that the foreign members of the international observer team had already abandoned their posts. I asked one team member: "Why did they leave?" He answered: "We don't know, they just left." I asked him what I should do. He said: "Save yourself."
Some of my brothers had gone to the town of Hinnah to get news, and I decided to follow. I went on foot, passing through the town of Hamidiyya and then to Jubbat al-Khashab, where I ended up spending the night. I got to Hinnah the next day and found my family members and then continued on to Damascus. There, I met some Syrian officers who told me that the Israelis had taken the Golan. I rushed to the UN observer team's headquarters in the Abu Rummaneh neighborhood to learn the details of what had happened. While I was there, the Egyptian ambassador in Damascus came by and told us that Qunaytra itself had just fallen. I wept bitterly, and the ambassador wept too, as did ten foreigners who were with us. The ambassador tried to calm me, repeating with resignation: "What could we do? What could we do?"
The war had been quick. We lived less the war itself than the atmosphere of war. I did not witness the battles in detail, just bombings from the air and machine gun fire all around. Before the war broke out, we did not sense that there were any Syrian preparations. A week or two earlier, we noticed that the families of soldiers and officers were packing their bags and leaving the area. We thought that they were going to their hometowns for the summer. When the war started on 5 June, people tried to hold on in their homes, but Syrian armor was deployed in built-up areas and people were afraid that the Israeli air force would bomb their homes and the army together. This is why many began to leave Qunaytra. They thought they could come back when the situation was stable. But many others remained in their homes until the Israeli army forced them to leave.
Before the war, there had been skirmishes between the Syrian and the Israeli armies for years. If an Israeli tractor would cross into Syrian territory, the Syrian army would shoot at it. Palestinian and Syrian lands overlap in many areas. The Israelis would always try to extend their control, stealing land and then expelling the Syrian farmers from it. This would lead to a military engagement between the Syrian soldiers, who had only small arms, and the Israelis, who would send in their planes, which would also fly over the observation posts. The Israeli aircraft were not as modern as they are today, but simply propeller planes that we called "Umm Kamil" because we could hear them three kilometers away. They would fly in at a low altitude and drop nail-filled bombs. There used to be in the Golan units of the National Guard whose mission was the protection of the roads, the bridges, and the water mains. Some of my relatives had volunteered in the National Guard. My niece's husband lost his jaw in June 1967. My brother-in-law, an adjutant in the army, lost his hearing due to the air bombings.
After the occupation, we went to Damascus, staying in the Madaris neighborhood. During the first few weeks, delegations from the Red Cross came to check our situation and provided us with some items. This helped us in our daily living, but it wasn't enough. Most of the refugees depended on their own resources. One of my brothers, who had owned several shops, was reduced to selling watermelons in the streets of Damascus to support his family. He never depended on the allowance that the government provided to the refugees but rather depended solely on himself and on his own working hands. The impact on the Circassians was less because they had associations that cared for them and arranged matters for them.
My hometown was 'Ayn Qunyih, where the population was half Christian and half Druze. Litde by little the Christians had moved to Qunaytra for education and in search of a better life. By the time of the war, only one Christian family lived all year round in the village. Most of the Christians of the Golan had also left their original villages over the years to come to Qunaytra. But, like us, they kept their lands and apple orchards and homes in the villages. Qunaytra was the commercial center, while the rest of the Golan continued to depend on agriculture and animal husbandry, trading their products with Qunaytra.
Qunaytra had been a mixed city with many denominations and groups. We had all lived together irrespective of denomination, but after the exodus, each group sought its own kin, and in Damascus, we were all separated. Still, warm relations and intermarriage between us persisted. But as time went on, it became more and more difficult to sustain relations as people became more and more preoccupied with the worries of everyday life, and we stopped visiting each other except on feast days, weddings, and funerals.
In 1974, Qunaytra was returned to Syria following the October 1973 war, but the town had been largely destroyed. About a week before Israel had to hand over the town, huge clouds of dust filled the air, and we began to wonder what the Israelis were up to. When we entered the town we discovered they had systematically blown up almost all the buildings. The UN returned me to my old post, and I became responsible for one of the depots. This is how I went back to what was left of Qunaytra even before its own inhabitants. I brought my family back to a house still standing that Widad Nasif used to own. Widad Nasif was a very important woman who had refused to leave the Golan and challenged the Israelis by remaining there until her death. We moved into the house, which we continue to have to this day. But when my eldest child finished primary school, we had to go back to Damascus for the children's education. Qunaytra did not have regular schools or a transportation system, and the primary school teacher, a law student at Damascus University, came to work only a few days a week. It was also better to be in Damascus in terms of marrying my daughters, as there were practically no other people besides us living in Qunaytra.
My brothers and sisters and I still have a house and property in 'Ayn Qunyih that is our inheritance from our father. We still have the Ottoman registration papers. We also own a share of the village's communal land [masha']. Our Druze brethren remained in the village and looked after our property as best they could within the limits allowed them by the occupation authorities. When the Golan is returned, of course I will go back.
Fatima al-Ai, Arab Muslim, born in 1952 in the village of al-Asbah, housewife
We were farmers. We lived a simple life, but our circumstances were good before disaster struck in the summer of 1967. The war turned the lives of all the people of the village upside down. The Israelis were quick to shell us. The village elders said that those who had daughters should take them away, that people should take their wives away. They said: "Leave everything, including your livestock, and make good your escape with your family!" So everyone was trying to save their women and to take them out of the area so they would be safe. We didn't care about money or possessions, particularly after we saw Israeli aircraft flying low over our houses and we could hear powerful explosions nearby. No one knew what to do. We left everything behind, our belongings and furniture and the fields of wheat waiting for harvest. A few people took their cattle and sheep with them.
Before the war broke out, the Syrian army was stationed in our village and mixed in with the civilian population. During the war, the army pulled out before the civilians-they didn't tell us that they were withdrawing. We left when the Israeli army entered Qunaytra and al-Khushniyya. Israeli aircraft were diving above our heads to terrorize us and make us leave. By that time there was no Syrian army or weapons or anything of the sort. When the Israelis got to Tal al-Ahmar they fired their weapons at night to wreak havoc. It was then that we ran away to al-Suwaysa. We could see the tracer bullets like streaks of fire before us, but we did not see any Israeli military vehicles. I personally do not know anyone who was killed, but they were firing on anything that moved, cars and even livestock.
The people of our village scattered. They didn't leave as a unit. Each family went off in a different direction, because they were frightened. Some families went directly to the town of Jasim in the Houran, others went to the east of al-Ruqad, while yet others came to al-Suwaysa, as we did. Some went to al-Duwaya, which is a small village nearby. Others went to 'Ayn al-Tina, which is also quite close. They wanted to stay close to our village because of the harvest they wanted to go back to. None of the people of our village had relatives in any of the areas where they sought refuge. Most set up tents. People left all their possessions behind, even their livestock. Later the people of our village said they wished they had died in our village rather than go through what they went through.
There were four of us-my father, my grandmother, my sister, and I. My sister was three years younger than I. That was our entire family. It did not occur to my father to bring along any of our possessions because he thought that we were leaving only temporarily. By coincidence, as we were leaving some of our cattle were in our path and my father drove them along ahead of us. But the sheep and other animals were all left behind, as were all our belongings. All we had were the clothes on our backs.
Near the town of al-Suwaysa we set up a tent that was given to us by the villagers to protect us from the pitiless June sun. We remained like that for a month and a half, hoping to return to our village. Life was very difficult and cruel during that period. We lived on the milk of the cows and on wild plants and a little tanuri [oven] bread that my grandmother made with flour my father bought from neighboring farmers. There was no communal oven, no shop, nothing. The government did not give us any aid whatsoever-most people thought that they would be going back to their villages soon and did not ask for anything.
After a month and a half, we lost hope of going back to our land, and my father decided to go to the east of Dar'a. We went to the town of al-Musayfira in al-Suwaysa, which was far. My maternal aunt, who was married and had a son and a daughter, lived there. My father chose that place because it was safe. My father sold the livestock we had brought along to support us, be- cause he had no other skills apart from buying and selling. We stayed there for eight months, but then we went back to Jasim because most of the people of our village had gone there. My father rented a house for us, and about a year later he married a woman from our village, and our family gained a fifth member.
A year and a half after we had been displaced, a young man from our village, a neighbor and a relative, asked for my hand in marriage. So I be- came engaged and married after a year. My father was eager to marry me and my sister off to anyone who asked for our hands, without consulting us. According to tradition, no one could go against the father's wishes. Today the situation of girls is better in this regard.
Our village was small. It had only 400 inhabitants. It's a simple village near Tal al-Faras and did not even have a school. The school was in the village of al-'Ishah, which was about a quarter of an hour away by foot. The two villages shared land, and intermarriage was common. The people of our village and the surrounding villages were all Arabs of the al-Naim clan.
My father was a cattle dealer, and we used to take the livestock to market either in al-Khushniyya or Qunaytra. Al-Khushniyya was inhabited by Circassians, Arabs, and Turkomans, and its market was every Monday. We'd have to leave very early, at about 3:00 in the morning, and we'd take fifteen to twenty head of cattle with us. We would sell what we could and return to the village with the supplies we had bought. But most of our business was in Qunaytra, whose market was every Wednesday. It was a big market, and you could find everything you needed there. We would sell samn [clarified butter] and sheep and eggs and milk and chickens and yogurt. When my father drove cattle to Qunaytra, we would go a day early so that the cattle could rest and graze, and after that he would take them to market.
Village girls of my generation did not go to school because the school was far away and because each household had about twenty head of livestock, so there was a lot of work. Girls had to milk the animals and do household chores. A few of the boys went to school, but the rest were illiterate. Everybody worked the land, which required a lot of effort.
All of the Golan is plentiful. It is indescribable-its waters, its lands, and its bounty. We used to get our drinking water from the mill at al-Mudawwara just below Tal al-Faras, which has few inhabitants. Because of the water, the land of the Golan was fertile. There was also the village of al-Faham, which was inhabited by Circassians and Palestinians. We did not intermarry with the Circassians, but we had flourishing trade with them. The Palestinians in al-Faham worked in agriculture. We had no relations with them. They all lived in the same part of the village and owned no land-they were tenant farmers. They built their houses of stone and mud, and they were bedouin in origin.
During the October 1973 war, everyone was glued to the radio. When our village returned to Syrian sovereignty after the war, I felt as though I had been reborn, and we made many visits to our village. My father, his wife, and my grandmother went back to live there, but we have not gone back to it yet because our children are tied to their jobs in Damascus.
Life there has changed. There is now electricity and gas and piped water and telephone services. People have cars, and bread is delivered to the door. However, in the old days, even with the hardships, life was better. In those days, people cared for each other a lot. Now people have changed, and so has life. Education is accessible to everyone-there is not a single house of people who do not know how to read and write. People are going to the university, girls as well as boys. All my children have been educated. Had we stayed in our village, we would not have gotten this far. Even today, some people in our village, and especially in the village of 'Ayn al-Tina, say that it is shameful to educate girls, at least beyond the sixth grade.
Izzat al-Ayoub, Arab Druze, born in the village of Majdal Shams in 1937, retired schoolteacher
I was in Damascus taking the teachers qualifying exam on 5 June 1967, the day Israel launched the war. The occupation cut me off from my family, my hometown, and my region. I'm an old man now, and though I've forgot- ten many things in my life I have not forgotten those places I have not seen in thirty-three years, where I've worked in the gardens, herded cattle and sheep, and eaten the food of winter-molasses mixed with snow, and boiled corn. If you would give me pen and paper I could draw the old Majdal Shams house by house, street by street, lane by lane. The town lives in my memory, as though I were right now in our stone house with its mud roof where we used to shovel and play in the snow in winter.
The people of Majdal and the residents of the surrounding villages such as Buq'ata and Mas'ada and 'Ayn Qunyih are kin. Nearby lies the town of Jub- bat al-Zayt. Majdal had close ties with the villages of the northern sector, closer than its ties with the 'Ayn Fit, for instance. Up to the 1950s, people used to cut wood from the forests of our people in Lebanon from which they would make plows that they'd then sell in Jabal al-Arab Uabal Druze] and use the money to buy wheat. In those circumstances, friendships developed and families intermarried. A man could knock on any door and he would be considered a guest and invited to come in and eat and drink and sleep. Nowadays, you can come to Damascus and not find a single person to say "Welcome."
Majdal Shams's ties with Damascus were limited. Transportation was very difficult, and there are those who lived and died without ever seeing it. Our ties were with the town of Qunaytra. That's where I went to primary and secondary school, because when I was growing up there weren't schools in Majdal or Mas'ada. Also because Qunaytra was the center of the governorate.
We lived in Majdal with the Christians like brothers. Some of them left Majdal to live in Damascus or Qunaytra for various reasons. However, even to this day, when we meet tears flow. We never celebrate a wedding or any other occasion without inviting them, and they do the same for us. Our happiest moments and their happiest moments are when we are together. Even today, in Majdal under occupation, Christian families, including Ibrahim Shehadeh and Ibrahim Nasrallah, share with our families the same fate and the same life.
Majdal was far from Tal al-Ahmar or Butayha overlooking Lake Tiberias- in other words, far from the constant clashes between Syria and Israel, though we used to hear them. Crossing via this northern sector in the finger of Galilee is very difficult, so fedayeen action was almost entirely concentrated in the southern and central sectors, especially al-Himmah.
When I heard the war had broken out on 5 June 1967, I had finished taking my board exams and had begun a summer job picking cherries near Damascus. Like other students, I used to work in summer to support myself in winter. At first no one could believe the news of war-there hadn't been any preliminary signs. But when people started flooding into Damascus- government employees, military personnel and their families, and so on- the outlines of the catastrophe became clear.
Majdal lies at the foot of Jabal al-Shaykh [Mount Hermon], five kilometers from the town of Mas'ada. The Israeli army did not deploy over those five kilometers in the first few days of the war, but three days after they occupied Mas'ada, they entered Majdal. It's because of the elders of the town that the people of Majdal Shams didn't leave. They got up in front of the people of the town and threatened excommunication on anyone who left his home. We as a people have a saying that the child and the land and the spirit are one and the same. We do not want to leave and be scattered. It would have been good if everyone had hung on and stayed rooted in their land. At that time, though, rumors circulated that the people who remained on their land were traitors. Now everyone who left says that they wished they had stayed, and if some people at the time had called them traitors, so be it. The people who left did so out of fear. They thought the Israelis would assault their women, but instead they should have stayed on their land. When you die, your blood should be in your land. This is what we believe now. Today, everyone wishes it had happened that way.
The war was a catastrophe for me personally. Between nightfall and sun- rise, I could no longer return to my home or see my family. Fences rose that we could not cross. My whole family is in Majdal Shams. Since the 1970s, I have submitted four requests to be allowed to return under family reunification, but Israel has rejected all of them.
My brothers can't leave the village now because of their political activities. I went to Greece in 1984 to meet one of my brothers, Samih al-Ayoub, who also went there so we could meet. When he got back to the Golan, Israeli intelligence summoned him and he was interrogated. He was humiliated, tortured, and sentenced to prison. We cannot meet on our own soil. We need foreign soil on which to meet. Throughout this period, I saw my mother and my father only twice. One of my brothers died without my seeing him. I only learned of his death when I met my mother in Jordan. After we met, my mother left for the Golan, and I returned to Damascus. This is an example of the terrible circumstances under which we have to live. At least with the Berlin Wall people could meet on high holidays.
Instead my wife, my children, and I are forced to go 75 kilometers to reach the dividing line. There, at what they call the "Hill of Shouts," I call out to them using a megaphone and tell them about my circumstances, and they do the same. We speak to each other through megaphones but cannot see each other, even though we're only 200 meters apart. More than one tragic incident has occurred while people were speaking to each other with mega- phones. One man was talking to his mother when she fell dead right there, and he was not able to carry her or bid her goodbye. That is what happened with Sulayman Badr Abu Salih. His mother died right before him, and he could do nothing. What kind of values or humanity does Israel have to prevent a person from seeing his mother or father or from bidding them a final farewell?
We received no help from any quarter. Government employees received a monthly salary supplement of 20 liras per person, meaning that a person with a family of five would receive about 100 liras a month. I was still a student when the Golan fell and was receiving 80 liras a month from the educational board. Almost all the inhabitants of Majdal al-Shams who were displaced were in the same situation. There are about 200 of them. We the children of the Golan are one family. It is true that we are from many villages, but here in Damascus we have formed one village. If the Golan is returned, I would go back immediately.
In the Golan today, in addition to the villages of Majdal Shams, Buq'ata, Mas'ada, and 'Ayn Qunyih, there is the village of gypsies that is divided in two by the Baniyas River. The inhabitants of the eastern part were displaced like the others, whereas the inhabitants of the western part stayed put and are now within the Palestinian-Lebanese-Syrian belt. These people were given Israeli identity in spite of themselves. There are about 500 of them, maybe more. They belong to the Alawi sect and most of them are illiterate, so they had to sign the documents with thumb prints, not knowing what they were doing. Since then, they have been hiring attorneys to try to free them from their identity cards.
Omar al-Haji Khalil Turkoman, born in the village of 'Ayn 'Aysha, schoolteacher
My childhood in my village in the Golan was very close to nature. We spent it in the vineyards and the wilderness, chasing after animals and shepherding them, working the land and raising crops. Our sweat is the salt of the earth.
I finished elementary school in 1966, and I enrolled in the Ahmad Mariyud school in Qunaytra. Ahmad Mariyud is one of the heros of the Golan. He comes from the village of Jubbat al-Khashab, and he was martyred in the Great Syrian Revolt led by Sultan Pasha al-Atrash. [Prominent Syrian Druze leader and Arab popular hero who in 1925 led the revolt of Jabal Druze, which turned into a general Syrian uprising against French rule.-Ed.] We are Turkomans, and there are only Turkomans in our village. In the surrounding villages, how- ever, such as al-Juwwayza, the populations are Turkoman and Circassian mixed. There are Circassians in the village of al-Ghassaniyya, and the entire population of the villages of Bir 'Ajam and al-Burayqa is Circassian. There are fourteen villages in the Golan inhabited by Turkomans. We speak Turkoman at home and teach our children this language, which has no alphabet-that is, it is not written. It is the same as the Turkoman language spoken in Iraq and in Palestine. But although I'm a Turkoman, I'm a Syrian citizen first and foremost.
Our village is far from the front line, about 20 kilometers away. There were no fedayeen operations or camps in our region, only the Peoples Army and the National Guard, whose task was to guard, not fight. We used to keep watch at water reservoirs, roads, and bridges. But I do remember the skirmishes that used to occur east of Lake Tiberias. The aggressor in each case was the Israeli army because they coveted the sources of the Hasbani and Baniyas Rivers, which feed into the Jordan River as well as the fertile agricultural lands around al-Himmah and Butayha. These areas lie below sea level in a warm valley, where vegetables can be grown in winter without greenhouses.
I remember Lake Tiberias well, though I only went there once. Syrian fishermen used to fish in the waters of the lake, and our boats were moored there. But the fishermen had to fish quite close to the eastern shores because if they ventured into the deep waters the Israeli boats would attack them and chase them back.
My father owned about 600 dunams of land in several areas of the Golan. We have official documents that are properly registered, some of them during Ottoman times.
The village of 'Ayn 'Aysha was surrounded by forests and valleys, and agriculture prospered. Qunaytra was the center of exchange. Our dealings with other regions, such as Majdal Shams and Butayha and al-Khushniyya, were limited. Our relations with other national groups in the Golan were also limited. For instance, intermarriage between Turkomans and Arabs was quite rare, whereas intermarriage between Turkomans and Circassians was more common.
War broke out on 5 June 1967. I remember that we saw four Syrian aircraft-MiG 17s-flying overhead in the direction of Palestine. Only two aircraft returned. Those were the first signs of war. Then tank and artillery battles broke out, and shells began to rain on us. Under those circumstances, Syrian soldiers fanned out in the forests around the village to seek shelter from Israeli aircraft. However, the aircraft did not differentiate between soldiers and civilians, and they bombed both the village and the surrounding forests. After that, Syrian military units began to pull out of the region so that civilians would not be harmed, and they moved a distance from the village.
Near our village is the village of al-Juwwayza, which is also inhabited by Turkomans. On the fourth day of the war, three young men from that village who were our relatives were coming to our village when the Israeli forces opened fire on them, killing two and wounding the third. We saw part of the war with our naked eyes. The Israeli forces who entered our village went around looking for arms and armed elements of the Peoples Army. They had gotten lists of the names of members of the Peoples Army from the mukhtar of al-Juwwayza. So they searched the village house by house looking for those on the lists. They confiscated arms, but though there were incidents of people being beaten and humiliated in our village and in al-Juwwayza, they did not arrest anyone. Not even members of the Peoples Army. We remained in the village for six days after the Israelis came. Some of us wanted to stay, but people became hesitant after we heard what happened in some villages, such as the Circassian village of al-Mansura, where the Israeli army rounded up a number of young men and shot them. On the following day, everybody agreed to leave for areas that had not been occupied.
We left the village all together, that is, in one go, from the youngest to the oldest. No one tried to stop us, and no one protested our leaving. The mukhtar of the village, whose word is well respected, decided that we should leave, and that is what happened.
Israeli patrols crossed our path, but they did not stop us. We took some of our livestock and some things that could be carried. Later, many crept back into the village to get other necessities. However, one person who infiltrated back into the village was killed, though it wasn't the Jews who killed him but a Turkoman.
When we left, we spent two weeks in the village of 'Ayn al-Bashiq, where we began to sell off our livestock. The state sent some trucks to move us to the area of al-Qadim, where we remain to this day. When we first arrived in Damascus, they put us up in schools where we stayed for about two months, until the school year began. Some rented a room or several rooms, but others were not able to manage and were moved to public housing. In my case, I bought a small and inexpensive piece of land, and I built one room made of wood. We used to hope to return to our village, but after two years passed we realized that our situation was similar to that of the Palestinians. Circassians cooperated with each other, and there were Circassian charitable societies that made their displaced status less cruel. We Turkomans, on the other hand, were unable to agree on any form of collective action, so our circumstances were bad. This shouldn't have been so, since 70 percent of Turkomans lived in the area of al-Qadim, 20 percent in al-Hajjar al-Aswad, and 10 percent in the Palestine camp. In other words, as a group, the Turkomans were not scattered.
Living around Damascus changed many of our habits. We started intermarrying with other national groups. We married Arabs and Damascene women and others. We were no longer as closed onto ourselves as we had been in the Golan. However, our young men have not immigrated abroad, not even to Turkey. Our village, 'Ayn 'Aysha, has been destroyed. If the Golan were returned to Syrian sovereignty, we would for sure go back. What worries us is that the new generation, which was born in Damascus, does not want to go back to the Golan to live for good. They would like to treat the village as a summer resort. As for the generation that was born in the Golan, they would go back for sure, and go back to the land and to farming.
Amina al-Khatib, Arab Druze, born 1944 in the village of 'Ayn Qunyih, housewife
We lived on the line of fire, in direct confrontation with Israel-our village is right near the border. The Hulah lies directly in front of us, and the further- most reaches of the village are at the Baniyas River. Before 1967, there were border clashes all the time, because Israel wanted to annex the agricultural lands near the Syrian-Palestinian border and to seize control of the headwaters of the Jordan. Israeli soldiers were constantly attacking Syrian villagers, preventing them from tilling their fields. On many occasions they kidnapped villagers, who would then be returned through the UN observers. This is what I saw with my own eyes until I got married and moved to Damascus in 1963 with my husband, who was a government employee.
Relations between our people and the Palestinians were very close. We had a saying that Palestine was our livelihood. We grew up with our family telling us that our land was in Palestine and that our ancestors came from Palestine. Some of our relatives are still there, in the village of Harfish in the Upper Galilee. Originally, we come from Halawat next to Hasbaya in Lebanon. Part of the family went to Galilee and another part to the Golan. From here, some went to Jabal al-Arab. So we have relatives in Jabal al-Arab, Lebanon, and Palestine. We belong to the 'Amr clan, but my grandfather was a preacher, so the name of my family became al-Khatib. Up to 1948, there was no border between us. We were one country, and all you needed to visit your relatives in Palestine was to get into a vehicle and cross the Shari'a River [a popular name for the Jordan River]. But in 1948, borders were raised that became formidable barriers, and the people of my village did not see our relatives in Palestine until 1967, when it became possible to meet once more. However, the 1967 war set up another terrible baffier that separated us from our homeland, Syria.
We also had excellent relations with the neighboring villages. Christians, Sunnis, and Druze lived together like brothers. It was only that they prayed in different places. When it came to other matters, we even dressed alike. We celebrated Christian feasts, too. After the displacement, there remained only one Christian family in our village. The villagers who stayed told them: "Do not leave your village and lands." But some of them chose to go to Damascus.
I came to Damascus in 1963, but I used to come and go to the Golan constantly. Matters remained like that until 5 June 1967. I was happy to learn of the war. I thought we would win and that we would restore Palestine to its people. We did not even consider the possibility of defeat. After all, we had three Arab armies fighting on three fronts. We did not know what power Israel had, which is really the power of the United States. If it hadn't been for the Western countries, Israel would not have lasted.
After the defeat, I could no longer go to the Golan, and I have been sepa- rated from my family ever since. My mother died, four of my uncles died, and my father died, and I did not see a single one of them. Those who were children when I left are married now. My yearning for the Golan, its land, waters, trees, and its people is indescribable. The Golan today is only an hour away by car, yet here I sit in Damascus, unable to visit. I often go to the hill across from Majdal Shams, which they call the "Hill of Shouts." But there I feel very frustrated. My village is right in front of my eyes, yet I cannot reach it. When I go to the barrier that separates me from my relatives and I ask about them, they inform me through the megaphone that so-and-so has died, that so-and so is dying, and I feel great anger. I want to rip up those barbed wires and mines, and I don't care what happens. I used to see my family through binoculars from afar, but I could not memorize their features, so I live with the old memories. The only one left now is my sister. When I left she was fifteen. Now she has six children.
My most fervent wish is to be able to go back to my home to live in my birthplace among my family and relatives. Absence is hard. True, I live in my homeland Syria, but the original homeland is the place of childhood. I have spent thirty-six years outside my village. Enough. I left my village when I was seventeen. Now my husband is dead. My children have grown up. They have married and have their own children. And they do not know their original land. Enough dispersal.
Muhammad Jum'a 'Isa, Arab Muslim, born in 1945 in Butayha, postal worker
We come from poor families, but we lived in relative prosperity because everything was available in the Golan. Vegetables and fruits were always abundant, for the Golan yielded four harvests, especially in our area, which was rich in springs and fertile land. In the surrounding area there are five wadis, whose waters originate in the foothills of the mountains and flow eventually into Lake Tiberias.
We are of the Tallawiyya clan, which is so named because of Tal Amir, a high region to the north of Butayha. It is said that our people came originally from near Baysan, which would make us Palestinian in origin. Most of the people of Butayha are Muslims, with some Christians, but all are pure Arab.
There were around one hundred Palestinian refugee families in Butayha, but they were quickly absorbed into our society, since we're from the same background. They worked in farming, rearing livestock and planting grains, and they built houses of stone and clay. The Palestinians work in earnest, especially the people of Hulah, and they had better farming experience than our villagers. We also studied in the UNRWA schools established for them, because we didn't have enough schools ourselves.
At the beginning, the Palestinian refugees worked on land belonging to big landowners according to the muraba'a [four-shares] system. In fact, none of us villagers owned our own land until the Agricultural Reform Law, which was passed after the Egyptian-Syrian union in 1958. [The United Arab Republic, the short-lived union of Egypt and Syria (February 1958-September 1961), was initiated and broken up by Syria.-Ed.] The process of acquiring land had not been completed by 1966. And then, in 1967, we were displaced, and there was no longer an opportunity to distribute the land.
One of the largest landowners was a Kurdish man named Fuad al-Yusif, who was the grandson of 'Abd al-Rahman al-Yusif. And a Palestinian by the name of Abu Yusif al-Lubani was one of the large land investors. He now lives in Lubiya Street in the Palestinian refugee camp. Upon his arrival, he went about renting land from Fuad al-Yusif and developing it. There was another landowner named 'Abd al-Majid Qawtarsh, who was also a Kurd. Fuad al-Yusif had acquired the land simply by laying claim to it, so when agricultural reform took place, it was discovered that he did not have the title deeds to the land. The state then seized the land and distributed it among the farmers. The Palestinians were not given any land, but the state let them work on it.
Butayha was in the Jordan Valley, about 280 meters below sea level. Lake Tiberias was about a kilometer from my house, so we used to go there every day to swim or fish. The villagers planted the land between the houses and the lake with citrus and other fruits, grains, and all sorts of vegetables. But we stopped going to the lake when clashes began to occur in that area in the 1960s. I remember the events of the battle of Nayrab in 1961, which led to the occupation of this area just to the south of Butayha and to our managing to capture some tanks and armored vehicles, which were put on display in Marja Square in Damascus.
Our land stretched up to the eastern bank of Lake Tiberias, and we used to use its water to irrigate the land. We had over seven water mills in the area of al-Tawahin. We would channel this water from the Shari'a River [the Jordan River]. The entire area of Butayha was irrigated by a canal called al- 'Afritiyya Canal, which was 20 kilometers long. Once Israel tried to divert the water of the Jordan to the Negev area, and clashes broke out with a mutual exchange of fire. Israel always started it. We had never heard of Fatah until 1965, and it did not have any activity in Butayha.
I completed my elementary education in UNRWA schools. I studied on my own up to the intermediate level and then was appointed as an employee of the postal service on 1 January 1964. My salary was ninety Syrian pounds per month. We lived a simple life, without difficulties. Everything was widely available, and all necessities were cheap. All a peasant needs are sugar, tea, and tobacco, since everything else can be had from what he pro- duces. That's why ninety pounds was more than enough.
The June 1967 war was preceded by many Israeli threats. Israel spoke of the necessity of occupying the Golan to make it a security zone for itself. On 5 June 1967, there was intensive shelling of the Golan villages. The Israelis began by bombarding the Syrian military bases in the Golan, then the shells began to strike houses and civilian areas. Families feared for their children, and we left our homes with nothing but the clothes on our backs.
Mamduh al-Hajj Ahmad, Circassian, born in 1942 in the village of 'Ayn Ziwan, schoolteacher
On the morning of 5 June 1967, I was supervising secondary school exams in the city of Qunaytra. When I heard that the war had started, I rushed back to my village. Planes were flying overhead. After six days of war, the Israeli army entered the village and began searching for weapons and Palestinian fighters. They came to our house looking for one of my relatives, a Palestinian refugee from 1948. He wasn't there, but my father asked me to go to Damascus to warn our Palestinian relatives. I went from 'Ayn Ziwan to al- Harrah in the Houran on foot. From there, I caught a ride to Damascus and went to al-Yarmuk refugee camp, where I told my relative that the Israelis had come looking for him. Then I sneaked back to the village. Israeli patrols were all over. Some patrols left the citizens who remained in the village more or less alone, but the behavior of others was very bad.
They came to our house a second time. My father was sitting in the guest room with a friend, and the Israelis accused him of being a combatant. He said: "I'm not young enough to be in the military." The head of the patrol pointed a pistol to his head, and said, "You may not be in the military now but you were in 1948." In fact, my father had fought in 1948. He got a piece of shrapnel in his head. When the patrol left our house, my father said that we had to leave, especially the young men.
We owned land in 'Ayn Ziwan. My father owned hundreds of dunams and about a hundred head of sheep and some cows. Two days after the occupation began, our shepherd took the livestock out of the village to the Houran, and I met him there and sold the animals for a very low price.
We left on the tenth day of the occupation. We could stay no longer, seeing as the Israelis had killed my paternal aunt's husband, the father of the village mukhtar. They were looking for the mukhtar, but when they couldn't find him they killed his father instead. Hours before that, I had gone to see him and urged him to leave for Damascus. But he refused, saying that he was over seventy years old and had nothing more to fear in this life. They killed him a few hours later in his own home. When he was killed, there was chaos in the village, and everyone began to leave.
We got to Damascus and spent two days in the Port Said Elementary School, and then we were dispersed among different schools. We slept in shar'ia secondary schools for some days, and then we rented a house near the military hospital in Damascus. We had to start from scratch. We had brought no belongings with us from 'Ayn Ziwan. We thought that Israel would be forced to withdraw under a Security Council resolution, as had been the case after the Tripartite invasion of Egypt in 1956, and that we'd be back within days or weeks. We locked our doors and left on foot after ten days under Israeli occupation.
One night I crept back to our house in 'Ayn Ziwan across the Israeli army lines. I was in my first year of university, and I had left all my textbooks and documents behind, even my secondary school diploma. I did not tell my father that I was going because I thought he might stop me. I left Damascus and took a car to the Houran and walked from there. The village was totally empty. The Israelis had been in our house. They had overturned all the beds and ripped open the mattresses. They had shot our dog, who must have barked when they entered. I spent one night there, and at dawn, before the first light, I took my books and documents and slipped out as I had entered. My father also went back once, without telling me beforehand. He never gave any details, but he surprised us when he returned carrying some of our belongings.
There were about 110 families in our village in 1967, mostly Circassians but also some Turkoman families, all of us Sunni. People earned their livelihood from agriculture and herding, though a large number of the inhabitants were employed outside the village as civil servants or army volunteers. The village was far from the 1948 armistice lines-in other words, far from Palestine. In the frontline villages, there was a National Guard whose duties were simply to keep watch, but we were 25 kilometers from the front line. I remember very well that one of the villagers, whose name was Izzat Yusif, operated a bulldozer on the Jordan River diversion project and was killed one day while trying to get it out of the line of fire. Skirmishes with the Israeli army were a daily affair, but there was no fedayeen activity in our village at all. [In 1964, Israel began diverting the waters of the Jordan River stored in Lake Galilee to the coastal plain and the Negev via the national water carrier. In reaction, the first summit of the heads of Arab states to be held decided on counter diversion measures at the headwaters of the Jordan River in Syrian territory. Israel bombed the Arab diversion works to a standstill.-Ed.]
Palestine formed part of my earliest recollections. I remember when I was six years old, my father, who was a volunteer fighter in Palestine, came home for a brief visit during the month of Ramadan, and we had suhur together. Suddenly a siren went off, and my father had to cut short his visit. I remember watching him as he walked along the paved road toward Qunaytra, and then I heard the sound of aircraft and bombing. That was in 1948. I also remember when ambulances entered our village. When the women would begin to wail, that meant the ambulances were carrying martyrs. I also remember the day that my father came back wounded. He had been wounded in Tal al-'Aziziyat, and he was transported to a hospital in Damascus. In that battle, four people from our village were martyred.
Our real travails began after our displacement in 1967. The older people found it hard to adapt to a new life. Many of them died from sorrow during the first year. It was very hard. I myself experienced only a few months of the bitterness of the original displacement: as a teacher, I asked to be transferred to Algeria, and I taught there until 1972.
My father was retired, and I earned a salary, so the living conditions of our family were much better than those of most people. Others lived in schools until the school year began and then were moved to refugee camps that were put up very quickly. My family did not receive any assistance that the state provided for the displaced. But the Circassian charitable societies in Damascus did a lot to help us. In the early days of our displacement, they took care of us and provided us with food and medical care, and university students were given rooms in University City. The Circassian charitable society sent trucks from Damascus to al-Harrah to transport the displaced persons, which is how my family and I got to Damascus. Later, the society got hold of some land for free that had been donated by the inhabitants of the village of Marj al-Sultan. They built ninety residential units there to house displaced Circassians after they were moved out of the schools and the Tal Hospital. Many Circassian families had taken refuge in that hospital, and later all these poor people were moved to those residential units, which exist to this day as a refuge for our poor and our displaced.
Although the inhabitants of 'Ayn Ziwan had been scattered around the areas of Damascus and its rural environs, we still meet for weddings and funerals and other important occasions. However, the new generation, those who were born in Damascus, don't have such strong ties to the community.
Abdallah Mar'i Hassan, Palestinian, born in the village of al-Ghuwayr in the Tiberias district of Palestine, schoolteacher
We fled Palestine in 1948. My mother had relatives in the village of Qusbiyya in the Golan, so we went there. We had nothing-everything was left behind in our village after the Jews attacked us-but the people in Syria welcomed us and took us in.
We became farmers, as we had been in Palestine. We put up with a lot, particularly because we had to rent land from feudal landowners and because there weren't many schools in the Golan. Then UNRWA set up schools, and we went to one in a village about five kilometers from Qusbiyya. My brothers and sisters and I would go and come back on foot. After school, we would work on the farm. We were tenant farmers-we rented about 300 dunams of land and gave a third of the production to a group of feudalists, including Shafiq al-Mamluk, 'Assam Mahmud, and an individual from the Qusaybati family. Some of our family were able to complete their education, while others continued to work the land. We lived as fellahin did, that is, at a subsistence level.
In 1966, I moved to the city of Qunaytra and was employed by the governorate of Qunaytra. Then I was appointed a teaching assistant in the frontline villages. I felt homesick every time I saw my native village of al- Ghuwayr, overlooking Tiberias, which you could see with the naked eye. You could see it, but you couldn't go there. I had been a child when we came to the Golan, but my father never stopped talking about our village. He used to say: "There is our village, right next to Tiberias."
I did not enlist in resistance activities on a regular basis, but after I served in the Syrian military as a conscript officer, I did participate in military patrols organized by Sa'iqa with Dr. Yusif Zu'ayin, who later became prime minister of Syria. [Sa'iqa is a Palestinian guerrilla organization established in 1967 in Syria by the ruling Ba'th party.-Ed.] We carried out an operation in Sahita in which one of our comrades was martyred. I also used to go to fedayeen bases in the Jordan Valley for political education. But when I became a civil servant, this relationship was severed completely.
One of my brothers had joined the fedayeen before 1967, and he took part in a number of reconnaissance missions inside occupied Palestine. My paternal uncle Ahmad Hassan was one of the leaders of Fatah, but he came down with cancer, and they sent him to France for treatment. Other than that, no one in our family enlisted with the fedayeen, though naturally we serve in the Palestine Liberation Army. I remember when the Israeli air force attacked the village of Skufya in retaliation for fedayeen activities. The fedayeen used to pass through that region, al-Himmah in particular, and the villagers suffered many casualties, ten to fifteen dead, not counting the wounded, all of them peaceful fellahin who had no connection whatsoever to fedayeen activities. In another incident, an old fedayee named Shihab al- Misawi was martyred in Arab al-Haib near Safad. He used to belong to the reconnaissance unit, and he had infiltrated into occupied Palestine, but the Israelis captured him and killed him, and they turned his body over to us. We held a big funeral for him.
I was working in Qunaytra at the governorate headquarters when war broke out on 5 June 1967. I had a pistol because I was a member of the Peoples Army. I had just sold a truckload of tomatoes, so I had to go back to Qusbiyya to give my father the money. He said: "Stay with us, don't go back to Qunaytra." But I had to report back for duty. I remained in Qunaytra until the fourth day of the war. By then most people were leaving, so I left too. At that point, the Israeli forces were in the village of 'Ayn Ziwan west of al- Mansura, and our antiaircraft batteries were still firing on the Israeli planes, so I went to the village of al-Harrah in the Houran, which lies between Qunaytra and Dar'a.
For some days, I had no news of my family. They had fled in a different direction, south of al-Khushniyya. The Israelis had entered the village and told them they had to leave. The image of 1948 was vivid in my father's mind, and he didn't want to be uprooted again. But he heard that the Israelis either arrested or killed any Palestinians they captured, and he was frightened because my brother worked in a Syrian intelligence unit. My brothers also insisted on leaving, so the whole family went to the Houran. We had cows and sheep and horses and camels, and my brothers stayed in the Houran until they sold off the livestock. The wheat harvest remained on the threshing floors, and we were not able to harvest more than half the tomato crop. My fiancee, a Syrian Circassian, fled with her family to al-Khushniyya and then to Damascus. We got married there in 1969. We owned only a bed and a mat and some utensils. Before the war, I had arranged for a room in the family home in the Golan, fully furnished and suitable for marriage, but all that was left behind in the village and was looted.
I finally found my family in the village of 'Ayn Dukar in the Yarmuk Val- ley. We all wept, and I learned that my cousin had been martyred. We left the Houran for Damascus, where they put us up in schools, and we received food rations from the state and from some private citizens. We had no dealings with UNRWA at all, because we were living in the Qunaytra governorate, and UNRWA had discontinued most of its services there as of 1965.
We had a lot of trouble finding a place to live. We finally rented a small flat that could barely hold our family of eight, and when later the brothers began to marry we needed to find new housing. My brothers were forced to move to rural areas, where housing was cheaper but life is more difficult. Even in the city, life was not easy, and my father found city life intolerable. He stayed in Damascus for four years, then moved to the village of al-Qiswa, where he could lead a rural life and live in an Arab house with guest quarters and bitter coffee.
Palestinians in Syria are energetic farmers. They have toiled on the plains of Damascus and contributed a great deal to the upsurge of agriculture in the Golan. Agriculture there had been primitive, and when the Palestinians came the situation improved a lot. Over three-quarters of the Palestinians who lived in the Golan worked in agriculture, and the rest worked in education, office jobs, and the Palestine Liberation Army. About 10,000 of us were dis- placed from the Golan to Damascus, and we were treated the same way that the displaced Syrians were. The Palestine Liberation Organization could not help us.
The upshot is that if the Golan is returned, we shall go back. Perhaps our return to the Golan will be a step toward returning to Tiberias. My children are particularly attached to the Golan, more than to Palestine. They say that we grew up here and lived all our lives in Syria, and they want to live in a house in Qusbiyya near our uncles. But as for me, though my wife is a Syrian Circassian from al-Khushniyya and my mother's maternal uncles are Syrian, nevertheless I would like to return to Tiberias. I want to live on our land there as my father described it to me, and I want to die on its soil. Still, I do yearn for the Golan, naturally, and I hope that it will be returned.
'Abd al-Karim 'Umar, Arab Muslim, born in 1946 in the town of Fiq, director of culture at the governorate of Qunaytra
The school year had ended on 18 May 1967, just days before the war. I had been teaching in the village of al-Jukhdar on the easternmost edge of the Golan, but when school let out I returned to my hometown, Fiq. I had brought with me a large lamb for a feast I was giving to honor the head of the district and my colleagues who were teaching at the Fiq secondary school. These were my last fond memories of the village, after which everything changed radically.
On the morning of 5 June 1967, I was in Qunaytra to oversee exams at the al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham school. When news of the war reached the examination rooms, everyone was dismissed, and I caught the last bus for al-Himmah, which passed through Fiq. On the road, we saw tanks in the Rafid region heading westward, and the bombing was getting nearer. We reached our village. Many houses had been destroyed by Israeli artillery, which was bombing us from an old fortress in the west. Some people were hiding from the bombing in caves.
On 9 June, my brother, my wife, my married sisters, and I left in the direction of Saffuriyya south of Fiq-not the Palestinian village of the same name but another that is separated from Fiq by the Mas'ud Valley. That was the day President Nasir declared his responsibility for the defeat and resigned, and we listened to his speech overcome with grief. We crossed the Yarmuk River into Jordan by the village of Sa'd Battah, climbing toward Sahm al-Kaffarat. The people there met us with food and water. We stayed at the house of the mukhtar for a few days until the buses came from Damascus to Sahm al- Kaffarat to transport us to Dar'a. There I turned in the old rifle I had from the Peoples Army, of which I had been a member. Returning as a refugee to Dar'a, where I had gone to teachers college, was the hardest thing I ever did. I lived with my wife in a room in the small school building from which I had graduated. Crowds of refugees thronged the schoolrooms and the courtyards.
After that we came to Damascus. We owned nothing. One day, I went to al-Ma'ariyya, one of the Houran villages that was separated from our village only by the valley, to meet my cousin who had joined the Sa'iqa fedayeen organization. [Syrians as well as Palestinians signed up for the guerrilla organization.-Ed.] We stayed at the house of 'Abd al-'Aziz 'Awad, who had been headmaster of the Fiq school and who had fled with us during the war. We had planned to infiltrate our village, but my cousin decided that it was better for him to go alone, under the cover of night. He brought back four mattresses, two quilts, pillows, our diplomas, and the family photographs. He described how the bedroom closet had been turned inside out and nothing left in it. The things he brought back represented a treasure as they were the only physical mementos left to me from my village.
Of course, I will never forget my hometown. My brother and I had a large piece of land planted with Roman olive trees. Our lands are near Lake Tiberias and an old fortress. We had a mechanized olive press-which was rare in Syria in those days-as well as four animal-driven presses. I should say that Fiq is a very old town with many ancient ruins. Its ancient wall still stands on my uncle's property. Many old homes were built on it. I remember that when some Damascenes bought land and began building in the town, old Roman tombs were uncovered only two meters below ground, and many of them contained gold. The Israelis have built a colony, Afiq, on our town's lands and another one on the Luza plain between Fiq and Skufya.
Some of the families from our town settled in Irbid in Jordan. We and the people of Jordan are relatives and cousins. In fact, many of the residents of our area come from Jordan or Palestine, and sometimes we belong to the same clans. After 1948, about 10,000 Palestinian refugees moved to the Qunaytra governorate. Most of them lived in the city itself, but others settled in the area adjacent to Palestine where they had Syrian relatives. So there were many Palestinian families in Fiq-they were our townspeople with no differences among us. Some of them used to own transport vehicles and haul produce and material on the Fiq-Qunaytra-Damascus road. Most of them fled to Damascus, and we met them again in the Yarmuk refugee camp. Fiq also had families from Shi'him in Lebanon and from the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jubayl, most of whom worked in construction and stone cutting. This whole area is characterized by family connections extending on both sides of the border. In fact, my own family originally came from the village of Ja'una in northern Palestine, but that was long before 1948.
Our relations with other Golani villages were excellent, and people had strong connections with each other. Today, we feel proud of the steadfastness of our people in Majdal Shams, Mas'ada, 'Ayn Qunyih, Buq'ata, and Ghajar. We used to meet them before 1967, when they would come during the olive harvest to sell their grapes in exchange for our olives.
Before 1967, we did not see any fedayeen activities. We heard on the news that they had carried out the first operation in al-Himmah region, and we always lived in battle conditions. We used to fish in Tiberias, but Israeli boats would fire on our fishermen. Still, people used to catch fish in Lake Tiberias, and we used to buy Tiberian fish and sardines in Fiq. There was a plot of land opposite the village of Kafr Harib, most of whose inhabitants were from Palestine, called Sector 52, where skirmishes would always erupt when Israeli tractors would advance on the land to farm it. But there was no question that the land belonged to Kafr Harib. When the Syrian army would try to stop the Israeli tractors from stealing the land, Israeli artillery would bomb the Syrian positions. The Israelis were not satisfied with this but went further by expanding their control over the 100-km2 demilitarized zone [DMZ] separating Syria from Israel.[According to the Syrian-Israeli Armistice Agreement (29 July 1949), which followed the end of the 1948 war, several DMZs were established along the Syrian-Israeli border that were to be under the supervision of UN observers and the Mixed Armistice Commission.- Ed] The lands around the old fortress are owned by the people of our town and used to be in the DMZ, but Israel took it over in 1951.
We had units of the National Guard in our area composed of the people of the frontline villages. Many of them had fought in 1948. The National Guard were the ones who fought in the battle of Tawaflq in 1960, during the union between Syria and Egypt. There was also the battle of 1962, [In February 1960 and March 1962, Israel carried out two attacks against the Golan that were "landmarks" in its creeping annexation of the DMZs. See Patrick Seale, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (London I. B. Taurus, 1988; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 119.-Ed.] in which Mahmud Abbas was martyred, the battle of Butayha, and al-Hasil, and the battle of Wazwaza on 7 April 1967. [This major land and air battle launched by Israel against the Golan on 7 April 1967 was the immediate prelude to the June 1967 war.-Ed.] On 14 July 1966, the Israeli air force surprised us with a violent bombing campaign of the Jordan River diversion project. That day, Muhammad Jabir, one of the villagers who was an orphan and had recently married, was martyred. His child was born after his death.
The missile cut him in two. The people of the village mourned him for a long time.
It has been thirty-two years since we've been living away from our town. We suffered a lot at first, but we were luckier than others due to my being a public schoolteacher. Other families, actually most families, suffered great hardship. I myself did not use the government assistance distributed to the refugees. But my brother, who was in seventh grade during our exodus and who is today a colonel in the army, did take it. It was very painful to stand in line in order to get one kilogram of bread and two cans of sardines per per- son when you had owned land.
Today, lifestyles have changed, with more needs and more hardship. Things were different before. For example, before 1967, weddings used to take place in Skufya or Yaqusa or Saffuriyya, and people would come on their horses or later in cars and would bring with them lambs for slaughter. Today, all these customs have disappeared because of our dispersion. Most Golanis, except for those who remained steadfast in their villages, live today in Damascus and its environs, but some also settled in Dar'a and others in the lands near Qunaytra. As a result, staying in touch on a continuous basis has become very hard for us. Our traditions and customs have been undone.
If the Golan is returned, people will go back. I do not know of anyone before the war who emigrated from our village on a permanent basis. Before 1967, our region did not know emigration at all. I remember that there was a young man who quarrelled with his family and moved to Lebanon and remained there to the amazement of everyone in the village, who would marvel at this one man who would leave his family and go to Lebanon.
Midhat Salih alSalih, Arab Druze, born in 1967 in Majdal Shams, former prisoner in Israel member of the Syrian People's Assembly
I was born in Majdal Shams one month before the occupation, and I was brought up in the Golan. As I grew up, I started to become conscious of what occupation meant and, in contrast, what freedom meant. I opened my eyes as a child only to see Israeli soldiers in the Golan, their repression, the ar- rests, and the falling of martyrs and victims. But 1981 was the historical watershed of my life; that was when Israel declared the law annexing the Golan.
The people of the Golan rejected this decision completely, as they had rejected Israeli citizenship, which Israel tried to impose. Since that day, struggle, rejection, and repression go together. On 1 February 1982, the population of the Golan declared an open strike that lasted more than six months, during which many confrontations and arrests took place, many martyrs fell, and many more were injured. This was accompanied by a long siege that denied us food and medical necessities. Even journalists were not allowed into the Golan. Every village was under siege and isolated from the neighboring village. Disease spread, the children went hungry, and milk ran out in the homes. But solidarity somehow mitigated the effect of the siege on us. Those who owned goats and cows began to distribute milk to people with babies, while the Israeli authorities did not hesitate to burn animal feed to prevent this human solidarity. People devoted all their time to the struggle. They quit their jobs, and their only concern was to express their anger and to resist the Israeli measures.
On 1 April 1982, Israel brought large forces into Majdal Shams, where they fanned out over rooftops and in the roads, declaring curfews over loud- speakers and forbidding people to leave their homes. They converted the schools into detention centers. We found out that they had prepared new Israeli identification cards using old photos of people-they already had the photos because of the military IDs all Syrians in the Golan had to carry and for which one had to submit two photos. They wanted to impose the new IDs-i.e., Israeli citizenship-but everyone refused to accept the cards and began to throw them in the street. The Israeli soldiers would pick them up and throw them again inside people's homes or on people's doorsteps, and so forth. The result was that the campaign of the Israeli authorities to impose Israeli citizenship was a failure.
I remember well when the Israelis came to our house to deliver citizenships and to withdraw the military IDs from my father, my mother, and my brother. My father threw the IDs at them, and they threw them back, and my father threw the cards out of the house and shut the door. They picked them up and laid them on our doorstep. The next day, there was a curfew and the soldiers were deployed throughout the area. I opened the door overlooking the street and saw IDs hanging on our neighbors' front doors or lying on their doorsteps. Six days later, the Israeli forces withdrew. People came out of their homes, collected the ID cards, and then burned some of them. They put the rest in a bag and sent them to the headquarters of the Israeli post and said: "These are your citizenship cards, which we are returning to you."
The siege of the Golan continued for six months without respite. Physicians and journalists were not allowed in, nor were our Palestinian brothers in the Galilee allowed to send help. Assistance and medical supplies were confiscated at Israeli roadblocks and then returned. Then the Lebanon war broke out in 1982, and the world became preoccupied with a cause larger than ours. We later ended the strike. We could say that we won because only very few accepted Israeli citizenship. As for those few who accepted citizenship, they were ostracized by the community, excommunicated religiously and socially. Today they are trying to return their Israeli citizenships as it has become a burden to them.
My political consciousness was formed during the occupation not through existing political organizations but through daily confrontation with the occupier. Confrontation forms one's consciousness. I participated in demonstrations, carrying the Syrian flag. During some periods, people who carried the Syrian flag were sentenced to five years in prison, at other times as little as six months. I was imprisoned for a year for carrying the Syrian flag. Still we persisted in carrying the flag and in hoisting it from schools on patriotic occasions.
In 1985, we decided we had to do something against the occupation. There were twelve of us, and we formed a group to confront the occupation militarily. We called our group the Secret Movement of the Resistance. We had agreed that we would not belong to any party or have a specific ideology, but that our only aim was to expel the occupiers. Our first operation was on 1 June 1985 against an Israeli military camp in Buq'ata.
The Israeli settlements had weapon depots, and mines-antitank as well as anti-personnel-were already strewn in our lands and near our homes. We used to look for these mines, remove them, and then mine the roads used by Israeli military patrols. Our group sneaked into one of the depots of a colony established on the lands of the village of Jubbat al-Zayt and took tens of grenades and some weapons. In another operation, this group sneaked into one of the military depots near Buq'ata and mined it with primitive explosives. The depot had large stores of artillery shells and other weapons. Our explosives consisted of gunpowder and gasoline. When we set fire to the gunpowder, the depot exploded with the shells inside it going off all night. One Israeli soldier was injured as a result. After that, the Israeli soldiers withdrew from that position, and it became completely abandoned and was fully destroyed.
We also worked to sabotage the electronic wall that separates the Golan from Syria. If even a small section of this wall was sabotaged, it would cost the Israelis much effort and money to repair. For a long time, the Israelis believed that infiltrators from Syria were carrying out these operations, and it did not occur to them that a local group was setting the traps. We used to mine the roads taken by the Israeli patrols. As soon as they discovered it, they mined the place where people stood opposite the "Hill of Shouts" and exploded it in order to terrorize women and men who were talking to each other across the separation line with loudspeakers.
We used to walk backward deliberately to fool anyone tracing our footsteps into thinking that we came from inside Syria. This was so successful that we fooled their trained military dogs. After we carried out a number of operations, we were arrested. They did not arrest the whole group together but rather one by one. The way they discovered us did not demand much intelligence or even much information. Israeli intelligence officers would burst into people's homes at night and arrest the young men. They would handcuff the prisoner and tie up his legs and blindfold him and haul him into the car and then to intelligence headquarters. This is exactly what happened to me.
Then the rounds of torture, interrogation, and psychological oppression would begin. They placed me in a half-meter by half-meter cell, where a prisoner just had room to stand. The cells were either extremely hot or extremely cold. They would hang me from my hands and lift me far enough off the ground so my feet could not touch and my hands would have to carry my entire weight. They would also sit me on a chair under the burning sun and would put my head in a black bag full of garbage for hours on end. In winter, they would force me to bathe in very cold water. These methods would be used all day long, hour after hour, throughout the interrogation period. They would beat us everywhere and would threaten to bring our mothers and rape them.
They began my interrogation on 11 August 1985, after which I stood trial. The sentence in my case was not decided by a judge but by an intelligence officer. At the end of the trial, the judge asked me what I wanted, implying that I should want to express regret for what I had done. I had my two lawyers with me, Salim Wakim and Walid al-Fahum, both 1948 Palestinians [i.e., Israeli Arabs]. I responded in the name of the whole group, affirming, "We are Arab Syrian citizens and have the right to defend our lands and struggle against occupation; we have the right to fight the Israeli occupation army, as this land is not yours but ours. We do not regret any of the actions that we carried out, but are proud of what we did." I was sentenced to twelve years.
When I was transferred to prison, the treatment only got worse. The health and food conditions were very bad and the smell of the cells showed their contempt for human beings. As a result of this situation, several of our fighters were martyred in the 'Asqalan prison, including 'Umar al-Qasim, who was a great resistance fighter from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; he had a developed political consciousness and was a modest person. He had spent twenty years in prison before his liver began to fail him. He would tell us of acute pain in his abdomen, and we would advise him to do stomach exercises. But his pain only got worse and eventually his eyes turned yellow, and finally even we understood that he must be suffer- ing from liver disease. The Israelis did not provide him with any medical care until it was too late: he died five days after they transferred him to the hospital. There was another young man from the Democratic Front who also was martyred during the 1992 hunger strike. He refused to eat for eighteen days, until his stomach began to bleed. When he was transferred to the hospital, it was too late, and he died.
We suffered many different methods of psychological and physical torture. Imagine a small room with fifteen fighters. They would throw tear-gas grenades inside, and we couldn't see or breathe, and our skin would begin to burn, and we would start to suffocate. This happened to us many times. But despite these difficult conditions, we remained one united bloc, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese. The fighters of the Popular Front-General Command staged tens of hunger strikes until they got the right to have radios in the cells.
In prison, I met the Lebanese fighter S. Q. [name deleted] who helped us a lot during the educational sessions we held, so much so that we wrote down the principles of the Secret Movement of the Resistance and the internal bylaws in prison. S. Q. had an important presence in our lives as he possessed great political consciousness and clear thinking. We considered him a major reference on many issues. We were in the same cell in the Nafhia prison. When we were transferred to the 'Asqalan prison, we met many Lebanese prisoners, most of them members of the Lebanese Communist Party or Hizballah. They included 'Adil Turmus, Anwar Yasin, Nabih 'Awadah, Kayid Hamdlar, Ahmad Isma'il, and 'Ali Hamdun. I met them later in Lebanon after they had been released. Anwar Yasin, however, remains in prison. Our rela- tions were excellent, and we never felt that there were differences between us. We were in the same cell and lived the entire period sharing everything. When the families of some of the prisoners came to visit from Lebanon, they asked to see us to get to know who we were and who our families were. Then both sets of parents started to correspond. We were all brothers and never felt that this person was Lebanese and the other was Syrian. There is something invisible connecting Lebanon and Syria; whenever we met a Lebanese prisoner, we got on immediately and did not feel that we were strangers. It is true that we didn't have the same connections with the Jordanians, and it took a bit longer to adjust to one another. The Palestinians to us are like the Lebanese. We met many fighters from Jerusalem and the West Bank and Gaza, and from Jaffa in 1948 Palestine, and we became close friends quickly. This is so because we lived together twenty-four hours a day. Our families became friends, and they now visit each other.
The new system of "adopting" prisoners had a good impact on all of us. A Palestinian mother would come and adopt a Lebanese, Syrian, or Iraqi prisoner, and then she would be able to visit him. This used to lighten the burden of imprisonment. Anwar Yasin's family, for example, could not visit him, so he would come out with us on visitation days and got to know my mother and the mothers and families of our other imprisoned comrades. Our fami- lies also brought provisions and gifts to the Lebanese, Iraqi, and Palestinian prisoners. More recently, the Syrian prisoner Yasir al-Mu'azzin was released to Gaza, where he received a hero's welcome. Then he arrived in Syria, where I personally went to receive him at the airport. He was released with kidney failure, and our "families" in Palestine visited him often. There was a Palestinian woman who took care of him and whom he addressed as "mother." When he was released, he stayed with her for a while.
The day I was released was a difficult day. I had spent twelve years waiting for that day, but it was not easy to leave my comrades and bid them farewell. These were brothers I had lived with constantly for twelve years-I lived with them more than I lived with my own family. We ate, slept, and woke up together. Our crying was shared as was our laughter, our concerns, and our expectations. When I was released, I was welcomed in Buq'ata and Majdal Shams by large crowds. The prisoner has a special and highly respected status for our people in the Golan. Every time someone was released from prison, the population of all four villages would assemble in the square of Majdal Shams and carry him to his home and then put him down before his waiting mother. At night they would hold a big banquet in his honor.
Harassment did not end with my release. I was asked to report for interrogation on several occasions. As a result, I decided to cross the border into Syria on 15 April 1998. It was not possible to leave in a normal way. I had applied for a permit to visit Jordan, but they turned it down. As for visiting Syria, it is impossible. I spent a month exploring the border area, which I had known well in the days when I used to plan military operations, and I knew how the electronic wall worked. The wall is two and a half meters high, with wires placed at ten-centimeter intervals. If it is touched, the alarms go off. When one of the wires is tripped, it trips the next wire, and so on until the circuit is closed and the alarms go off. For each two square kilometers, there is a special code that is set off when the circuit is closed, resulting in the illumination of all the spotlights.
I made my decision and decided on the area where I would make the crossing. The only thing I didn't decide was the day and hour. I let things take their natural course. One day when I was visiting some neighbors whose son had been with me in prison, I suddenly decided to leave. I went home and took out my wallet and set it on the television stand. My father was telling me about a meeting we had to attend to organize a demonstration commemorating the anniversary of the French evacuation from Syria.
It was night, around nine-thirty. While everyone was busy with the meeting, I walked to the end of town near the separation wall and began a careful surveillance of the area. When I made certain that there were no patrols, I brought a ladder and put it directly against the wall and quickly climbed over. I had chosen a rocky area so as to avoid mines. It was also very close to the Israeli position-had anyone seen the area I chose to cross, they would have said that I was mad. The Israeli position was around a hundred meters away, and I needed four hundred meters to reach the safety zone. I jumped on the rocks to avoid the mines and ran around 150 meters. In the meantime, the spotlights had lit up the area. The lights were not directed at me, so I hid between the rocks. After a while, they turned off the lights, and I continued to walk in an area full of mines. Thanks to the moonlight, I noticed a tripping wire that I jumped over and continued to run. At this moment, an Israeli patrol was sent in pursuit with their spotlights on. I calculated the time it would take the patrol to reach the place from which I jumped and realized that by then I would have reached the safety zone. So I ran until I reached it. Meanwhile, they reached the place where I had left the ladder and began firing their submachine guns as well as their illumination flares. They even sent out helicopters as if this were some real battle. I advanced to the first Syrian position and found the Syrians totally mobilized as a result of the sub- machine gun fire. I told them that I was the one who crossed from Majdal Shams. I entered their area and met a lieutenant colonel. I rested for a half hour and then asked to be taken to Damascus. At this point they contacted the authorities, who sent a car that took me to Damascus at dawn.
Resistance against the occupation never abated in the Golan. Since the first days of the occupation, the Israeli army has arrested scores of people accusing them of giving information about Israeli positions to the Syrian army. But the Secret Movement of the Resistance was the only group that launched armed struggle against the Israeli army. It did so with no instructions from anyone but on its own initiative, motivated by its sense of patriotism. Our organization spread throughout all the villages. We had people from Baq'ata who were imprisoned. The nucleus, however, started in Majdal Shams. Military operations continued even after our arrests, as the other cells continued operations, which persist until today. In November 1999, they arrested six people from Baq'ata after a mine exploded in the hands of one of them. Their trial began in December 1999.
Sakr Abu Fakhr is on the editorial committee of Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya (MDF), the Institute for Palestine Studies Arabic quarterly, and writes for al-Safir, a daily newspaper in Beirut.
1. 'Adib Sulayman Beg, The Golan: Regional Geographic Study (Damascus: Arab Union Writers, 1983) [in Arabic].
2. 'Adil 'Abd al-Salam, Geographic Syrian Regions (Damascus: University of Damascus, 1990) [in Arabic].
3. The Circassian and Turkoman population figures and percentages are from 'Abd al-Mun'im Haskir, The Golan: Key toPeace in the Middle East (Beirut: Bissan Library, 1999) [in Arabic).
5. Beg, The Golan: Regional Geographic Study.
7. Fiches du Monde Arabe/Arab World File, s.v. "Syria, Golan, Geography," I-Si, no. 3, 25 June 1974.
8. Tayseer Mara'i and Usama Halabi, "Life under Occupation in the Golan Heights,"JPS 22, no. 1 (Autumn 1992), pp. 78-93.
9. For an account of the population that remained in the Golan, see Mara'i and Halabi, "Life under Occupation."
10. Information provided by the Displaced Persons Affairs Administration in the Qunaytra district, December 1999.