Sometimes the most enormous moments seem absurdly ordinary.
It was practically silent on the edge of the Syrian Golan. Every so often, gravel crunched under the tires of UN vans or military trucks, but otherwise, the unlikely soundtrack to a walk through this contentious territory was a pristine hush. If it weren’t for thickets of barbed wire lining the roads, the landscape would have made for a pretty good postcard.
But we were actually walking through the veritable lotus of Syrian-Israeli conflict.
The fertile and strategically valuable Golan Heights territory belonged to Syria from 1944 until 1967, when Israel captured a significant portion of the region during the Six-Day War. Since then, Israel has returned part of the land to Syria but annexed the rest, a move the international community lambastes as illegal and inpermissable. Decades later, reclaiming that land remains Syria’s No. 1 priority, trumping even pressing domestic issues like the floundering economy, said Minister of Information Muhsin Bilal. It is a matter of dignity and principle, he said, and there will be no peaceful overtures toward Israel until the Golan is repatriated.
“Here,” Bilal said, “the occupation is the mother of all problems.”
On our walk Wednesday, those barbed wire thickets separated our group from a 100-meter no-man’s land, then Israel. If a giant wall marked the southwestern boundary of Syria, my toes would have been scrunched against it. But there’s a UN roadblock instead, and armed officers nearby. So my toes just grazed an invisible line at the center of violent controversy. Politics aside, I felt overwhelmed by the reality of standing in such a crucial geographic location. Even without my glasses, I could see the flapping blue and white flags, though Katie had to read me the sign that says “Welcome to Israel.”
To get this close to what Osama calls “limbo,” we picked up police escorts and passed through checkpoints. So once we got outside, near the rich soil and the barbed wire, I didn’t want to miss the point. Hardly anyone gets to stand where we stood. Certainly not civilians. When Syrian women decide to marry across the dividing line, they leave their families behind forever.
Loading back into the bus that afternoon felt, oddly, like a privilege.