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Reisverslag Third report (English version)
13 januari 2015
Third report (English version)
In report number 2 I mentioned that the fighting parties in Syria were not that far away from OP72. During the month of August the Anti-Government Armed Elements (AGAE) fought their way up north and have driven back the forces of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces (SAAF) even further back. This is a sensitive defeat for SAAF and the Syrian regime of president Assad, because they lost the “border crossing” with Israel. The words border crossing put between brackets, because one cannot speak of a border but must say a ceasefire line. Besides this Syria does not accept the existence of the state of Israel, so……. But for the UN it means that we no longer can use this passage to Syria and back. So also for the UN this is a major problem. A temporary solution is the crossing of “the border” further up north. As mentioned before there are several passable places in the Technical Fence(TF). This is the fence that Israel build just a few meters west of the Area Of Separation (AOS) In the north there is a passage close to Majdal Shams (Israel) and Hadar (Syria). Both villages are inhabited mainly by Druze. And in Syria the area of the Druze is under control of the Pro Government Armed Elements (PGAE). This is also a rebel group (most likely formed by the Druze) but as the name already says not really against the Syrian regime. But this is most likely a political choice.
A short background story. As already mentioned both villages are inhabited by Druze. During the war of 1967 Israel conquered a large part of the Golan Heights and so marked another border through the living area of the Druze. Because also in Lebanon there is a large group of Druze living. In the Yom Kippoer war (1973) Israel moved even further east and up until the signing of the “1974 Agreement” held this area under its control. And so the Druze were temporarily united again. They had a good time (according to the stories told). There were investments in the infrastructure and there was freedom of movement for people and goods; be reminded that everybody is related to each other. The Druze are a remarkably closed community. They are known to be a mystic group in the Shiite Islam. They live in the territory that is to be found along the borders between Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Due to many wars and almost random drawn borders, they are divided among three different countries. But they managed to keep their very closed group together and maintain their specific faith. Remarkable detail to be mentioned that before the civil war (in Syria) men or women could cross the “border” once to marry someone from “the other side”. After this there was no way of returning to the other side for a family visit of any kind. Another detail is that close to Majdal Shams there is a so called “shouting place”. Here the Druze were allowed to exchange news and messages with their relatives by shouting to the other side of the fence. Due to the internet and use of mobile telephones this custom is not much used anymore.
The passage through the TF can only be done on foot, across a small path over rocks and through ditches. So passage of people is possible, but goods have to go through Damascus. And so I will also make my crossing into Syria and back to Israel.
It is still the end of August 2014. AGAE have taken the village of Quinetra and so also taken over the border crossing. Quinetra is an important place for the Syrians. After the Yom Kippoer war Israel has given back this village to Syria in 1974. But in Syria history tells another story. It is regarded as a great success in the war against the Zionistic regime, “we have reconquered Quinetra”. Ah well, it is just who writes the history books.
Before the civil war this was a museum where people came on their day off or during the holidays. For president Assad the loss is not only territory but also loss of face. Part of his family originates from this area.
The UN of course wants a good observation on the civil war, because we are the observers for the international community. At only one kilometre from Quinetra there is Mount Bental (on Israel occupied Golan). A hill that rises approximately a hundred meters over the landscape. This used to be an important position for the Israeli army. But nowadays this is a major touristic attraction. (the comparison with Quinetra is easy to make I reckon!). After negotiations with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) the UN can man a temporarily Observation Post on Mount Bental. There is a very good overview of the border area and also the area where the battle between AGAE and SAAF takes place.
So this will be my working place for a few days. And since the civil war is “hot news” for a while, a lot of the press is present. So pictures of UN observers on Mount Bental go all over the world. From our temporarily observation post we have a good overview on the ongoing battle and we can report our observations. These are then send to our headquarters in Jerusalem, from where they are send to New York. It is strange to look into Syria from this side. I can see my OP72 at a distance of approximately 12 km.
In Quinetra was a UN post which was manned by Fiji soldiers. During the take over from Quinetra by AGAE, one of the AGAE fractions has taken the Fiji soldiers hostage, a group of 45 men. After approximately two weeks they were all freed and unharmed. If there was a ransom paid is unclear up unto today, and also who did the negotiations with the AGAE.
On Friday August 29 I went back into Syria to do my work in the UN camp close to Faouar (Camp Faouar, CF) inside Syria and on OP72. The passage took place as mentioned in the northern part of the TF. First by car to the passageway. Guarded by IDF soldiers one by one we walk through the TF to the other side. There we are guarded by PGAE that guide us to the UN vehicles. In a convoy of armored vehicles we drive to CF, the UN camp. Here I will have two days of duty in the communications center of Observer Group Golan Damascus (OGGD) of which I am part. On Monday I will go together with a Swiss colleague to OP72 to relieve two of our team mates. I shall be on OP72 for one and a half week.
From the OP the battle is very visible, only a few kilometers away. Despite that we get used to the sounds of weapons, mortars impacting and rockets being launched, it is still a strange world in which we work. We do our job, observe and report. The OP is still relatively safe. During the week the Force Commander, a general from UNDOF, visits our OP three times. Every time we brief him over what we observe and the current situation. We tell him that we are slightly concerned about the next steps, should the AGAE get any closer. Because not every fraction within the AGAE are that friendly against the UN. We do not get a clear answer, not even after his third visit. But among each other we made it very clear over what action we can and will take, should the battle come any closer. Besides that we are unarmed, the road to and from the OP is not very safe either, it leads through open terrain and over the flanks of the hill. In the end on Friday September 12 in the evening, OP72 is evacuated. Personnel arrives safely in CF, They will travel through the northern passage in the TF back to Israel. Finally almost all the UN posts in the AOS are evacuated, this includes Camp Faouar.
Because I was planned to fly to Amsterdam on Friday I already left he OP on Thursday September 11, and traveled to Israel. This passage was also not easy. There were roadblocks and it was not really clear who or which group guarded these blocks. In the end arrived in Israel. But then all the luggage had to be checked. So wait for two hours before the scanner was manned and the process could start! But of course I made it back to the Netherlands.
All personnel from UNTSO working in Syria has gotten a spot in Israel. I was on OP54 for one week and after that was transferred to OP53. Besides this I do my shifts on Mount Bental. Because we lost our OP’s in Syria, we have a temporarily OP (TOP) on Mount Bental. As already mentioned this is a touristic spot. So besides observing we also get to speak a lot with the visitors. And there a lot of them! In this way we are also some kind of public relations for the UN. We can explain what we do here and also why the UN is in the area. And it often happens that people have no clue why the UN is here and what they/we are doing here. I personally really enjoy talking to the tourists and tell them what we are doing. Also a lot of colleagues love the work. We must of course be careful, because we are representatives for the UN and through our observations we see “operational activities”. On the other hand the UN must be open, because the UN in the end belongs to “all of us”.
Up until now, January 2015, inside Syria none of the posts have been manned again by the UN. Also the battle between SAAF and AGAE is still ongoing, though the winter weather makes it pretty quiet most of the time. There have been some offensive action by both parties, but according to our observations, not much has changed.
Until the next report in which I will write some more about my personal experiences.
14 januari 2015 12:03 | Door: René Louman
Voor het eerst dat ik eens lees wat je aan het doen bent, interessant.