Occupied Golan: stories of separation
Israel's occupation of the Golan severely restricts the ability of its Arab residents to go about their daily lives. In addition, many have relatives across the demarcation line in Syria that they have not seen for years.
Haniya Saleem Bader Eldeen Shams is 59 years old. She has lived in the occupied Golan since 1968 when she came to be married. Her son, Youseef Hussein Shams, explains that his mother's family live on the other side of the demarcation line.
" She used to be as healthy as a horse, " he says, " bu t since 2003 she has suffered a heart attack and has been hospitalized three times. She is always in tears, sad and depressed. "
During a one week trip to Jordan in 2003 was the last time Haniya saw her family. On the last day of the visit, her older brother died of a heart attack but because his body was taken home to Syria, Haniya was unable to attend the funeral. Her son says this experience broke her health.
Earlier, she had been able to spend one month with her family in Syria in 1990 as part of the ICRC's family visit programme but this was suspended by the Israeli authorities in 1992.
Yousef spends around 50 dollars a week on a twenty-minute phone call that allows his mother to talk to her family.
" It's expensive, " he says " but after she fell sick, I do what I can to help her. "
" When she came here, she left her family behind. She did not see them or their children as they grew up. She missed that sense of family. If the family visits were restored, it would compensate for some of those moments and heal some of the injuries. "
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" It was a difficult decision to make when I decided to come here, " says Najwa Fawaz Abu Shaqra – Amasha. " My family and my father were very sad. They tried to convince me not to come. I had to ignore them to find the strength to stick to my decision and not be overwhelmed by sadness. "
" At first the question of his return to the occupied Golan, was not an issue, " she explains, " We saw each other for three years during our studies and we fell in love. My choice then was to leave him or leave my family. It took a year to get the authorization to come here, " she adds. " When the approval came, I had to seize the opportunity. If I had hesitated it would have been too late. "
In addition to the problems of adjusting to a new community, she is not entitled to an Israeli identification card for the first three years of her residence. This means she cannot travel outside Israel and the occupied Golan, cannot study and cannot work.
Her new husband found work as an English teacher in Beer Sheba, in central Israel and is only home on weekends. She has no family of her own in the occupied Golan, and without family visits across the demarcation line, she d oes not know when she will see them again.
She says the most difficult moment was when she gave birth two years ago. " I wanted my mother, " she says, " I was very sad, it was very difficult not to have her there. "
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" My father was using a megaphone to talk to us from the shouting hill and he became very emotional. He collapsed from a heart attack and died on the spot, " explains Aida Kasim Amasha. " I applied immediately for a permit to go to his funeral, but it was refused. I wanted to touch my father one last time. "
The shouting hill is on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line in the Golan and overlooks the village of Majdal Shams on the Is raeli occupied side. The families separated since the 1967 ceasefire use megaphones to communicate across the barbed wire that divides them.
The 47 year old woman came from Damascus in 1980 to marry her husband in the occupied Golan. Although she studied mathematics, physics and chemistry in Syria before leaving she does not have a permit to work in Israel.
Last year her 83 year old mother died. " She had been sick for a long time and had undergone surgery. But I could not go to see her before she passed away. " She says she is now so depressed that she stays indoors most of the time.
She has four brothers and two sisters in Syria but it is not possible to visit them. " Family weddings over there are very sad events for us, " she adds, " we cannot participate. "
The difficulties of her life in the occupied Golan are not new to her. She lost her five year old daughter fifteen years ago. " All my family could do is offer condolences from the shouting hill. "
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" Family is a physical experience, " says 93 year old Sheikh Hasan Yousef Basheer.
" We need to touch one another, to feel the children climbing onto you. " Although his daughters live with him in the village of Majdal Shams, the rest of his family are all on the Syrian side of the 1967 ceasefire line. " Extended family is so important, " he says.
He was able to take part in a family visit organized in 1979 and again in 1990 but the programme was suspended by the Israeli authorities in 1992. " It was like a big wedding, " he says, " It was the first time I had seen all my family members since the 1967 war.
Everyone was singing, everyone wanted to kiss me and I kissed them all. I was able to stay one month, it was a good time. "
Since that last visit his two brothers have passed away, but he still has one brother, a sister, as well as nephews and nieces. He says he hopes to see them again, " as long as God is willing. "
As a Druze elder, he was able to cross into Syria last September as part of an annual religious pilgrimage facilitated by the ICRC. But he says the pilgrimage is too short, leaving them little more than one evening to visit family.
" When we haven't seen each other in so long, it is difficult to talk. At first there is nothing to say. We need the time to really sit together, to talk and re-establish contact, to reminisce about the old days. "
" The pilgrimage is too shor t to do that, " he adds, " it just reopens the wound. When I come back I am depressed and sad. " He has been married to his second wife since 1994, " but she has never met any of my family on the other side. "
" It is not right, " he concludes, " people are dying without the chance to see their relatives. We are all human beings; shouldn't we have the right to visit? "
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" In a dream I saw my mother's funeral, " says 49 year old Mohasna Sulieman Taweel Merij. " The next morning I learned she had passed way during the night. Her mother had been sick for some time, and she tried to find a way to visit her, but it was impossible. " On the phone my mother kept crying and begging for me to come, but I could not. "
" She had sent a message the day before her death telling me to call, but our phone was not working. She stayed alive until one in the morning wondering why I didn’t call, " says Mohasna.
On hearing of her mother's death she tried to sneak across the demarcation line and walk the four kilometres to her family village. Her sons physically restrained her because of the danger of minefields.
Mohasna moved from the village of Hadar in Syria proper to the occupied Golan to marry in 1973 at the age of 16. She has been back once in 1990 as part of the family visit programme. Her husband died of a heart attack just after that visit.
She can still telephone her family in Syria, but because she is a widow, she says she can only afford a short call every two months. " We spend all the time crying on the phone and I listen to them begging me to come visit. "
Her worry now is whether she will be able to see one of her brothers who has been sick for the last three years. " We are roughly the same age and we were very close growing up, " she explains, " I want to see him again, but I am afraid he will die first. I haven't been with him in 16 years. To see him again would be the most precious moment in my life. "
Mohasna has three sons and three daughters. One of her daughters lives in Austria and has come home to visit. Mohasna travelled to Austria for three weeks when her daughter gave birth. " It's easier to go to Austria than to my family's village behind that mountain over there, " she points in the direction of Syria. " It would take me thirty minutes to walk there. "