Occupied Golan: bittersweet reunion for separated families
Hundreds of Druze pilgrims crossed over from the occupied Golan into Syria proper in September, to visit holy places, family and friends during a four-day visit to Damascus. This year, over 220 women were allowed to cross and visit their relatives – the highest number ever. As Syria and Israel do not have diplomatic relations, the ICRC acted as a neutral intermediary, making it possible for 666 people to cross the demarcation line.
At 8 a.m., the first bus pulls up at the Kuneitra crossing, which separates the occupied Golan from the rest of Syria. The doors open and a group of Druze pilgrims emerge, smiling broadly. Everyone talks at the same time, greeting each other and chatting away while they grab their bags and suitcases from the luggage compartment. A few minutes later the group moves off, led by ICRC personnel, to meet their relatives waiting on the other side of the line.
A long-awaited reunion
Everyone is in good spirits, but each of these travellers has a story to tell of the separation that has torn their lives apart and left scars in their hearts. Siham Kasem Abu Saleh stands close to her husband, shielding herself from the sun with a white umbrella and a matching scarf. She was 15 years old when she last saw her brother, in 1967. "Just after the war, I used to go up to the Golan Mountains with a loud-hailer to talk to my brother. This is the first time I've been allowed to cross into Syria proper since then. I'm so excited to be seeing him again, but my joy is mixed with sadness, because I have cancer. This is the first time I've seen him for 43 years, and it could be the last.”
Wessam Shebly Sabagh left Syria proper to marry her Golanese husband sixteen years ago and has not seen her family since. "I remember when the ICRC accompanied me to the Golan. I was only 19 years old and I was wearing a beautiful wedding dress. I was happy to be getting married, but at the same time my heart was aching because I didn't know when I would see my family again. My father died some time ago and I couldn't be with him. Today, the ICRC is accompanying me again, but this time I'm going back to Syria proper to see my beloved family and friends. My tears are tears of sadness, but also of deep happiness and gratitude."
When dreams come true
The midday heat is intense. Salha Mahmoud Al Saleh (69) approaches one of the ICRC staff in her wheelchair. She wants to be sure that her name is on the list approved by the two governments. This will be the first time in 43 years that she has been back to Syria proper, but she is calm as she talks about the son she hasn’t seen for 35 years. "I had heart surgery lately and I didn't know at the time that I would finally be allowed to see my son. It was like a dream come true when I found out that my name was on the list. The doctors warned me not to make such a risky trip, but I know that whatever happens to me, I will have had the chance to see my son and hold him in my arms."
The Kuneitra crossing point is usually closed. Since the two governments suspended unrestricted family visits in 1992, the Israeli and Syrian authorities only open it on very special occasions, and even then they only allow a selected list of people to pass. This means that most Golanese men and women cannot hope to cross into Syria proper until unrestricted family visits resume.
Sulaf Adnan Shaalan (31) sits down in the shade of a tent erected to protect pilgrims from the burning midday sun. She picks up her mobile and whispers a few words, then starts to cry. Her sister Fedaa (38) rushes over and tries to comfort her. Both women were born in Damascus and married Golanese men. Both have children. They have mixed feelings of happiness and remorse. Above all, they cannot wait to hug their family, who have been waiting for them since early morning. This is the first time they have been home since they moved to the Golan 11 and 16 years ago. "This is one of the happiest days of our lives; it's so difficult for us not to be able to see them regularly. We can’t believe that the day has finally come when we'll see them again.”
When the last bus arrives it is already past midday. Heat and fatigue are taking their toll on the Golanese waiting to cross the demarcation line. But their faces glow with the anticipation of spending a long-awaited four days in Syria proper, surrounded by their loved ones. Less fortunate members of the Golanese population will have to wait until unrestricted family visits resume.