After saying our goodbyes yesterday to Francois and this morning to Rajani and Chris this morning, all of whom had to leave much earlier for their scheduled flights, we took a detour drive west to the Golan Heights before we’d make our own flights back home from Beirut later in the evening.
About 20 minutes into the drive from Damascus, we reached a checkpoint we were assigned 2 guards driving a Honda that accompanied us for the rest of our time in the Golan Heights.
Little did I know when I had arbitrarily chosen the dates a few months ago that we would happen to visit the Golan Heights on the anniversary of the war that took place right here on Yom Kippur. So, I guess, Happy Yom Kippur?
(We only ask for and come in peace)
After an hour’s drive from Damascus we reached Al Qunaitera, the largely destroyed and abandoned capital of the Quneitra Governorate in southwestern Syria after the war of 1973.
The city is situated in a high valley in the Golan Heights at 1km above sea level.
The Golan Heights themselves, or simply the Golan, is a region in the Levant captured from Syria by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967; the territory has been occupied by the latter since then and has been subject to a de facto Israeli annexation in 1981.
This region includes the western two-thirds of the geological Golan Heights and the Israeli-occupied part of Mount Hermon.
Since the war’s end in 1973-1974, the city remains inside a UN-patrolled buffer zone pursuant to Security Council Resolution 350 and the Agreement on Disengagement between Israel and Syria.
As we walked around, an occasional UN-marked APC and tank drove up and down the roads here seeming to ignore our presence.
Our first stop was a former antiquities museum that although abandoned, still ironically serves as a museum to what had happened here only half a century ago.
As if it had been placed for symbolic purposes, a solder’s helmet from the war remains.
We then drove to the local mosque, which remains largely intact.
Inside the mosque we found graffiti that seemed to mock Islam. Ophelia believes the mosque had been defaced by groups such as al Nusra when they passed through here.
The mosque remains so sturdy that Ophelia encouraged us to climb with her up the minaret. So we did, where Ophelia then took a photo of me at the top and asked me to smile more despite the somber nature of where we found ourselves in.
So I do what my local guide tells me to do.
From here you can see into the distance where Israel is. We were so close we were able to receive cellular coverage from across the border.
From the mosque we then drove to an abandoned cathedral where you can climb to its second floor for more views.
Our last stop was a bullet-riddled abandoned hospital. Although we could take photos of it, we were not allowed inside by our security detail as it is currently being used by the Syrian military as a staging area.
Although we were then supposed to ascend a hill to reach a platform boasting a view of the Israel city of Majdal Shams, the unofficial capital of the Israeli controlled region of the Golan Heights, recent missile strikes only a few days ago prevented us from making this detour safely. It is because of the proximity of Israel’s military in this region that Syria has yet to formally rebuild its own cities in the Golan Heights.
From the hospital, we then turned around and drove back to Damascus, picking up a few shawarma and falafel sandwiches along the way to eat on the bus.
Once we reached Damascus an hour later, we stopped underneath a bridge to switch buses and drivers for our onward flights out of Beirut, Lebanon. And right on cue, Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You” somehow began playing on its own from my speakers (my my how could such a thing happen) as Ophelia handed our a surprise signed photograph of our group to each of us.
As “I Will Remember You” transitioned to Chantal Kreviazuk’s “Leaving On a Jet Plane” and then to Jeff Buckely’s “Last Goodbye,” our other bus arrived. We then transferred our bags over and made our final goodbyes to both our bus driver Abu Khaled that we had for the week, and our guide turned new friend Ophelia.
Although I’ve endured countless goodbyes after countless monsoons, this one seemed to have sprung a surprise by rendering a harsher emotional impact on me than the rest; as Arcade Fire’s “Dimensions” and This Will Destroy You’s “The Mighty Rio Grande” played and I stared ahead in quiet reflection, we drove an hour towards the border with Lebanon.
To exit Syria, we first needed to pay a 7000 SYP/Syrian Pound departure fee at a kiosk to our left when entering the departures office.
After handing them 77,000 SYP for the 11 of us, the kiosk then handed us our paper slips where we filled out our names and placed them in our respective passports.
We then brought our passports to the main counter where they then stamped us out.
Keep your passport on you and be ready to turn it to the page that has your Syrian exit stamp before you drive out from Syria into no man’s land.
The whole exit process for the 11 of us (8 Americans, 2 Australians, 1 Indian) at the Syrian border took about 10 minutes.
After another 10 minutes of driving through no man’s land towards Lebanon, we got back out to stamp back into Lebanon. Here the wait seemed to be much more chaotic than Syria, where 2 border officers tried to process scores of people trying to cut in (including ourselves at the behest of our driver Dahab; it seemed he was not getting paid by the hour) and illogically creating more lines.
Here it took nearly 30 minutes of waiting patiently in randomly generated queues before we finally reached a sassy Lebanese border officer who made pop culture references with our names. More amusingly, when he asked some of us where we were headed next (therefore answers like “home to USA” or “airport to make a layover in Istanbul” would have sufficed) and some of us responded with “Lebanon” not knowing he meant something else, he responded with “Oh really, you don’t say?”
After nearly 45 minutes total here, we finally got our stamps back into Lebanon.
And with another hour’s drive to the airport, it was finally “Time To Say Goodbye” Bocelli/Brightman style: