Quneitra: A witness to two wars, and two displacement flights
When you enter Quneitra—the capital of the Syrian Golan—you see an expression of the 1950s modern movement architecture, manifest in the patterns of construction and designs of buildings, shops, roads, and even sidewalks. These designs enhance the historical worth of the city, built in the 19th century and preserved as a witness to several political upheavals. Still, what will grab your attention at once is the overwhelming destruction that dominates the city’s landscape.
Destruction in Quneitra, located nearly 60 km south west of Damascus, is deemed a witness to the violations committed by the Israeli army during the June War of 1967, and by the Syrian regime as it fought those it called “terrorists”.
Constructed on the junction of major trade routes, Quneitra was a way station for merchants’ convoys on the road between Syria and Palestine. However, it lost its commercial status after it became a part of the war line with Israel since the 1940s.
A mixture of ethnicities made Quneitra’s population. Besides the Arab families that lived in the city, a few Christian households also settled there and built a Greek Orthodox Church in 1930, using black basalt stone widespread in the area.
Several Circassian and Chechen families, who immigrated from the Caucasus, also sought refuge in the city and founded their own neighborhoods. They called their housing areas “the land of the ancestors,” and built the Circassian and the Dagestani mosques.
In 1967, Quneitra’s population was displaced for the first time. Eighteen years after the Nakba/catastrophe, in reference to the armistice signed in 1948 when the Arab forces lost the war to Israel and the latter declared the foundation of its state.
Back then, the Israeli forces advanced into Golan and occupied 1260 km2, including Quneitra, and sent nearly 130 Syrians on a flight of displacement.
Over the course of action, Quneitra city was the Syrian forces’ center of command in the Golan region. When the city fell to the Israeli forces’ control, the back-then Syrian Minister of Defense, Hafez al-Assad, was blamed, for he broke the loss news before the Israeli army’s entry into the area, instilling fear among civilians and forcing them to abandon their homes.
As he recalls this devastating experience, tears well up in Abu Hussein’s eyes, one of Quneitra’s displaced residents. He remembers the radio statement from his childhood, which made his father decide to flee the area with his family for a short period of time. The father thought that their departure would end in a few days, or weeks, but it lengthened.
In 1974, Syria regained sovereignty over Quneitra through a second treaty. The agreement provided for setting up a buffer zone in the area under UN auspice, and 60 km were given back to Syria.
“It was sold,” Umm Hussain told Enab Baladi, a woman in her seventies with the area’s famous patterns tattooed on her hands and chin. What other thing could follow the displacement caused by al-Assad, the father, but a displacement caused by the al-Assad, the son.
Even though the Syrian regime continues to present Quneitra as a witness to the destruction that resulted from the war against Israel, it did not exclude the city from bombardment or decimation when it was controlled by the armed opposition factions in past years.
The Syrian regime celebrated the liberation of Quneitra during the October War, as it “shattered the myth of the Israeli army.” At the time, the Arab forces made a quick progress into the occupied areas, but an Israeli victory followed, resulting in costly losses, estimated as nearly 4.5 million USD. The regime, however, did not initiate any restoration or reconstruction projects in Quneitra, alleging that the rubble displays the Israeli violations.
The city’s residents consider the 1973 happenings a “show,” for the destruction there does not bear the mark of bombardment, adding that instead the decimation was caused by planned blasts.
In 2014, the regime forces targeted the area, particularly the posts of the Free Army, after the armed opposition groups took the city over and the United Nations Peacekeeping Force (UNPF) withdrew from the buffer zone. Residents were forced to leave the area for fear of death, displaced for the second time.
In mid-2018, regime forces regained control over the southern areas, including Quneitra city, and reestablished their posts and checkpoints; the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was also repositioned at the Quneitra-Golan border crossing; and Israeli forces resumed targeting Hezbollah and Iranian-militias mobilized to the area.
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