Don't Go to Golan

by - 6:00 PM

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has nice little maps of every country in the world on its website. They're color-coded to show you how dangerous it is to travel to a country. I never looked at the map of Israel before I went there. Had I done so, I would have seen a bright red strip of land near the Syrian border. "Don't go to Golan Heights,' our caring ministry tells us. Now can you guess where I went when I was in Israel in June? Yup, that's right. I went to the Golan Heights.

I was pretty nervous when we drove towards the Syrian border. I'd never heard of Golan before, but our tour guide filled us in. The Golan Heights is a Syrian region, occupied by Israel. It's been that way for decades now and recently Iran felt the need to make some threats to get Israel to give up the place. Heavy ammunition is in place at all times. According to our tour guide, it's safe because of the dispute: no one would dare to fire first, out of fear of escalating the conflict. So Golan is a safe and fun place, where you can hear the bombs explode when the war gods play their games in Syria. Great, awesome, why were we going there again?

Half of me was quite scared, but the other half of me saw this as an adventure. World's most well-known warzone was just around the corner! My excitement disappeared the second I spotted an army helicopter. Around the same time, we passed an army base that looked abandoned.
'They're all out in the field, on patrol,' our tour guide, a former army guy himself, told us. I did not see that as a good sign. There were no tanks and army vehicles in sight, but knowing they were out and about was unsettling.

Our bus stopped near the summit of Mt. Bental, a dormant volcano close to the current Israeli-Syrian border. It was a quiet day on the other side of the high fences separating one country from the other, with no bombs falling from the sky and no smoke billowing over the Syrian plains. That calmed me down, though I did get very confused when I reached the actual summit by foot. In my mind, we were visiting a calm mountain in the middle of nowhere. In reality, Mt. Bental was a full-fledged tourist trap with a coffee house, fancy sculptures and a souvenir shop. Not exactly what I'd expected. It felt a bit surreal, even more so when I took a step back and watched my tour group stare at the yellow war-torn fields of Syria the same way you'd look at a mentally challenged monkey at the zoom; it feels wrong to stare, but you can't look away because it's strangely interesting.
'Weird how we use war and someone else's misery as a tourist attraction,' I remarked.
'But don't you think war is big business?' one of the older men from the group asked me.
I considered that for a moment. I tried to think of all the weaponry, ammunition, vehicles and people involved in this one war, then added the tourism money from Mt. Bental to that. Our bus had been of a dozen buses to visit Golan at that moment. It was insane. I had to agree with the man.
'Not just any big business, the biggest business,' he said. In the meantime, the next group of tourists had arrived to have a look at Syria's misery.

After that short conversation, I felt a little uncomfortable exploring the rest of Mt. Bental's summit. If you were able to forget about its location and the bright red color of the area on the Ministry's map, you could have some real fun there. Mt. Bental was a stronghold in the Yom Kippur War and its bunkers are still intact. You can explore them on your own if you have a flashlight and the guts to walk into a dark tunnel on the edge of an actual war zone. It's also cool to see the UN officers on duty there at work, but it's also a grim reminder of the whole situation. These guys were okay with me taking pictures of them, I guess because it offered them a little distraction from endlessly staring at a similar place on the Syrian side of the border and the rare care that drove past a quarry.

Well within the hour, I'd seen pretty much everything there was to see. Even though the trip to the Golan Heights had seemed safe enough all that time, I felt a wave of relief wash over me as we left the area. I'd like to recommend the place to you, but I won't. I visited Mt. Bental on June 15th, when it was relatively calm in the wider region. Our guide happened to live in Golan, so he knew what he was doing. If he hadn't been there, I never even would have thought about getting so close to the Syrian border. And if I'd get the chance to visit today, I'd turn the offer down. Back in June, only Iran was ready to shake things up. Over the past weekend, however, both Israel and Syria have been preparing to do damage, with missiles reportedly landing in Syria already.
Apart from the safety risks, people visiting Mt. Bental seem to forget they're visiting land that Israel violently took from Syria, visiting that place to look at the pain and misery of innocent civilians living in the hell of war. So I'm going to end this post by saying something I usually never say in my travel posts: Please, don't go to Golan.

x Envy

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2 Fellow Ramblers

  1. Gosh that is a bit insane :O
    Cora |

    1. It really is. I'm not studying alongside Syrian refugees, which makes this experience even more surreal.


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