Golan Heights, Syria
The blue bereted soldier inspected our documentation from behind stylish, slightly sinister, wrap around sun glasses of the type often favoured by sports competitors and the military. His movements were lacklustre, those of a man bored by the monotony of sentry duty, and, judging by the insignia on his United Nations uniform, I suspected that he would rather be enjoying vodka back in his native Poland, instead of standing guard in the heat of the Holy Lands. Satisfied that the dramatic swirls, peaks and troughs of the Arabic script correctly accompanied the ministry of interior stamps he handed the papers back to our driver and, with a casual nod of the head, signalled his approval for us to proceed. As we edged forward, Ali punctuated the front seat silence he had cultivated since we left our hotel with a single word, ‘Golan’. He then gestured westward toward the verdant hills in the near distance. This would be where our road from Damascus would hit a dead end; any progress blocked by barbed wire, minefields and beyond that the Israeli army.
On the 10th of June 1967 the six day war was in its final stages. In just over 130 hours Israeli forces had defeated the military opposition offered by Egypt, Jordan and Syria with a series of brilliantly planned pre-emptive attacks. Citing the fear of an imminent assault by Arab forces, politicians in Tel Aviv had gambled on striking first in order to destroy the forces which encircled them. The level of their success out stripped their wildest dreams as Israeli troops quickly captured Jerusalem and the Sinai desert, decimating the Egyptian and Jordanian militaries in the process. By 8.30am on the final day Syrian forces were being engaged on the border and by mid morning the Golan Heights had been taken.
As a general rule I have found that men carrying Kalashnikovs rarely smile, and the balding member of the Syrian intelligence agency who halted us at the next checkpoint, proved to be no exception. Once again our papers were taken for close inspection but this time upon their return we also received an extra passenger in the form of an official government ‘minder’, who would accompany us for the remainder of the journey. Wearing a regulation black leather jacket, steady frown and perma-stubble, our new travelling companion instantly made his presence felt by berating Ali for announcing that we would soon be arriving at the ‘Israeli border’. Our enraged escort spun round from his seat to tell us that our driver was talking nonsense, in truth we would soon be visiting Israeli occupied Syria. My wife gave me a wide eyed look which suggested that, as usual, I had succeeded in ‘taking her to all the best places’.