It is a perfect day in northern Israel. The sun is shining bright above the Israeli flag, waving in the wind. I am pretty exhausted from the first half of the day and as soon as I spot the little café next to the signs, pointing to different cities in the region, I treat myself with an ice cream. Our tour guide waits patiently for my fellow travelers to arrive on top of the mountain before she starts to tell us about the area we have come to visit: the Golan Heights.
For all of you who haven’t been that interested in Middle Eastern history or just simply have forgotten what this particular conflict was all about: the Golan Heights, initially a part of Syria, were first captured by Israel in 1967. Strategically the area is very important since it is a key source of water in the region and provides a perfect view into Syria and its capital, Damascus. After many years of armed conflict between the two countries Israel officially announced that they had annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. Until this very day the international community has not recognized the annexation of the area.
Our tour guide is just about to finish her summary of the region’s history when we hear the first massive explosion just about five kilometers from where we stand. All of a sudden my ice cream tastes bitter and I am so shocked about what I just heard that I throw it into the bin next to me. We are actually witnessing the Syrian war right now. I’ve spent the last five years reading articles about this conflict, watching horrible footage on news programs, helping refugees who have fled their home country and discussing with friends and family how the international community should put an end to this terror. Now I am here and even though I am standing safely on the other side of the border, my stomach turns upside down. The echoe of a second explosion spreads over the plane in front of us and I see a cloud of dust forming above a village in the distance.
My travel group is not the only group of tourists on this viewing platform. Around 50 people from all over the world stare at the scenery in front of us. There are several Germans, a couple of Americans as well as a bigger Japanese group. As soon as people haverecovered from their shock, the atmosphere starts to change. An American citizen runs towards the balustrade, practically shouting at his wife behind him: „Hurry, I want you to catch the next explosion behind me!“ He starts to pose in front of the balustrade, while his wife is ready to take a photo as soon as the next explosion is to be seen.
Two Japanese tourists catch my eye. A couple of steel figures, Israeli soldiers who are pointing their guns towards Syria, were installed on the platform to remind visitors of those who fought in the conflicts regarding this area. One of the tourists starts to pose next to the steel figure, acting as if he was shooting against an invisible enemy somewhere across the border, while his friend takes photos of him. A couple of minutes pass without anything to be heard and some people become impatient. A little kid turns to his mother and says: „NOTHING is happening.“
I can’t seem to wrap my head around what’s happening. Here we are, 50 men, women and children from wealthy, safe countries getting excited about people nearby fighting for their lives. Here I am, eating ice cream and staring at the cloud of dust that slowly dissolves in the light blue sky while a madman is slaughtering his people just a couple of kilometers away. I can’t help but feel embarrassed and ask myself: What am I doing here?
It’s been two weeks since I witnessed what is currently going on at the Golan Heights. Two weeks of feeling shocked, disgusted, angry and a little bit ashamed. Shocked, because hearing a bomb from nearby feels very different to seeing one explode on TV. Disgusted, because I cannot believe how disrespectful some of the visitors behaved. Angry, because how dare you pose for a photo with a gun pointing at people who are actually fighting for their lives. Ashamed, because I’m not sure whether I am that different from these rude people obsessing over war before they enter their busses and return to their beautiful, air-conditioned hotels. In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am thankful for this experience. Seeing first hand what is going on in Syria has made me even more compassionate and aware of what war really means and what I can do in my tiny surroundings to help Syrian refugees. If you plan to travel to Israel and visit the Golan Heights, please ask yourself first, why you want to see this area. Is it because you want to experience something out of the box that you can tell your friends at home about? Is it because you are on the hunt for the best vacation photo ever? In that case, please stay at home out of respect for the hundred thousands of people who have been slaughtered since 2011 and the millions of people who had to leave their homes.