This year traveling up to the Golan Heights was a little more fraught with tension–after all, UN peacekeepers had been held for three days by Syrian rebels and the Syrian civil war made the historically quiet area more active. It also ended up being the location of one of the most amazing learning experiences of the trip. To put this all in perspective, student Katie Lonze shares her experience from both 2011 and 2013:
Two years ago, I was part of a group of about 30 law students from Marquette University and Arizona State University that traveled to Israel over spring break to learn about International Conflict Resolution and the various attempts at peace making in the Middle East. As a first year law student, not enrolled in the class, I came into the trip with a less than fully developed understanding of the issues going on in the Middle East (which of course assumes that it is possible to have a fully developed understanding of the region.) This past week I was fortunate to return to Israel with 32 students and four faculty members from Marquette. The return trip was an entirely different experience, thanks to both the wealth of knowledge I obtained the first time and to my continuing interest in learning about past and current events in the Middle East.
In 2011, we made a very quick stop at Mount Bental in the Golan. Mount Bental was a key strategic point during the Yom Kippur war. It’s quite easy to understand why this location would be key in military engagements, as it sits high on the border between Syria and Israel. You can look out over the entire region and, on a clear day, see for miles into both countries. In 2011, this was one of my favorite stops because of the view. It’s stunningly beautiful and offers some of the best vantage points I’ve ever seen – valleys, mountains topped with snow, fields, etc. In a word, it was incredibly beautiful and made me feel peaceful. The irony of feeling peaceful is not lost on me given the violent history of this location.
The Arab Spring uprisings in Syria began during the second half of our trip. By the time we returned to the states, over 50 people had been killed in Syria. Fast forward to March 2013 – over 70,000 people have been killed in Syria.
My second trip to the Golan Heights sticks out for a different reason. While there, Professor Schneider pulled aside three UN peacekeepers and asked them to speak with us about the Syrian civil war and what they are doing in the area. The peacekeepers were from Denmark, Australia, and France. They spoke to us about various peacekeeping missions, including their own. Every group of peacekeepers has a different assignment. These three were observing military movements within both Israel and Syria. During the middle of the conversation, we heard a large boom off in the distance – the peacekeepers stopped and said “There. Did you hear that? That’s the shelling in Damascus and the surrounding areas.” The Peacekeeper then pointed out that we were standing approximately 60 km from Damascus; just under an hour drive from one of the most dangerous places in the world. It was incredible and surreal. I had such mixed emotions about where I was and what was going on around me. Standing only an hour away from where people are being killed on a daily basis is not something you can describe easily. In truth, even as I’m writing this, I’m still wrestling with trying to describe how I felt.
This experience made me think about the political system in the United States and how lucky we are to have a stable government that allows the freedom to protest and disagree. I don’t think that anyone would disagree that this past election season was a nightmare, especially in Wisconsin, where we the election season continued from Governor Walker’s 2010 election until after the 2012 Presidential election. However, coming from a peaceful and democratic country, its nearly impossible for me to fully grasp and understand the events that are occurring in Syria and other countries around the world. From an entirely Westernized view point, it difficult to grasp that countries are still having bloody civil wars, where over the last two years the government and opposition fighters have killed over 70,000 people.
If there is one thing that I want to take from this experience, it is to try to not take for granted that I have spent my life living in a peaceful society and have never had to worry about a violent, political uprising. I also hope that I will continue to learn and understand the Middle East and the events of the Arab Spring. Though I’m not sure I will ever fully be able to grasp these situations, it is important to educate myself and to understand these conflicts moving forward. And, I hope that the next time I am able to go to the Golan the air will be still, silent, and peaceful.
And from Catherine Lambrechts also comparing this experience to the U.S. one:
The best experience of the trip was at Har Bental, a volcano near the Syrian border, where we overlooked the Golan Heights, heard Syrian bombs going off in the distance, met with UN peacekeepers, and explored army bunkers. Hearing the booms of war in the distance brought me back to American history and made me think about how Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner while hearing artillery in the distance. Hearing the bombs was disturbing because we knew those sounds signified people dying not far from us; I can only imagine how much more distressing it must have been for Francis Scott Key to hear shells flying over Fort McHenry and to know they were targeted for his own people. Tying American history and the current Syrian conflict together was a striking moment for me.