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Displaced Syrians await peace


DAMASCUS, Syria - Separated by 50 miles, Nahia Tanus and Shihada Ahmad al Hassan recite the same refrain as if in unison: "We hope our land will be returned."

Tanus lives with her husband and seven sons surrounded by dynamite-flattened buildings in the virtual ghost town of Quneitra, on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where a handful of families occupy what once was a small city of 50,000.

Al Hassan is the patriarch of a clan of nine sons, their ten wives and 17 children all sharing 10 rooms in the Wafideen camp outside Damascus, home to 20,000 from the Golan.

Together, the empty ruins of Quneitra and the crowded homes and earthen alleys of Wafideen form one symbol of the destruction, dislocation and lingering hatred wrought by the 1967 and 1973 wars, when Israel fought Syria over the strategic heights and won both times.

Now, with the ascension of 34-year-old Bashar el Assad as Syria's president, hopes of an Israeli-Syrian peace that would allow tens of thousands of uprooted Syrians to rebuild their lost communities are stirring again.

For the time being, Israel and the United States are absorbed in the three-way Camp David summit that offers a chance of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in the final months of Hafez el Assad's life, Israel and Syria came within yards of achieving their own peace agreement, and Damascus says it is ready to resume the stalled talks "at any time."

Overcoming decades of hostility that he determinedly kept alive, the elder Assad contemplated "normal, neighborly relations" with a Jewish state the Syrians had long reviled as an enemy usurper of Arab Palestine.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, defying powerful domestic opposition, was prepared to return most of the 400-square-mile Golan, moving out 17,000 settlers and disrupting successful farms, factories, vineyards and ski and tourist resorts built during the occupation.

Yet along with high office, Bashar el Assad inherits a price tag for peace that can be summed up in two words - "every inch" of territory - a price Israel rejects.

"The Golan is not essential to Syrian life, but it is a crucial symbol of Syrian sovereignty," says British author Patrick Seale, who wrote a major biography of Hafez el Assad. "It's a national goal, not for economic reasons, but for prestige and national pride."

Consistently repeated by the government and its controlled media, the demand for a total Israeli withdrawal from all the land occupied in 1967 has so permeated Syria that the younger Assad would find it hard to seek less.

"Dr. Bashar will not change anything on this. No politician who says otherwise can stay in power. The Syrian people would refuse him," says Abboud Al-Sarraj, dean of the law school at Damascus University.

Quneitra, the Syrian provincial capital now on the edge of the barbed-wire border, is a prime exhibit in the government's campaign.

Israel ceded the town to Syria in 1974. But before pulling out, its army bulldozed and blasted most of its buildings, leaving acre upon acre of broken concrete and rubble. Syria has kept the ruins as a monument to what it calls Israeli aggression and encourages foreign journalists to visit.

The depressing sight becomes harsher when seen against a backdrop of Golan fields kept fertile and green on the other side by Israel's industrialized agriculture.

A recent media tour opened at what remains of a large hospital, its windows and doors blown away, thick walls pitted with bullets and a stairwell painted with a message in Arabic: "We hope that we live in real peace. Our people struggled in the past, and our struggle today is to prepare everything for peace."

A Syrian information ministry official, at the scene, accuses the Israelis of offenses, including grave-robbing.

Tanus appeared unsettled to be in the spotlight. Seated in her second-floor living room beneath pictures of Hafez el Assad and a figure of Christ, she hesitantly fielded questions from a roomful of foreign reporters brought in by the government guide.

"The war started, and we ran out immediately," leaving about 10 acres of farmland, said Tanus, who was a teenager at the time. She lives in Quneitra because her husband works for the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) set up in 1974 to watch the cease-fire line. "It's upsetting that all the houses around us are demolished."

Asked if she hates Israelis, Tanus replied, "Of course. It was our village they took."

Wafideen wasn't on the official tour but shows how the toll from the war has been prolonged by Syria's weak economy. Goats pick at trash along the highway outside the camp's narrow alleys and crowded concrete dwellings, home to former residents from the shores of the Galilee.

Al Hassan's son Khaled has been in the camp since age 3 when his mother carried him on her back as the family fled, finding shelter first in a school and then in the tent colony that grew into Wafideen.

Now 36, with a degree in physics, chemistry and mathematics from the University of Damascus, he sells gas cylinders for $85 a month and shares one room in the family compound with his wife and two children.

His father, 74, counts himself lucky to have escaped unnoticed by the Israelis in 1967. Some young men on the Golan were shot and older ones were blindfolded and sent to Quneitra, he says.

Since coming to Wafideen, he has earned a living buying and selling sheep. On Galilee, he farmed 15 acres and fished, although Israeli police boats confined him to the shoreline from the late 1950s on.

The status of Galilee, prized by Israel as a vital water source, is key to the gap between Israel and Syria that is blocking peace. If Syria gained access to the shore, it would share rights to the lake.

But this is where Syria is prepared to show some flexibility, according to Seale, who enjoys high-level access in Damascus. Syria wants part of the water from the tributaries leading into the lake, chiefly the Banyas River and the numerous small streams on the Golan, as well as access to the lake for fishing.

"Israel can get the lake. It's not a question of taking all the water. It's a question of [Syria] taking their share," Seale says.

Meanwhile, the displaced wait. "We trust Dr. Bashar," says Khaled. One of his brothers, born at Wafideen, is named Aid, Arabic for "return."

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