On-Site Reports from Our Peacekeepers

Reality on the Ceasefire Lines—My Experience in the Golan Heights

Lieutenant Commander Reona Aso
Deputy Media Public Information Officer, UNDOF 

The Golan Heights commands Mt. Hermon in the north and several wadis(valleys) in the south. The Heights sits at an altitude of approximately 1,000m on average; it's easy to become short of breath because of the thin air. The Heights borders Lebanon to the north and Jordan to the south. The Sea of Galilee, which is famous for the ministry of Jesus, lies southwest, and the ancient city of Damascus is located 50km east of the Heights.

A wadi surrounded by sheer cliffs(img)

wadi surrounded by sheer cliffs

Unlike Japan, which is blessed with four seasons, the Golan Heights only has two seasons: the dry season and the rainy season. I feel I am really in the Middle East when the temperature rises over 40°C. But in general, it is dry and breezy, and, honestly, I feel cooler and more comfortable in the shade than I do in Japan. The dry season sees no rain but the blue, cloudless sky stays for about four months, whereas it gets so chilly it sometimes snows in the rainy season.

Snow-capped 2,814m-high Mt. Hermon(img)

Snow-capped 2,814m-high Mt. Hermon

I was posted to the Deputy Media Public Information Officer at the end of February this year. I work at the Media and Public Relations Section in the UNDOF Force Headquarters. The Section is in charge of receiving visitors and editing GOLAN The UNDOF JournalOpen New Window. I work with three Austrians. Although all of them are uniformed personnel, interestingly, none of them are active officers; my boss is a retired serviceman and former civilian soldier, one of my colleagues is an officer in the Ministry of Defence and Sports who was trained in the reserve, and the other a professional cameraman who was under exclusive contract to JEF United Ichihara Chiba, a Japanese professional soccer club. I was surprised by their self-introduction, but I remember convincing myself that that must be the Austrian way.

Checking The GOLAN Journal with the 'cameraman' colleague(img)

Checking The GOLAN Journal with the "cameraman" colleague

I am primarily responsible for the reception of Japanese visitors in general, i.e. planning and arranging formal and smooth visits for senior Japanese government officials, Self-Defense Force officers, members of the Japanese Embassies in Syria and Israel, and the press to meet with the commander and other VIPs, and to tour around the area. The point is meticulous planning and thorough preparation. Minute-by-minute scheduling and its management seem so astonishing to my foreign colleagues, who are not accustomed to going into such a level of detail. One of my friends once eagerly asked me, "Do you mind giving me a copy of the itinerary? I'll bring it back and show it to my subordinates."

Accompanying reporters interviewing the Japanese unit(img)

Accompanying reporters interviewing the Japanese unit

Although my tasks themselves are relatively simple, I am enjoying every day just the same because UNDOF consists of six countries, including Japan, and you can never tell what the differences in languages and customs will bring about. Our commander has thus adopted the "One mission, one team, one goal" policy, and UNDOF as a whole gives priority to teamwork when it carries out its mission. That is why an UNDOF year is packed with a series of events such as footraces, marches, ball games, and various cultural activities aside from work, and there are a lot of opportunities to make friends with other troops. Whichever country you came from, we are all happy when someone speaks to you in your mother tongue. I managed to learn "Good morning," "Hello," "Good evening," and "Thank you" in Austrian, Croatian, Tagalog and English as well as Arabic and Hebrew, and use them as often as I can. I am happy every day when my colleagues say to me, "Konichiwa ("hello" in Japanese)!" but we sometimes mix up a language with another, finding ourselves in a rather awkward situation.

Attending the awards ceremony of an UNDOF footrace(img)

Attending the awards ceremony of an UNDOF footrace

I work in an environment like this, hoping to serve Middle East peace and Japan's national interests. Just after I came here, I came across an impressive event. UNDOF 's deployment area in the Golan Heights is on the very border—the ceasefire lines in semi-wartime at that. The event, which happened to be my first duty as the Deputy Media Public Information Officer, was regarding the reception of Japanese officers.

Under the usual procedure, visitors are asked to enter Israel after Syria when they visit UNDOF facilities, which extend over the two countries, because you cannot enter Syria bringing a passport with Israel's entry stamp on it. In this particular case, the officers visited Syria and then Israel as usual, and their travel plan was to drive no less than hundreds of kilometers in a day via Jordan, south of Syria.

We UN peacekeepers are free to come and go between Syria and Israel, crossing a checkpoint called the "gate" that is situated right in the middle of the ceasefire line. By stark contrast, people other than UN staff are not allowed to cross the line except for the rare cases of brides' crossing, like in the movie The Syrian Bride, and crossing by Druze pilgrims. While they are not authorized to pass through 200m-long gate, it takes only 10 minutes or so for UN peacekeepers to have our luggage checked and go through the gate. I had never felt the geographical and political distances between Syria and Israel so closely before.

For that matter, you have to have your luggage checked when crossing. Each side spells out slightly different prohibited goods. As just one example, the Syrian side prohibits all goods that have Hebrew printed on them, while the Israeli side bans unsealed drinks and perishables. Now you understand why you cannot cross the line drinking coke in this arid climate. UN officials are directed to strictly comply with those prohibited goods. Otherwise, you are immediately to be reported for breaking the rule and punished.

Recording a Japanese peacekeeper who is assisting in Druze pilgrims' crossing(img)

Recording a Japanese peacekeeper who is assisting in Druze pilgrims' crossing

Another impressive event that made me reflect on the ceasefire lines in semi-wartime is the Nakba and Naksa cases that took place as part of UNDOF 's deployment areas in May and June 2011. Nakba literally means a "catastrophe" in Arabic, and is used when Arabs pay homage to Palestinian refugees who were displaced right after Israel's independence in 1948. In contrast, Naksa, meaning "setback," commemorates the loss of part of Arab territory following Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. In those two cases, Palestinians living in Syria tried to cross the ceasefire lines and clashed with the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF , having learned a lesson from the Nakba case, took immediate and decisive measures in the Naksa case. It buttressed the fences along the ceasefire lines to physically protect against trespassers from the Syrian side, and reinforced its troops to deter Palestinians from crossing the lines.

A border does not promise territory by itself. A will to possess it and tremendous energy to act for it are required to maintain the land. The question is whether one is prepared for it. I learned a valuable lesson from my experience in the Golan Heights, where I closely witnessed Israel's way of dealing with things and sensed its willingness and preparedness. As a footnote, the gate was temporarily closed thanks to those Nakba and Naksa incidents, and I could not go back to Syria till the next morning when I spent my vacation in Israel...

The author (left) briefing his successor on UNDOF's deployment area(img)

The author (left) briefing his successor on UNDOF 's deployment area

15 years ago, the first Japanese unit was dispatched to the Golan Heights; we have hoisted our flag since then. I pride myself on being among them. I am ready to keep up the long-established and strong ties with other countries, to fulfill my duties to my best ability, and to hand over what I hope is an ever-improved tradition.

November 2011
In the Golan Heights