Omen of Quneitra – Israel/Syria

 

With the faint patter of rain and distant artillery, I stepped into the crumbling hospital. The beige concrete walls loomed, illuminated by the occasional shaft of overcast light. Small rivulets of water ran through the holes in the ceilings and trickled down the hallways. I started for the roof to get my bearings. Half of the roof had caved in or deposited itself as a pile of graffitied rubble in the backyard. The neighborhood consisted of a dirt road winding through clusters of abandoned, bullet-ridden farm houses and burned out cars. The entire town was still in ruin and I was standing atop its once finest medical establishment.

I turned back to the dark stairwell and resumed exploring floor by floor. I found bathroom stalls, rooms filled with the remains of hospital beds, and meeting rooms with political declarations scrawled bilingually across the walls. As I descended a master staircase at the center of the building, I heard vehicles roll by. I ducked behind the closest window and peered out: military jeeps. Men in uniform carrying rifles stepped out. Do they know I'm here? Am I trespassing? Should I come out with my hands up? Panicked, I slowly came down the stairs as a dune buggy drove into the building. It was a family on vacation. This site was a safe. The tour guide came over to greet me and explained the situation. He was with a local community leading tours to sights throughout the region. Tourists were only allowed into this hospital with a military escort. All the bullet holes and human targets in the building were left by soldiers practicing urban warfare. He pointed to the floor and explained that the room below us had once housed tortured prisoners of war. Then the vehicles left.

Not to be outdone, I built up the courage to descend to the basement alone. As it grew darker, I hit a foul wall of a stench. It smelled faintly of marijuana, so I reasoned someone must of been smoking down here recently. At the bottom of the stairs the smell strengthed its attack on my senses. It had to be a putrid pool of water or food. I covered my face with my shirt and turned the corner into a dark hallway leading to the so-called 'torture chamber'. My eyes adjusted and I stopped in my tracks. Midway down the hall was an unmoving form lying on the floor. I cautiously crept closer and saw it was dead a fox—a Syrian jackal (Canis aureus syriacus) actually. Sprawled out with the signs of struggle in the dust around the head and front limbs, I interpreted it as an omen of the rooms beyond. This jackal died in a building imbued with death and conflict; from the patients that were treated here in times of peace to those tortured and/or shot here in times of war. Animals are often thought to be signs from the afterlife. Signs of human spirits returning to a place in another form. In religious texts, jackals illustrate desolation and abandonment. For a city to be the haunt of jackals, it is most utterly a ruin. While I'm not one to believe in mythology, I did believe that this dead creature was a sign. If this place wasn't safe for jackals, it wasn't safe for me. I went no further and left the hospital of Quneitra for good.

 

 
 

The hospital of Quneitra is located in the contested Golan Heights in between Northeastern Israel and Southwestern Syria. During the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel invaded and later annexed much of the territory. Quneitra was a regional capital, housing a population of 37,000, before the dispute caused the evacuation and destruction of the town. In 1974, this town was incorporated into the demilitarized zone that is still overseen by United Nations Disengagement Observer Forces (UNDOF) today. The multistory building pictured served as a hospital for the townsfolk of Quneitra, as headquarters for the Syrian army during the Six-Day War, and now as a site for urban warfare training by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). A sign out front reads, "Golan Hospital: It was Destroyed And Changed Into Afiring Tagret AndATraining Place By Zionists".