Winning a battle, losing the war: an odd tribute

Despite having only been in Beirut for a few days, I decided to jump ship on Friday and head for Damascus for the weekend. I won’t bore you with a tourist’s guide but it was three days of great food, magic carpets and mint lemonade. On Sunday morning, though, I ditched the white-socks-and-sandals combo, left the Lonely Planet guide at the hotel and took a taxi to a very peculiar memorial to the country’s efforts during the Yom Kippur War.

It takes a very unusual national outlook to celebrate a war that was far from victorious, but that’s exactly what the Tishreen (October) War Panorama museum does. The impressively intimidating building, which resembles a medieval citadel and was constructed with the help of some Commie buddies from North Korea, opened its doors on October 9, 1999 – exactly 26 years after Israel began pushing Syrian troops back over the pre-war border after initial advances made in a surprise attack.

With the Golan Heights still partly occupied by Israel, and a buffer zone controlled by the UN Disengagement and Observer Force, the memorial ignores the many negatives and concentrates instead on the ‘heroic’ storming of the town of Quneitra by President Hafez Assad’s troops – even though the town was eventually retaken by the Israelis.

After the security had questioned myself and my two American friends about our occupations – I’m a student, honest – we were assigned a pleasant enough Syrian tour guide and shown into the main museum building. After seeing a few paintings depicting various monumental moments in the country’s history we were whisked into a small cinema packed full with schoolchildren. Having just taken our front-row seats we were ushered to stand once again as the children bellowed out the national anthem as the ‘documentary’ began rolling.

The film was a collection of original black and white footage showing Syria’s ‘brave warriors’ launching a counter-attack on a ‘Zionist’ watchtower overlooking Quneitra. Other than a short burst of subtitles explaining who the goodies and baddies were, it was essentially 10-minutes of hardcore war porn and the schoolchildren cheered in all the right places.

To avoid the inevitable post-film scrum, our guide pulled us out just as the credits began to roll and led us to the museum’s main attraction – a 360° panoramic oil painting of Quneitra. We sat on the rotating seats and our guide pointed out the destruction wreaked by Israeli bombardments, including the obligatory burning schools and hospitals. To be fair, those North Korean artists are clearly very talented and the painting is a pretty impressive feat.

After a quick look at photographs of Assad Snr with various world leaders, including Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon, Omar Bashir and, of course, Kim Il Sung, we were taken outside to what many consider the real reason to visit the memorial – a collection of Syrian and Israeli military hardware from the war. On the Syrian side there are various Russian-made tanks and armoured vehicles, rockets and a plane and on the Israeli side there are a couple of tanks, a truck and two piles of remains from what were apparently warplanes.

While we wandered over to the Israeli ‘booty’ I explained to the tour guide that I was British, not American, thinking he might reveal some anti-US feelings. Instead he pointed over to one of the Israeli tanks and said: “That’s English-made. Do you feel proud?” Doh.