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Page last updated at 03:27 GMT, Friday, 18 April 2008 04:27 UK

Golan Druze celebrate across barbed wire

Sisters Madiha, Salwa and Ikram wave to the Syrian (photo by Martin Asser/BBC)
Sisters Madiha, Salwa and Ikram wave to the Syrian side of Ayn al-Tineh

By Martin Asser
BBC News, Golan Heights

They call one side of Ayn al-Tineh, the valley below the Druze village of Majdal Shams, the "Hill of Shouts". Others call it the "the Hill of Tears".

It was here, after the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967, that families divided on each side of the border used to come to see each other through binoculars and shout messages.

But on 17 April, it is the scene of what must be one of the world's strangest open-air festivals, as the Syrian Druze celebrate their uprising against French rule in 1920s, known as Yawm al-Jala, the Day of Expulsion.

She promised that she would come today, but when we were talking the line was interrupted
Salwa, Majdal Shams

The people of Majdal Shams and other Israeli-occupied Druze towns gather on their side of the ceasefire line, and about 300m away - across razor wire and the heavily mined Ayn al-Tineh valley - sit their counterparts in Syria.

The two sides put on musical entertainments, sing and dance, and wave Syrian flags which flutter in the mountain breeze against the lush green landscape.

Emotions are high on the occupied side as families try to make out relatives standing on the tailor-made viewing platform erected by Syria - the only clearly visible features being those of President Bashar al-Assad in a portrait crowning the structure.

Communications revolution

Salwa, Ikram and Madiha, three sisters, think they have identified their niece, Minas, who is studying at Damascus university.

Crowd of Syrians celebrating at Majdal Shams
The valley rings with music and laughter during the festival

Life is made easier with modern communications - email and mobile phones - which mean a certain amount of pre-arrangement is possible.

"She promised that she would come today, but when we were talking the line was interrupted. We think Minas is that girl in the orange top who is waving now," Salwa tells me.

What the sisters had not arranged, but which was extremely fitting and caused much laughter, was that they were wearing respectively black, white and red sweatshirts - the colours of the Syrian flag - and would have stood out clearly to those on the Syrian side.

There is a strong patriotic feeling for Syria among the 2,000-strong Majdal Shams crowd, but for most of them it is impossible to reach what they consider to be the homeland.

Only students and "mashayikh" - men of the Druze religion, an offshoot of Islam - are allowed to cross via the UN-administered crossing at Quneitra.

Family face-to-face reunions must take place in a third country, Jordan, as those with Israeli travel documents cannot enter Syria, and Syrians are not allowed by their government to pass through Israel to reach the occupied Golan.

The Jordan option has only been open since it signed a peace treaty with Israel. Between 1967 and the mid-1990s Ayn al-Tineh was the only contact, and many people say they have relatives, cousins, nephews and nieces they have not seen for more than 40 years.

Two Syrian Druze men sitting near a minefield
Mines and unexploded munitions are never far away in Majdal Shams

Precious contact

Picking his way through the crowd on crutches is Salih Abu Arar, who lost his right arm and leg when an Israeli landmine exploded on this exact spot 26 years ago as he was grazing sheep.

Salih Abu Arar
I have no misgivings about coming here. I love this place
Salih Abu Arar

"I have no misgivings about coming here. I love this place, and to see our people making contact over the border, it shows that we cannot be separated by walls and governments," he says.

The mine which maimed Salih when he was 12 years old must have been left over from the 1967 hostilities, but unexploded munitions remain a hazard.

The festival area has been thoroughly cleared, but about 200m behind us on the hill above is an Israeli watchtower, whose defences include landmines, and there are reports of these getting dislodged when the winter snows thaw, and being swept down into people's gardens.

The highlight of the day is when singer Samih Shuqair takes to the stage on the Syrian side and breaks into local favourite Ya Golan, llly Ma Tahuna Alaina.

"We want to sing and clap along, but then we can't hear the music properly," says a smiling youth beside me.

After about three hours the two sides disperse - some north towards Damascus by bus and the rest to their homes in Majdal Shams by foot - and the Vale of Tears and Shouts falls silent again after a beautiful spring afternoon of music and laughter.



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