MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights (AP) — Dozens of Druse Arab students from the Israeli-held Golan Heights who were studying in Damascus came home Tuesday, met with hugs from family members who feared for their safety because of Syria's bloody civil war.
The evacuation, coordinated by the Red Cross, highlights the dilemma facing Golan Druse. Many are horrified by the carnage, occasionally taking place within earshot of their villages, but they are also hesitant to turn against a Syrian regime to which they have remained at least outwardly loyal.
Many still fear to voice criticism, in case the autocratic Assad family survives and retaliates if the Golan ever falls back into its hands. The returning students refused to talk to reporters out of fear of retribution.
"Of course I'm worried," said Salah Mughrabi, a resident of the Golan village of Buqata, waiting for his son and nephew at the Quneitra crossing point, a military post set in a grassy apple orchard.
"We are worried, anxious for all our relatives, our friends and our country — from both sides. They are all Syrians who are dying, and that's painful for us to see."
Israel captured the strategic plateau from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed it, a move the rest of the world rejected. Syria demands the return of the Golan as a condition for peace, but several rounds of talks have failed to produce an accord.
Some 20,000 Golan Druse live under Israeli control, along with a similar number of Jewish residents, above Israel's northeast corner.
The Druse are a secretive offshoot of Islam whose adherents live primarily in Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. While those living in Israel proper are citizens of the state and even serve in its military, most of those on the Golan have refrained from taking Israeli citizenship, identifying as Syrian citizens.
The Red Cross was set to coordinate the return of the students on Aug. 16, but parents requested their children come home earlier, fearful for their safety, said spokeswoman Noora Kero.
The returnees were mostly tightlipped about their experiences in Damascus.
Relatives speaking for two returning students said they feared Syrian officials would harm their community in Damascus if they detailed what they saw and what happened to them in the capital. One relative said a student was wounded by government sniper fire.
A doctor who returned from Damascus in May said security forces interrogated him for six hours. He said fighting between rebels and security forces in the 15-month uprising was plainly visible from the student dormitories on the edge of Damascus.
He said he saw two children beaten until they lay still on the ground, a man shot to death, and weekly demonstrations routinely broken up by gunmen loyal to regime of President Bashar Assad.
"We heard explosions every morning ... and we slept to the sound of bullets," said the 29-year-old doctor, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution if he returns.
During his interrogation, he said he was warned he would be beaten if he was heard speaking out against the regime, and he was made to fingerprint a document promising he wouldn't show disloyalty to the Assad regime.
"They made us state that we are coming to study and leave — nothing more," said the doctor.
He said he headed for his Golan home, fearful he would never make it.
"Seeing a war isn't like hearing about one. You see people dying, people beaten, you see the disgusting face of the regime. You have to be afraid. If you aren't afraid, you are stupid," he said.
It's unclear how many Golan Druse are studying in Damascus. There were some 300 students at the beginning of the academic year, but many have since returned to the Golan Heights, Kero said.
For years, they have received permits to cross into Syria for university studies that the Syrian government underwrites.
The Golan Druse have traditionally stayed in close touch with their Syrian relatives and are even sometimes allowed to cross over for weddings and religious pilgrimages. Golan-grown apples are also annually transferred over land to Syria to help Druse farmers market their crop.
Golan residents who marry Syrian citizens are stripped of their right to live in the Golan. Now they fear for the fate of their relatives who have settled in Syria.
The doctor said Golan residents had every reason to worry about their loved ones there.
"The country is facing a thousand evils," he said.