DAMASCUS // Some of the older passengers on the battered, brightly decorated buses had made this journey before. They would gather at the Waseem mosque in Yarmouk Camp, load themselves on to vehicles and head west for the Lebanese border. The first time around, back in 1982, they were not even young men. Some were just 14 or 15, perhaps 16 years old, and they were going to fight against the Israeli army, which had just invaded Lebanon in what would turn into a brutal and bloody war, and then occupation.
This time the journey was different. The Palestinians from Yarmouk, a sprawling refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, were going to the border, not to fight, but to collect their dead, 114 guerrillas killed in those long years of conflict. The remains were returned on Wednesday as part of a prisoner exchange between Hizbollah and Israel, a deal in which nearly 200 dead Arab fighters and five Lebanese prisoners were swapped for the corpses of two Israeli soldiers.
Thousands of Palestinians and Syrians made the trip out to the border to welcome the bodies as they crossed from Lebanon back on to Syrian soil, among them mourning family members and representatives of the myriad Palestinian political and resistance groups: Hamas, Fatah the PLFP, the DFLP, the PLFP-GC, Islamic Jihad, the ALF, the PLF. School-aged children also bussed in for the occasion, chanted slogans in support of Syria's president, Bashar Assad, waving national flags and the bright yellow and green banners of Hizbollah. For although the story is ostensibly a Palestinian one, the day was dominated by the towering presence of Hizbollah and, by extension, the Syrian authorities.
It was Hizbollah's Islamic Health Committee that delivered the bodies to the border, accompanied by an escort of Lebanese police. And it was, of course, Hizbollah - supported by Syria and Iran - that actually did what all the national liberation movements of Palestine had long failed to do - get the bodies back in the first place. The decades that have passed since the 1980s have brought with them fundamental shifts in the politics of the Palestinian struggle. When the old fighters had first gone to cross the border as teenagers, Hizbollah barely existed. It was formed in 1982 in direct response to the Israeli invasion, which galvanised the Shia Muslims of southern Lebanon into forming an armed resistance group of their own.
At the time, the Palestinian national struggle had been led by secular groups, the socialists, communists and Marxists who, for a while had almost managed a unity under the banner of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation - Yasser Arafat's PLO. Islamic groups had barely made a mark. Yet Hizbollah would grow in strength, becoming a sophisticated political, social and military movement and a huge force in Lebanon. By May 2000 its fighters had helped force the Israelis to withdraw their troops from most of the country. In 2006, Hizbollah staged a cross-border raid into Israel, capturing two soldiers - the two whose bodies were recently swapped - sparking the July war in which it did what most thought was unthinkable. As the Lebanese army shied away from engaging the invaders, Hizbollah militants fought the vaunted Israeli military to a standstill, inflicting what amounted to a humiliating defeat on what always claimed to be an unbeaten army.
By this year, Hizbollah was capable of paralysing the Lebanese government in which Shia were under-represented. More importantly, after Arab League mediation in Doha, it was able to turn that action into a political victory, gaining the extra positions in government it had sought without surrendering its weapons. As the bodies were brought back across the border, there were also flags flying for Hamas. The group did not even exist until 1987 and for several years afterwards was confined to the shadows by its larger, more powerful secular contemporaries. That has also changed, and today Hamas has enough support that it runs the Gaza Strip in defiance of secular Fatah, which formerly controlled the two chunks of land that make up the Palestinian Territories.
Once in Syria, the coffins were transported to Damascus, accompanied by the crowds that had met them at the border. Columns of buses and cars streamed back to the Syrian capital, well-wishers lining parts of the route. It was a day full of irony. The V for victory signs, flashed with such enthusiasm by the current generation of young Palestinians, seemed oddly out of place, a celebration of something that had not happened. It is difficult to imagine the dead fighters would have seen anything victorious in their return as corpses to Syria. They had died to liberate a land that was still not free, and would surely have wanted to be buried there.
Another small irony; flags were everywhere, yet among them was only a tiny smattering of Palestinian flags, a sign of the divisions that weaken the Palestinian movements. Men who had given their lives for the dream of a unified Palestinian state were being buried by factions that could hardly be more disunited. The coffins finally arrived at the Yarmouk camp cemetery where the bodies were to be laid to rest. As each coffin reached the edge of the grave, it was opened. The remains, wrapped in white shrouds, were removed and, held aloft above a sea of people, taken to their final resting place. Hizbollah music played, distorted by excessive volume, and over a microphone sounded chants of "God is greater" and "There is no God but God".
In some ways that was, perhaps, the crowning piece of ironic symbolism. The men whose bodies were being lauded would have been, in all likelihood, communists or socialists and almost certainly not Islamic militants. Now they were being given a full Islamic burial courtesy of Hizbollah. At the time the fighters had died, opposition to Israel had been a primarily secular and Palestinian affair. Now, at the time of their reburials, the most effective anti-Israeli force is Islamic and Lebanese. Hizbollah with its Iranian and Syrian support, is more powerful than ever.