When Abdul Rahman Pasha al-Yusuf left his mansion in Souq Sarouja on 21 August 1920, heading for the Houran province in the Syrian south, he didn’t realise that he would never see his family home again.
The 49-year-old pasha had served as emir of hajj since the 1890s, leading pilgrims on their annual journey from Damascus to Medina. Those journeys were filled with dangers — ranging from bandits and wolves to crippling thirst. Nothing, however, was to prepare him for what happened in Houran.
Damascus had just fallen to the French and the new High Commissioner Henri Gouraud had imposed a crippling fine on Houran (5,000 dinars) for having hosted Syria’s king, Faisal I, on his way into exile in Palestine.
The Houranis refused to pay, threatening revolution, and Yusuf proposed mediation talks to avoid a confrontation with the French. He owned vast agricultural fields in the Houran province and his agent (wakil) Ahmad Muraywed was one of the notables of the Golan Heights.
Hundreds were employed at his farms in Houran and he felt that he could talk them into a deal, taking along with him an old schoolteacher who had taught in the city of Dara'a, Sheikh Abdul Jalil al-Durra.
Fatal train station shooting
As they approached the village of Khirbet Ghazaleh, 17 kilometres northeast of Dara'a, a Senegalese soldier on duty noticed armed men standing at the train station.
The Senegalese soldiers had recently been shipped from France’s African colonies, on the pretext that, as Muslims, they would know how to deal with the people of Syria. In reality, they knew nothing about Syria and its customs, where men carried arms, especially in the countryside or in rural areas.