Sunday, 31 January 2010

Days 27-30th - 31st December 2009 - 3rd January 2010 - Lattakia

31st December 2009

Alpha Team is again only as fast as its slowest members but nevertheless we all manage to leave Sahara Hotel together in the morning and make the journey to Lattakia on the northern coastline of Syria. The landscape becomes green and garden-like as we travel and it looks like a fertile place where lots of produce is probably grown. Again as we get near to the destination and pull over for some fuel we are joined by an escort of police vehicles that will lead us to the stop.

The stop is what looks like a scout camp. There seem to be many supporters of the convoy in and around the camp. There is one set of gates at the main entrance where there is some security. The camp has a multitude of small white huts some of which have iron beds in them and there are a few larger buildings where we can see some more mattresses being pulled out. We are given food in a covered dining room open along one side - long stone or concrete tables and benches. The other edge of the camp is the sea. There is an option to sleep in a hut but I haven't sorted one out yet and I'm happy to sleep in the cab. Richard T is with me now after we picked him up again in Damascus but he goes off and finds a berth in a hut.












Lattakia



Kevin speaks to the convoy at dinner time - first urging people to be more vigilant as we are in a town now and a couple of unattended laptops have gone missing. He tells us that planning is underway for a large ferry to carry the vehicles. It is not known at this time how many people will be able to travel on the boat as it is a cargo ferry not a passenger ferry and there are maritime rules about the number of people that can travel onboard. Kevin hopes that 60 people will be able to travel with it and says this will be voluntary - I take down all the volunteers names - oddly it reaches 60. People very much want to be able to stay with their vehicles. It is then made public that the rest of us will need to take flights and the planes will need to be chartered for this. The Syrian, Turkish and Malaysian governments as well as some private donors and a fundraising effort via Viva Palestina's website is going to pay for this logisitical maneouvre - to the tune of $250,000 it is reckoned.





Turkish members getting camped in









Tonight is New Years Eve so people are determined to celebrate in some way. Richard V has located an off-licence in the area so we walk down there together and pick up a few cans. Some go off to town, some remain in the camp and light a big bonfire. Dejanka, Richard V, Julian, Bob and I also light one as there is a picnic table nearby we can sit at. All evening the camp is surrounded by fireworks being let off by people in an uncoordinated but spectacular way. I wander about the camp and spend the last hour sitting by the bigger bonfire where sounds are being blasted out of the door of a van and there is a shot or two of tequila on the go.



1st January New Years Day 2010

At around 11am I go with Ruqayyah and Amina into Lattakia in a minibus taxi-bus that heads past the camp entrance and into the centre. Its around 15 mins and very easy and cheap. The camp where we are staying is situated in an area where there are many Palestinian refugee families. Originally they lived in the North of Palestine until the Nakba 'the catastrophe' of 1948 led to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fleeing the country to neighbouring lands in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and wider. Palestinian villages were destroyed and ethnic cleansing took place. Understandably the local population are very supportive of the convoy. It is possible to see that supporters of both Hamas and Fatah political parties are here to provide food, shelter, guidance as evidenced by flags. There are everyday people around too that just want to meet us and many people are invited to homes for tea, food and to stay.

Outside the gates of the scout camp are coffee vans selling great espresso from machines.















In town we manage to track down an ATM and a cafe that has wifi and an internet cafe. It is quiet as it's a Friday and many shops are closed.







You can't use Facebook in Syria (but you can sort of if you know how to access it by adding http's' in front)






Not long in the cafe before we have to head back to the camp for a team leaders meeting - there is much to be sorted out for the logisitics of the next step. There are only nine people from Viva Palestina who can travel on the ship. Each team leader nominates a person from their team. We have to make sure that people know they need to get their personal stuff for the next couple of days off their vehicles as tomorrow we will be loading them onto the cargo ferry and saying goodbye until the charter flights catch up in El Arish. We decide the order of the flights and which groups will be on which flights. Custom manifest has to be taped onto the inside of the windscreen. One person to drive each vehicle onto the ship - the rest of the convoy to travel in buses there and back. Two teams to deal with the Harbour Master and Bill of Laden.

As I'm clearing away left over food containers after dinner I meet a young man who introduces himself - Shadi. He invites me to a family home nearby, they are a Palestinian refugee who now have lives and homes in Syria but yearn to visit or return to Palestine. I meet his uncle, aunt, mother and two nephews. His mother invites me to stay at their home.









Aldibaja family







They are so hospitable, friendly and curious - I am given tea, fruit and lots of questions and chat. Shadi calls his brother Fadi and shortly he arrives in a car and they take me back to the family apartment overlooking the bay. I meet their father and spend some time talking to them all until late at night. I'm absolutely knackered. Their father shows me a picture of the location where their family used to live in Palestine - now he says there is a fast-food restaurant there. Soon it becomes evident I'm falling asleep at the kitchen table and they give me the bathroom and a bed - the comfort is immense!












Fadi, Shadi and their dad







2nd January 2010

There's another meeting to communicate to people what we have to do next and the plan for getting the vehicles and us to El-Arish. Fadi and Shadi's mother is preparing lunch for later - stuffing a mix of lamb and rice into cored courgettes ready for baking or steaming.















We then have time to go off and do whatever we need until return. I go with Fadi and Shadi to Fadi's university in Lattakia. There is a pair of security guards on the gate of the Uni. One is a serious-faced small skinny dude who decides its not ok for me to enter the Uni - the other is a large-ish mad looking person who walks away from the gate with Shadi and I while Fadi goes in as he has lectures to attend. The mad bloke talks at us and seems to be describing himself as Russian (but speaks in Arabic) he walks us to a different entrance and in to the Uni campus. He continues to accompany us across the car park and half way across pulls an almost empty whisky bottle from his pocket and laughs. Aha he's not mad he's drunk! It takes some physical effort to escape him. Wandering around the lecture hall corridors is very similar to any other Uni.

Shadi and I get a bus back to his folks place where his mother has made some delicious stuffed courgettes and stuffed vine leaves. I am feeling extremely spoilt.















Then return to the camp to move the vehicles down to the ship. Massive send off.
















I wander back by myself to Cafe Express on American Street, feeling bereft without the vehicle.











Mosque in Lattakia








3rd January


Another meeting to let us know that the ship left ok apart from having its journey extended by several hours as Israeli exclusion zone has become larger around the coast. We are still awaiting security clearance to land in Egypt so won't be flying today.

After the meeting I bump into Ian SOAS Student from Alpha Team, he's not sure where he is staying and immediately Shadi and Fadi insist he stays at their home as well. We agree to meet up later on. I wander through town with Shadi and he takes me to internet shop with quite a fast connection. Fadi is going to come back and meet me later on. and comes back with their friend Majdee. We locate Ian and all go together to Majdee's flat where his sister also lives. They provide a delicious spread of bread, dips, eggs, yoghurt, cheese.


















We talk about family life - curiosity as to why I am not married and don't have any children. I say that I could have done but it has not happened like that, I am working full-time and if I did have a child now I could provide for it myself if needed. Majdee's cousin is there with her children. The girl is about 3 or 4 and the boy is a toddler. She explains that her daughter is always crying and she does not know why. I ask her about when she cries most and how often and about her routine. Mum wants me to stay so we can talk about child development. Fadi takes Ian away to stay at their flat and I stay at Majdee's place so we can carry on talking. Her husband works away often in Saudia Arabia, she says when they are there together her child is more settled. It is 10 or 11 pm now and I can hear the 4 year old starting to have some sort of hysterics next door and it appears the girl and boy have had a fight over a toy. We agree that both children must be unsettled and tired as they are staying over with friends and it is really late for their bedtime. As soon as the little girl is put to bed - silence! All I can recommend is basic routine and earlier bedtimes - you never know....

She shows me her wedding photos. Her husband's mother apparently approached her and asked her if she wanted to get married - she agreed that she did and handed over a photo of herself. Her future husband approved of her photo and the deal was arranged. The wedding photos show them both looking very happy. She also shows me more pics of her friends all leaping around in high heels, dresses and with their hair down. I am surprised, 'How come these girls are not covered up?' she tells me this party is just for the women, 'but the photos?' - the men are not allowed to see the photographs.

Majdee's sister Taghreed lives at the flat. She is studying English, she says she has considered coming to Europe to study English but it is a concern for her family to let her travel away by herself so this is not yet definitely in the pipeline. I explain how my family found it difficult when I went away as an 18 year old to Africa for six months but they did let me go and how lucky I was to have had this independence and freedom to travel.









Taghreed and me






Taghreed stays up studying way after I have gone to bed.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Days 22-26

28th December 2009

Head to the compound for 9am as there is going to be a meeting about our next moves. I attend a meeting inside the building with the organisers and we have to decide whether or not to stay longer in Jordan while preparations are made or head back up the road. We all agree to move towards the port in Syria as we have been in Aqaba for a number of days now. It is going to cost the operation a significant amount more money to undertake this backtrack and logistical exercise. Farewell to Cedric who is going to head off towards Cairo today. The team is feeling this departure. I manage to get to the internet place and let our other convoy member Richard T who is in Cairo know about the move back to Syria and the difficulty he will have if he tries to join us in El Arish. I have heard from the meeting this morning that the Gaza Freedom March is having a terrible time in Cairo and participants are not allowed to travel to Gaza, riot police have been cracking heads after peaceful protests. I'm feeling pretty hungry now having abstained from eating - I'm not used to this! Even one day and I'm feeling weak. Its hot and the hunger strikers are sitting in the shade at the top of the compound. During the day the hosts have brought out these fantastic trays of rice and lamb with almond and cashew sauce poured over it - as the decision has been made that we have an agreement with Egypt to be able to take ourselves and our vehicles and our stuff through to Gaza but compromise on the Nuweiba entry the deal is done so strikers can eat now. So the announcement is made and there are to be coaches organised to get us up the hill later on. People go to check out of places they have been in and get their stuff (for those not packed already). Lots of milling about while a group of 500 people try to get moving out of the town. I have to collect the equivalent fare that people would have paid for their ferry from them so we can all contribute to the cost of the transport from Syria to El-Arish. After a few hours we are back up at the car park and the decision is to stay in the car park for the night and leave first think in the morning. I get a text message once I have already got into the cab to sleep which says we need to depart at 7am - too late to let everyone know. There's a masjid on the carpark where some people choose to stay but the cab is just right size for me and with no cab mates no need to stick the tent up.

29th December
It is a bright sunny day - near perfect weather, not hot but clear and still. Out of the cab, quick splash around the face and a cup of tea and its time to line up to leave the car park. The Belgian members in our team have a TV crew that has turned up from Belgium and they are being interviewed. This remote car park on a hillside is nowhere anyone wants to stay for too long. I ask Pieter from Belgian team if he can travel with me because I have no co-driver or companion, he agrees to join me after the next stop. So for the next leg I am driving by myself through beautiful desert. Alpha team manage to get along the road first of all just fine and up the long slopes onto the desert plains. Signs off for Petra but we aren’t going to get any sight seeing on this trip. There is one more stop in Jordan for food where we are directed to on the outskirts of Amman by people on the ground. We also need to pick up Matthias Malaysian leader who is waiting at a junction off the main road for us before Amman. After taking the group off the road once a little to early a car with some men appears and they seem to know where we need to be. Matthias gets collected and we move on to the stop.

It is pretty fascinating how all these hosts seem to appear out of nowhere and know where we are going. This stop is a stony piece of ground in an area that is not built up. A reception is held in some long green open tents, not formal they just guide us to tables, bring out food (more amazing soft lamb on the bone with almond rice) and cans of drink. We don’t stay for long, there are no speeches, a few men come around and give us small notebooks in little bags as a gift, there is a leaflet in the bag with some pictures of men’s faces and writing in Arabic and a logo which I believe is from Islamic Action Front the main opposition party in Jordan. I have looked into them a bit more and from wikipedia they are described as being "quite liberal compared to other Islamist parties. They recognize democracy, pluralism, tolerance of other religions, and women's rights as key to nation's development process and they do not support extreme revolutionary movements. They oppose Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Fatah al Islam but sympathize with Hamas" see link for more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_Action_Front

Before we move off one of the convoy members from another group needs help as the delay to the convoy means he has missed an appointment for community supervision which is meant to be today. We both call his office in UK and I speak to the supervising officer and explain I work for youth offending services and have been in the group with the member and explain the delay. They give him a new date for a month's time which makes him very happy and relieved. It is a relief for me when Pieter jumps in to take over the driving for a while. We move our of the outskirts of Amman and towards Syria through quite tricky traffic but Pieter does a good job and the police on motorbikes on the ground make sure we get to the main road.

I take the opportunity to use a laptop that Iqbal has lent me to burn some music off the hard drive. The Beat and Selecter on one cd, a mixture of country favourites on another and the Killers on another (special request from Pieter:)). So we get to sing along a bit. Unfortunately due to the fact that I am not concentrating but playing with the laptop and Pieter has not been a convoy lead vehicle driver before we manage to leave the group behind and I haven't noticed. We are on the main road and in the dusk and then dark and after about 20 minutes I check the mirrors and ask 'where are they?' the rest are also out of range of the CBs - oh dear. Luckily after a little while they come back into range and site and we move on together to the border.

Leaving Jordan and entering Syria is fairly straight forward. Just inside Syria is a mobile coffee stand on the side of the road where we wait for all the vehicles to come through. It is delicious from an expresso machine in the trailer and there are many of these throughout Syria.

A single police officer is going to lead us on, he says for 10km or so. It is starting to rain lightly and it is much cooler here. He leads off and travels very slowly at around 30km per hour. We pass 10km and still he is leading us - painfully slowly but when I try to speed up he doesn't want to and we have to continue at 30mph. It is pretty cold and he is riding exposed in the weather with no gloves and is being very careful with us to check all 14 vehicles in Alpha team are all behind so I can only feel grateful towards him for his care and attention despite the frustrating speed. He ends up taking us all the way to Damascus which is less than 100km away but is going to take a couple of hours. When we get to Damascus he doesn't know the way to Sahara Hotel which is where we stayed before and instead of going around the ring road we end up going through the city which is quite painful for the team in terms of trying to follow each other and the bumpiness of the final road up the hill to the hotel on the outskirts of town is hazardous - particularly to the caravan A3.

On arrival people are tired and not very happy - it has been a long day. People fend for themselves in order to get rooms from reception as we don't have a system arranged this time. Thanks to Juana I do get a bed which is more than some people manage. The hotel has arranged dinner for everyone which is amazing - fish and chips. I can understand people being a little unhappy but try to remind one or two that we are in fact all in the same boat and feel the same frustrations, if we all had a strop about it that would be pretty funny. We are all being put up and fed again at no cost to ourselves so cheer up!

People again are milling about the hotel reception area until the early hours, trying to use their laptops. I am really pleased to see Tarek who we originally met coming into Syria the first time. He is back to give us support and assistance where he can.

December 30th
9am meeting in the dining room. See notes to the left - behind the scenes much is going on in terms of trying to arrange our onward travel all together as a group. The agreement with the Egyptians has been that all ambulances and vehicles under 3.5 tons will be allowed through Rafah and all medical aid. We are going to be heading for a port soon, not exactly sure when.

I am happy to see Mahmoud Abu Ridah there at breakfast again as I had not really had the chance to speak to him when we came through Sahara Hotel before. He shows me his "passport" which is a British document that looks similar to a passport but does not in fact allow him to pass any ports - it is an ID document that simply allowed him to travel from UK to Syria but it won't work on any other borders. His wife and children are living in Jordan and he has not been able to see them for a long time ( I think he said eight months I can't recall exactly). He was arrested and held at Belmarsh without charge for between 2001 and 2005 before being released on a control order. I advise you to look at the link as the article explains his situation and makes it clear how powers under our laws allow such detentions. Neither he nor his lawyers have ever been informed of the information that his detention was based on. It is a coincidence that the two men in Jordan who asked me if I could help them to join the Jordanian group of the convoy but could not come with us due to the track back to Syria - are Mahmoud's brothers! So it is nice to be able to tell him I have seen them and spoken to them. Another example of how we with our British passports experience freedom of movement while Palestinian families are stopped from seeing each other by borders.

I need to try and track down the various scattered members of Alpha team because I have to collect the fares for travelling on from Syria. This comes in lots of different currencies and I am struggling to work out exactly what the exchange rates are.




















People are also trying to get the wifi to work - to do this you seem to have to go into settings for the network on the laptop and change the numbers - like hacking. Anyway people are sharing the numbers and seem to be able to get on sporadically. I am also trying to ensure that the manifests in our team are up to date as we will need them for Egypt which will be very soon. Later in the day it appears that we will not be leaving this afternoon after all. I had already checked out so Juana and I get another room - or rather she does - such an organised and reliable girl. Later in the afternoon Tarek tells me that some supporters are bringing some aid up to the hotel and we need to try to accommodate it in the vehicles somehow. When I walk out I see what he means! An entire bus load of medical supplies and two more small pick up vans. Help. I call Abid and a couple of others who may have some space in their vehicles. I am intending to stay to help with the unloading and reloading but thankfully Iqbal insists that instead I should come with her into Damascus and go for a hammam - just for a couple of hours. I also grab Cuamhe to come too. It is fantastic. We are all steamed and scrubbed to within an inch of our lives. By the time I get back up the hill the aid has been reallocated in vehicles. Brilliant.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Day 18-21

Day 18- Dec 24th
In the morning a minibus arrives around 9 and takes us back to the compound. Apparently the building was completely full of men last night and it was difficult to get a spot. We discover that there is going to be a problem with passing through Aqaba- Nuweiba. There will be negotiations and these could take some time. Some people are planning to get alternative accommodation in town and some have discovered a few resources locally like a cafe that has wifi which will be useful. There is quite a lot of confusion as to what will now happen. We are reminded that we are currently ahead of schedule. We are asked to send out info about our situation to friends and family. We are asked to try to locate the churches and mosques locally to tell them about what we are doing and what is happening. There is a Greek Orthodox church nearby that a few of us go to. Because of the disruption to the journey many people have questions and there are not really any answers apart from sit tight, remember that Jordan is a supportive country for us and think of ways we can commemorate the anniversary of the attacks on Gaza on 27th. Diplomatic efforts are going to take place with the Turkish organization IHH likely to take the lead. Our Malaysian leader Matthias decides to depart for Cairo in order to make efforts on behalf of Malaysia and Perdana Peace Organisation. We have the use of a large compound and yard not far from the centre of Aqaba. Many of the Turkish contingent have set up tents in the yard. There are large tables set up onto which food is brought at regular intervals during the day. The weather is sunny and warm. Some people are frustrated, not surprising as we are separated from our stuff, not able to travel through as planned and having to re-structure our time. There are no real answers and in addition to this when the group has been asked to turn up for a meeting not everyone turns up as they are beginning to be dotted about town and even when they do the main organizers are often engaged in meetings together within the building. George G is here and a lot of cameras from Turkey, Al Jazeera, local stations. Leah and I decide we need to get up to the vehicle somehow to get more than what we are standing in. Some bus transport has been arranged but we also get offered a lift by a local man. Half way up the hill to the car park his engine overheats and we jump out, the bus comes past and picks us up. At the vehicles I decide to try to get the van out. I drive it to the gate of the car park but there is a police officer there – he speaks sympathetically but after conversing with his superior the answer is no. I explain we need to get the aid to town to have photos taken of it – still no. It is unnerving that we don't seem able to move. Due to messing about with the vehicle Leah and I have missed the bus back to town but a film crew is still on their way out and have a press pass so we can jump in with them. A hotel owner in town has offered free accommodation to many members of the convoy. Other hotels are offering discounts. I join up with three others and we get a double room rate in a simple clean hotel nearby the yard so can get a shower and recharge batteries etc.


Day 19 – Christmas Day
Still no news apart from the conditions that Egypt have set out which is that Viva Palestina convoy must enter by El Arish port to Egypt, they want us to negotiate with Israeli authorities (why?? Israel do not occupy Gaza any more do they and we are not passing through Israeli territory either – a bit mystifying) also they want us to hand the aid over to UNRWA – United Nations Relief and Works Agency for working with Palestinian Refugees. George Galloway explains to the crowd and the media that we will not be doing the last two things that is for sure. Our aid is for Palestinian people as sovereign people in their own land not refugees and negotiating with Israel when we are not going through their territory is ludicrous notwithstanding their Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is wanted on an arrest warrant issued in UK for investigation into war crimes due to the attacks on Gaza under Operation Cast Lead – which is why we are all here.

Day 20 – 26th
Meeting times are arranged but don't happen on time. Regular food is being provided in the yard at the centre. Negotiations on behalf of the convoy are ongoing. People have come up with ideas for tomorrow including a candlelit vigil, press releases and contacts to MPs are being made. A member John Hurson calls for a hunger strike – many people volunteer. It is decided this should start at 11.25 on 27th to mark the anniversary with 15 people per day being added to until we get a response from Cairo.

Day 21 – 27th

Anniversary of the attacks on Gaza. The idea is for the convoy to walk slowly to the Egyptian consulate and for the hunger strikers to be photographed there. As it happens most of the UK convoy members start marching with the banners made yesterday towards the consulate at around 11:30am. The group manages to get around 500 yards along the road before it is stopped by police. It is not conflict situation however the group is stopped on the roundabout between the compound and the consulate. This means that quite a lot of those driving past do get to see the marchers. It is then that Kevin is asked to attend Aqaba governor's office to meet him. He asks three of us to join him as a delegation leaving the UK convoy on the road. The local café comes out and gives water to the marchers who are now waiting in the sun. We go in a car to the Governor's office. Kevin explains that Viva Palestina want to have a very small event in the town, perhaps in a square, to remember Gaza and to allow the people of Aqaba to meet the members. He and Caoimhe (an active campaigner and worker in solidarity with Palestine for many years) speak eloquently about how it is a small and peaceful event we require. Despite his polite and welcoming words the Governor is not to be moved. He says we have the compound and yard and people can come and see us there. There is to be no event or demonstration in town. Disappointing but he seems quite clear. We are not in an argument with Jordan and so will need to avoid conflict here. The news is disappointing to the members. Some decide to continue in a roundabout way to the consulate. We explain that there is little we can do but ask members to be imaginative. In this town it is very difficult to have open meetings and plans as the mahabarat (secret/ plain clothed police) are all over the place mixing with the crowd and will thwart any attempts at direct action as they just have done with the march. If we have to stay at the compound I decide we could try and get people to come to the evening event at 7pm there. I find a local printer and get some fliers made up in English and Arabic. Unfortunately I cannot find anyone to help me apart from a local man who drives me around to the tourist areas. I walk about handing out fliers and talking to people who show interest. Many locals are very supportive and most of the tourists I meet.
Back at the compound at 7 and the rally event is about to begin. It dawns on all of us here that the event is not what we expected. Militaristic music and imagery starts up and a video of guns, young people etc is on screen. This is not Viva Palestina stuff. I text all my members and speak to anyone around to encourage them to leave the event. I can see Kevin stating in very certain terms to one of the local organizers that there is no way that VP or George will be standing on this platform tonight with this imagery. So sudden change of plan and the convoy members troop down the road to be spoken to by George outside a café.

George explains to everyone what the agreement in principle is with El Arish being the port the Egyptian authorities want us to go to. He explains IHH have negotiated that the aid be channeled through IHH in Gaza not UNRWA and that we will not be negotiating with Israel. The dates for getting into Gaza however have now slipped and it is going to take some time to reach our destination. The ultimate decision of the Egyptian authorities has drawn the attention of the media to the convoy and the issues – if we had not come to this border we would not have demonstrated this standoff. One or two convoy members say they want to get vehicles down to the port and demonstrate there. George explains no – that our argument is not with Jordan, that the Jordanian authorities will stop at absolutely nothing to stop us if we go against wishes and that we all need to get on alive. Said from our team starts saying “what we plan to do is...” George stops him and says we should not be stating what we plan to do unless we want it to be stopped! We will need to drive back up to Syria, identify a port, arrange transport and get us all to El Arish. George explains that if anyone has to go home by first week of January then they should not come back with us. Cedric realises that he will not be coming any further now as he has to get back to Switerland by 1st Jan in order to take teenagers on a holiday camp. He is absolutely gutted and so am I – this is the first convoy member from our team to have to leave and he has been such a good support and companion. Later on I also realise that Leah has a leaving date very soon as well – she will need to leave from here too so that's both my dear cab mates. The group disperses slowly, Cedric is offered support by a few people in the form of commiserations, a phone number in Cairo of a person from Code Pink Gaza Freedom march and I say I will go with him to get his things from the vehicle and check about onward travel to Cairo. Back at the compound we bump into Saj and Muqtal who also want to go to the car park. An interested local has pulled over in his car – he is wearing scrubs and says he is a doctor from the local military hospital. He offers to take us up the hill. Frist of all we are quite pleased about this as he is driving a large comfortable car – however we set off in the wrong direction and after 20-30 mins or so it becomes clear he does not have a clue where we are going. We stop numerous times while he asks locals and this also proves fruitless. We end up heading back to square one and from here Muqtal can direct us. By the time we get the things back from the vehicle it has taken us two hours to travel 20 miles. It is almost 1am.

Days 13-18

Two and a half hours sleep, another early start. Comfortable sleeping on the big crash mats in the gym spaces and we are provided with all meals by the local support. There is lots of bread, tea, eggs, cheese. There is a rally event in town. We have new team members in the A4 vehicle students Ian and Fiona, Muj is having some difficulty with his vehicle which is having trouble starting. They want help from a couple of lads who have been pretty handy with the engines of a number of vehicles. It turns out however that these lads are on some sort of probation and are not allowed to drive their vehicle. I have to speak to their team leader to get permission for them to come out and meet Muj. Their team leader Shak has only had them for a day or two as they were moved from the previous one. He says if I take responsibility for them then he's ok with that. They sort out Muj's vehicle and we all get on the road together. I explain to them that they can't drive their vehicle for the time being but I will discuss it later with Amer convoy vehicle lead. They are not happy about this but accept a driver form Muj's vehicle reluctantly. Tonight is our last night in Turkey at Gazantiep. We arrive at a large exhibition centre eventually after terrible directions on text message fail to indicate which exit off the motorway we should take. So a significant detour later we get into town, this time with 25 vehicles following us. Due to being late we are going to miss the reception at one location. Luckily when we get into town some police officers know where the other final destination is and we are guided by them to another sports hall. We are early which is a bonus. Vehicles are parked up on the ground behind the building which is gravelly and muddy. There is a laundry room at this location so ao couple of the lads get straight in. I have a couple of driving complaints to deal with so I approach he Belgians who are one of the complainers and also Richard T. The Belgians are not happy about the allegations. I decide we will have a whole team meeting at 8.30. I find a room at the centre which is a presentation room and has plenty of seats we pull into a circle I have also invited team leader Kieran and experienced convoyer Abid to sit in to assist. Hassan from Press TV wants to film the proceedings. So after thanking the Belgians for their long drive and Richard V and Jerome for sorting out their breakdown I raise the driving issue. The fact the Belgians have not been staying in line and cutting people up sparks an exchange. It is clear that A5 Kamal is angry about the driving and says it is dangerous. One of the Belgian drivers is defensive and there are almost insults thrown. Mrs Warsi gets snapped at when she asks who are the new Australian. An innocent comment as we have new students but not taken well by Kamal. Kieran talks through the reasons for staying in line and principles of convoy driving. I don't get a chance to introduce Fiona and Ian in the end. After the meeting I go up to the car park and speak to Kamal, Richard V, Jerome, Juana and Ram we are just standing in the car park almost planning to go somewhere but in the end just end up joking and talking in the dark by the vehicles. Richard gets out a nip of whisky. Back late to bed again.

Day 14 – Dec 19th
We are up at 7 to try to get to and through the border as soon as we can. After the timing of the arrival at Istanbul the convoy has learned that even early starts close to the border do not mean getting in at a good time. I have to drive the Slough vehicle as the boys Haroun and Rizwan are still banned for now. They have some decent tunes on cd so we get some D&B on nice for a change. The road to Syria as clear and its a straight run again after the police escort get us to the main road. The border is also very smooth in terms of processing us. The officials are very quick and helpful. The unhelpful bits are the faults of Viva Palestina. We have a friend of George's onboard now called Grant who I ask if we can move forward after Alpha group complete their paperwork quickly. He says he'd rather we waited. So duly we do. We are also waiting for what to do about the Malaysian-bought Turkish-registered vehicle. Apparently a Turkish driver has to drive the vehicle through the border because it is a Turkish van. We still don't have the registration forms which are required. Several phone calls and much waiting around later also including attempts to communicate with only around five words in common and we have worked out that our group should move across and leave the vehicle behind taking the UK drivers with us. Richard T has decided to wait with the vehicle however as the Turkish contingency is moving separately through after UK one we may lose our team members for a while. I decide to put them on the bus that has been put on for the U.S. members who joined in Istanbul. The arrangement takes a few phone calls and strategic conversations but eventually Alpha team can move on. We have moved to the end of the convoy due to the delays and patience is wearing a bit thin as a result. Nevertheless we get to set off into Syria with Damascus in our sights. The next few hours is almost surreal. Unexpected receptions for the convoy appear in our path and we find ourselves being greeted on the roadside by crowds of people in the semi-darkness – this time a marching band. Enthusiastic folks grab our hands warmly and firmly and wish us all their luck and love for the journey. It is quite overwhelming especially in conjunction with the long border corssing, convoy driving and lack of sleep in recent days. We move on from the roadside thinking Damascus next stop when again we are directed to a stop this time in a building with more formality and suit-dressed people. I sit next to a gynaecologist from Red Crescent charity – she tells me they have been waiting all day for us. We are given coffee and biscuits and speeches are made she tells me by local head of Red Crescent. There are Palestinian children there one of whom presents one of our convoy members with a plaque. There is much photo taking and hand shaking before we are ushered out again and back onto the road. It is dark and there are hills to be negotiated. Despite this we all have a good drive at a decent pace to Damascus,v some of the Cb communication is not working though so this will need to be looked at when we get a chance. Directions are accurate this time and we also have police escorts that appear at strategic moments to guide us. Arrival reveals that this time we are being put up in style. We are installed at a large resort style hotel. We park in front of the gates, stagger in with bags etc to a large dining room with three course meal provided then find our rooms. Juana and Kamal have arrived earlier due to having to get to an engagement and have kindly sorted out the beds for Leah, Cedric and I. Proper beds with ensuite bathroom – wow. George Galloway is here and members are getting snapped with him in the lobby.

DAY 14 – Dec 20th
Again we are supposed to be up for 8. I don't manage this but don't get there too late. While I am getting breakfast which is fresh tomatoes, olives, bread, yoghurt and very nice I bump into Mustapha. He introduces me to a man Mohamed Abu Redah who was in Belmarsh in UK for 8 years with no trial. He is a Palestinian who was only released on condition he went to Syria. He did not see his family for so many years and his case was worked with by Amnesty International. I am quite embarrassed that I don't recognise his name. After a short time however his face becomes one I do recognise from the newspaper and I would like to talk to him more but he's moved off and speaking to other people. Leah is knocked out by a migraine today and spends the day sleeping in bed trying to recover. I have lots of details to complete for paperwork that needs to be done for he Syrian-Jordanian border. We have to make sure that all the right people are in the right vehices and all the cargo manifests are up to date and that I have an accurate idea of who I have in my team. I will have a little time to do this at night. A team leaders's meeting has been called for 4pm with a group meeting at 5pm for the whole convoy. So a few hours to get into Damascus and get a look around. Cedric is very sensible and pushes off early. As I have info to chase I can't do this. Eventually I get away and Richard V, Jerome, Kamal and I make our way to town. The first step is to try to get a taxi – the reception tell us to go to the road. Once at the road outside the hotel gates it becomes clear that people just flag down drivers to get a lift. After ten to 15 minutes an open back mini-van stops. The boys jump in the back and I get the cab. The driver is a carpenter and we have to drop a piece of wood at a job first. Then taken into town. Dropped off at a grubby modern intersection we ask directions into the old town. Short walk later and we are into one corner of the large old town area of Damascus. Not having much time it is difficult to know where to start so we just walk about a bit randomly. Grab a coffee in an empty coffee house/ restaurant then continue. Through a bit of souk with many stalls selling perfume oil, spices, nuts, jewellery, bags, pot pourri, tat. We end up outside the Ummayah mosque one of the oldest mosques in the Muslim world built within 40 or 50 years of the beginning of Islam. I am abit distracted by knowing I need to be back up at the hotel for 4pm so shortly have to go and get a cab back. However on return I can see that I'm the only team leader to have the message or even to turn up. I grab some lunch from the dining room, chicken and rice. There are Palestinian refugees who live in Syria coming to the hotel to meet us this afternoon. There is going to be a press conference and George will be speaking. Already a few people are milling about in different areas of the hotel. It is quite difficult to see what is going on and who is who now. As we have the 70 vehicles added from Turkey, Syrian and Palestinian visitors, UK convoy members all milling about the scene is quite chaotic. Someone manages to get a sign up on the wall with an approximate timetable of what is happening where. However a number of convoyers have gone into town and not got back in good time so they will probably not be aware. I am approached by one of the Belgians in our group who is concerned. He has heard a rumour that a Hamas speaker is addressing the reception this evening. I am not aware of who this is or of the details of the reception so I am unable to confirm either way. I do say that there is bound to be some involvement from the administration in Gaza at some point on our journey. I say that if they are not happy then of course they should not attend. Said says he would like to know more about who it is that we are meeting on the way and who we are delivieirng the aid to. I say that we have an NGO (non-governmental organisation) acting as an umbrella organisation in Gaza to whom the aid is going for distribution. I meet a woman and her children in the lobby area of the hotel, she is Palestinian and she has good English. She explains that her family were refugees in 1948, her parents separated from their friends and family and she has not seen Palestine.
We finally get team leaders together with Nicci one of the organisers and get set up in an ante room where there is a power supply and she can plug in laptops and printer. Team leaders turn up gradually with their info to be updated. Its going to be a long night making sure the data is upto date. In Alpha team we have the Slough boys and new Malaysian vehicles to accommodate. Ram and Juana work hard to get the info in accurately, finally we have the registration documents for the new vehicles. Meanwhile there has been a reception in a hall at the gates of the hotel. I manage to get down there to have a look. As I walk towards the building I can see many people around it. Moving inside it has a metal detector arch set up for people to walk through but by the time I get there so many people are moving about the security don't seem to be bothering any more. The hall is set up full of rows of chairs with more people standing at the sides and back. There is loud music blaring interchanging with intense voices over the PA addressing the crowd. The atmosphere is quite intense. There are people giving out flags, caps and neck scarves. The meeting is a political rally. As I am not sure about what is being said by whom I am a bit bemused. Certainly the crowd are behave in a disciplined and responsive way. There are some children and hijab-wearing women in the room. Women sit towards the back. I've missed most of the event but there are several members in the room. Finishing the data seems more important.

Day 15- Dec 21st
We have asked team members to be at their vehicles by 7am. Some people are ready for this others do not seem to be. I am trying to ring the Slough vehicle, our deputy vehicle and the minibus of Muj's lads with no luck. The down time however we are able to sort out the CB issue on my vehicle with skilled intervention from Jerome A7, also we sticker the new vehicles and reorder everyone to reflect the new members. When everybody eventually turns up I have a quick meeting with everybody to thank those who are on time and express dissatisfaction with the late people. I also need to tell people to take the jihadi stickers off their vehicles that have appeared. Some of the scarves and baseball hats also have a logo on it which is representative of one of the armed brigades. Carrying this material is contrary to our values and therefore we need to remove it. Because we are not familiar with the organisations it is difficult to know exactly what logos mean what but we need to be on the safe side.

Eventually we get out of the hotel car park in formation with the team and are guided by police escort towards the route. Again it is not very far to the border with Jordan. The initial stage of the border is very easy. On the Syrian side a man approaches me to help – he says he is a Hamas volunteer and he seems to know everyone in the border office. He explains that his family is Palestinian but were refugees and he has never lived in Palestine. He facilitates Alpha group passports being processed. On the Jordanian side because we have sent the cargo manifests through in advance the office there has prepared the paperwork and we sail though customs section. The first passport section is more difficult as the officers collect everyone's passport in the whole convoy and they are all mixed up together. When we get them back they need to be sorted out from a large sack in the back of a pick up we are just awaiting the final gate when a problem arises. I get a call from one of the Malaysian vehicles ahead. He says he has not been given his passport back. I jump out to speak to Amer about this. All the Turkish vehicles have gone through and some of the UK ones. Some of the lads at the front are saying they don't want to give their passports and are slightly defensive. Amer gets on the phone to Kevin to check what the procedure should be now. Meanwhile we send a message down the line not to hand over passports now. Too ma y individuals are gathering at the top of the line giving their opinions. I get Amer and the other available team leaders and ask Amer what the answer from Kevin is. He explains that they have said it is fine to cooperate with the Jordanian border officials in this wa as we are not being asked to pay for visas or insurance for the entire group. I am satisfied it is going to be ok to do this now however many people in the group are unsure. Therefore we pull together a meeting for me to explain. Time is goign by and what was originally a quick passing has become very slow again and it is getting dark. Finally all drivers hand over their passports and we move on.

The directions into Amman appear to work this time however the drive is quite mental. The police appear to be trying to slow us down and there is some paranoia about this, expecially after the passport debacle. Calls on the cb are for us to bunch up together and stick together so the driving is a bit hairy. We arrive at a union headquarters in town where food and tea is available for us all. We are later than the first half of the convoy due to the delay at the border therefore have very little time before convoy organisers are calling for us to be arranged for onward transport. There are three different locations for members to stay at. Female convoyers are required to one minibus, it is absolutely packed with stuff and people. There is a limit on numbers and I have to get off to facilitate an older woman for whom mixed accommodation would not be suitable. I end up on a minibus with the US members, the students and the Belgians from our group. We are dropped at a youth hostel. The accommodation is basic but fine. I'm tired and crash out.


Day 16 – Dec 22nd
Morning breakfast is provided in a longish room lit up by the sun. Breakfast is flat bread, white cheese, boiled egg, youghurt jam, simple and tasty. There is wifi in the room so I can getonline for a little while. Cedric and other non-UK nationals have been told they need to check they have an affidavit to absolve their governments of any responsibility for them as they plan to enter a war zone. Cedric is annoyed about this as he was not informed sooner so if it prevents him from entering Gaza he will be very angry. He and others set off for their embassies in Amman centre. There are meetings or speeches back at the union but I need some time to myself and stay at the hostel until the afternoon when there is one other member who also wants to get to the union. He is Kuwaiti and said he has called his embassy and they are sending a car to give him a lift. Soon it arrives and we head to the centre – I wonder who he must be if he can just ring his embassy for a car. When I get to the centre It turns out the other groups who did not come to the youth hostel have been put in fairly expensive hotels in town. When I see Riz, Tom and Haroun from the rogue vehicle SL1 that joined our group Riz offers me his room, I go and get my stufff from the youth hostel. Cedric turns up and is not very happy because the embassy have told him he should have obtained an affidavit in Switzerland. Buses turn up to transport people back to hotels so we jump in the one to the Jerusalem hotel. Kamal, Cedric and I go out and hit a kebab shop locally where we eat humus, grilled meat, salad. Back at the hotel SL1 have been talking to a doctor who has some specialist medical equipment for a hospital in Gaza. He would like it to be put in one of the vehicles. We work out the Malaysian vehicles may be the best option. I need to call them to obtain keys and organise – it is about 11.30pm. The lads introduce me then head off with the doctor to look at the stuff. Later on I call them and they have managed to load up the equipment which is $250,000 worth of internal stethoscopy equipment. Fantastic. The doctor needs to ensure that he registers with the central committee for distributing the aid that we will be handing everything over to. Richard V, Kamal and I go to the well hidden hotel bar and have a beer.

Day 17 – Dec 23rd
We gather atthe vehicles in the morning in the car park outside the union again and order up to get going. Heading for Aqaba today. We have a team meeting where I ask everyone to prepare for the difficulties ahead. Egypt will be a challenge where we will need to be vigilant and stick together. I ask people not to leave vehicles unattended or with the keys in. We must remove all Hamas stickers that have appeared on the vans and get rid of Hamas caps and literature. The drive is quite painless and at stages beautiful especially when we head down onto a desert plain not far from Aqaba. On the way we are recieved at a roadside reception where we are given bread type snacks and water and given lots of encouragement, smiles and support. We are trailing a little way behind the other teams so we don't catch any speeches from George Galloway who has apparently been there before us. It is dark when we draw up to Aqaba. We expect to be boarding the ferry this evening at 1am. Instead we guided to a custom car park outside of town and asked to park then jump into small buses and get taken to another reception in town. IT is not what anyone wants to do as it is late and dark and some are not enjoying the regular rallies and speeches. There are flags and loud speeches at these events and as it is not in English it is hard to know what exactly is being said. We are taken whizzing down the hill in the dark to a building, compound and yard in town. There's a slight sense of foreboding at leaving the vehicles in a distant car park and being whisked away. It is hard to tell whether or not the building is a mosque or not but it is fairly large with three or four floors. Outside in the yard are a few hundred people seated in plastic chairs facing the outdoor stage. There is loud music, bright lights. The women are again seated at the back and I am guided in that direction as welll. The women rush to help us sit passing over plastic chairs. The event begins with loud speeches again I can't understand. There is lots of green - caps, flags with emblems and arabic script. I ask Juana if she has any idea where we are or whats going on. She said it is an opposition party political event. It turns out these guys are looking after us – after the rally we are all invited into the building and provided with a packet containing burger, chips and drink. It turns out that the convoy has been informed it will not be able to continue through the port of Nuweiba. After this they arrange for the women to be accommodated away from the centre and transport arrives. This is also unsettling as we have been split from the vehicles and now the men. We get taken to a building which has some 2 bed flats in it. Everyone tries to find a spot – there are sofas and the owner brings out lots of mattresses for us all. He also gives us three boxes of fresh dates – most girls are knackered so crash out. I am up late because there are still some more women coming in a car from the compound and they need to get sorted.