Sunday, 28 February 2010

One day in Gaza

The hosts are trying to get us up and moving. We are given breakfast and tea and the bus to the car park / air strip is waiting for us. We need to take any more personal stuff out of the vehicles and the aid is being handed over. The process seems to take a long time. Some people who already have contacts for their aid are meeting up with them and here is our man for the specialist stethoscopy equipment again this time with his van.

Its sad to leave this vehicle which I've spent so much time with recently but thats it now. I just have a bag of personal things (all chaotically scattered) and that's all. I leave the sleeping bag, mats, tents, cooker, food, water in the back. Lock up, leave the keys in the ignition and ready to go.

While wandering around the car park I meet a man in a wheelchair with a large camera. He lost his legs in the bombing last year. He works as a photographer and his wife is also with him she works for an organisation supporting women. While I am speaking to them I meet Nitin and Mond. Nitin has managed to get into Gaza from the Freedom March. He realised the Freedom March was not going to be a viable way to get in after chaos in Cairo and approached the Indian embassy in Cairo for a letter of support. Mond is a Gaza resident and he is walking around with Nitin. We decide to move on together. The next stop after the car park handover is an event at what remains of the Palestinian Legislative Council building.

George G and others are making speeches here. I wander around the crowd and then around the back of the building where a soldier is very helpful and friendly taking pictures for me. I let the young people gathering around us with big grins on their faces borrow a camera to take pics of each other.

The crowd is moving on the a large conference hall nearby. There we are given commemorative books, a scarf and offered seats for hearing with Ismail Hanya the Prime Minister. I realise that this is another event which may go on for some time and I'd really like to get out and look around a bit if possible.

Mond asks who I would like to meet. I want to meet music producers or performers as I'd be interested in looking at the possibility of getting Fairtunes to work in Gaza. Mond gets on the mobile and we get out of the conference centre and to a coffee shop not too far away. After a short time some guys arrive who are from CampsBreakerz - BBoys breakdance crew. Shortly after this musicians from a band called Watar. Moh from Camps Breakerz has his laptop and plays footage from some of their past performances. We drink coffee and smoke a shisha and copy some music from my hard drive. When Watar come they play a song about Gaza on guitar which is beautiful. Tom plays some of his music from his band Divine Chaos.

We don't have a lot of time and soon John 'Tyrone to Gaza' Hurson is meeting members of Gaza City Sporting club to donate kit for Gaelic football. So we walk over as its not too far away.

Finally into Gaza 6th January 2010

The morning after the riot there are lots of people with visible injuries, bandages, arms in slings. We are told to be ready to leave in an hour - this is at around 10 or 11am. However we are in fact milling about the port compound all day. I discover a clean loo and bathroom in the port building, an employee shows me where it is - he offers me and other convoy members tea, bread and apologies for the conduct of the Egyptian authorities towards the convoy. I am a bit surprised by this considering that during the riot the gate has come off the port, some windows have been smashed and some paving broken up - which I say I'm sorry about. This does not seem to be any problem at all to him. He is just warm and welcoming and does not blame anyone in the convoy for any of the trouble.

Convoy meeting
Nidal's head

During the morning I am contacted by London Evening Standard for an update on what has happened. They have got my number from my brother Charlie who I rang last night when the riot was kicking off. He also gets in touch to say he contacted Press Association, Sky News, Channel 4.

During the afternoon there is gathering in the centre of the compound for George to address the crowd. He offers support to the injured and encouragement to the members for the final leg of the journey. He states his position on those protesters that returned violence to the riot police - his view is that while he has always respected those who are able to turn the other cheek 'it is not in my tradition' and he supports the right of those who threw stones back at the riot police to do this as they have had stones thrown at them. Some members of the convoy are very unhappy about the sequence of events and one even asks if he will resign as a result of the violent clashes. George calls for a show of hands on this and it seems the majority would prefer him to remain leading the convoy.

During the gathering a worried sister of one of the arrested members comes up and says the prisoners have been kept in a truck outside with no bathroom or water for 15 hours. I get a tray of water bottles to try to take this to the vehicle - I am not allowed out of the compound but I see Caiomhe is outside and can pass them to her. Within around an hour or so the prisoners are returned to us battered and bruised. A security officer has a bag of their mobile phones and cameras which he gives to me and I track the individuals down to return them. Unfortunately Nidal's camcorder is not there, he says it was smashed anyway. I can't locate the officer who gave me the items to ask about it.

The vehicles are all lining up now to queue to get out of the compound. On my mobile I am hearing from Lena, an Italian journalist who lives in Beirut. She has managed to get transport to catch up with us and will try to travel with the convoy for the final leg and try to come into Gaza. I can't get out of the gate to meet her but she manages to find Caoimhe in a vehicle that's already got out up ahead.

Eventually we get to leave the compound, they're letting us through really slowly in groups of around ten vehicles at a time. Its almost dark. While waiting in the line outside on the road some Egyptian ambulance workers come over to talk. As I have the laptop, hard drive and blank cds I ask one what music he would like - he says something romantic - so I give him a copy of an album of Frank Sinatra. We listen to our copy of Frank Sinatra on the road to Gaza.

We get to the border in slow time still, there are lots of road blocks on the way. Not with security staff but just places we have to wiggle through a bit. At the Palestinian side of the Rafah border we hand over our passports, nobody minds giving their passports to Palestinian border control. I feel very happy that we are going through. Just inside as we move slowly through a man approaches my cab - he is asking after vehicle A12 - he is the doctor who is waiting for the equipment we picked up in Amman! He must have been waiting patiently all evening and possibly all day. Its brilliant to be able to reassure him that the vehicle and its precious content is just behind us.

I can hardly stay on the road for tiredness. Perhaps it is the relief of getting into Gaza finally but I can hardly keep awake. We are driving slowly following whoever is in front. Occasionally a vehicle with armed men in it passes. There are a few people still at the roadside but it is around 3am now so most of the crowds have sensibly gone home. We end up parking up the vehicles together on what turns out to be the old airstrip near Gaza City. A text message tells us that accommodation is provided in teams. However in practice this just causes more confusion as there is not time to organise into teams with buses waiting for us who just want us to get our personal stuff and jump in it is so late. A group of us end up at the Al-Ahli sporting club. The rooms are basic with two beds with a blanket on each and a loo/ shower. The hosts also want to give us food - rice, chicken, salad, bottles of water; I'm almost too tired to eat but manage to and meanwhile get talking to Yousri who is leading our group. He explains the blockade and siege means limits on what is available, power supplies, water. We want to carry on talking but as we have to be up again in a few hours and are so tired its not possible.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Moving on to Egypt 4th Jan - 6th Jan

We head back to the camp in the morning for 10 and catch the meeting informing us of the flight details. First flight to depart at 4pm, bus to get to the airport at 1pm. 8pm flight, bus departs camp at 5pm; 12am flight assemble 9pm, 4am flight assemble 1am.

Fascinated with the proceedings Juana?

First flight: Turkish team 1, VP groups A&B, Team America, VP leadership, Jordanian group, Al Jazeera TV.

2nd flight: Turkish team 2, VP groups C&D, VP leadership, Jordanian 2nd group

3rd flight: Turkish team 3, VP teams E, F, G

4th flight: Turkish group 4, Jordanian Group 3, George Galloway

So its time to leave Lattakia and the lovely people who have been looking after us.

Its another celebratory send off from the airport.

The flight is short and when we land at the airport it seems as if everything is going to be fine. George G does a short announcement to the press that are waiting that he has been told by the Governor of Sinai that we are going to move on through to Rafah. We are greeted by local members of the Red Crescent - young people most of them under 20 who give us plastic flowers. However a short time later things get a bit difficult. It seems the visas we are being issued with are being stamped with entry and exit at the same time and there is a local General who tells Kevin the authorities are going to hold on to our passports and we can move on and get to the vehicles and take them to Rafah. He clearly does not understand that everyone has their own vehicle and we will not be going anywhere without both our passports and the rest of the convoy members who will not be arriving until tomorrow. We stage a sit down protest for our passports to be returned. In the middle of this chaos we receive news that the second flight has been diverted to Damascus. We are told this is due to engine trouble but we don't know for sure and hope it is not an exercise to separate us. The protest turns noisier as time goes on.

Some people are catching a bit of sleep on the floor. In the end we are there for 6 or 7 hours before the passports are returned and we move on to crash out for a few hours in a couple of local hotels (dusty, run down).

The next day we are picked up by a bus and taken to the port compound at El Arish sea port. We have to show our passports to get in and these are compared to the list the authorities have. From now on if we want to leave the port compound then we have to hand our passport in and only a small number of people are allowed to leave at a time. By 4 pm the final arrival of members of the convoy has arrived. There have been significant difficulties for the arrivals of all flights and stories of physical struggles with the authorities and bus doors being shut on someone causing injury. The convoy members are by and large exhausted and disorientated after the confusion and delayed long travel.

George G, Zaher and Kevin are going into negotiations with Egyptian authority representative as it has become clear that there is a question mark over some of the vehicles that we are to be allowed to take in. At around 6.30/ 7pm we are informed that the Egyptian representative has left the compound and has left saying the 47 American-bought vehicles (cars) are not going to be allowed through. This is in contrast to the agreement reached at Aqaba. The convoy members are not going to take the reversal of the agreement lying down and a protest is staged at the gates of the port compound about this. It is noisy and one of the gates unfortunately comes off its hinges while the protestors are rattling it.

For several hours from now there are convoy members at the gates gathered, sometimes chanting, sometimes sitting, some walking about the area to the front of the gates which is now surrounded by rows of riot police and a large tanker which is the container of water for the water cannon.

I eventually leave the crowd as it is sitting peacefully and someone is singing prayers in Arabic. I end up sitting in a vehicle in the port talking to some members who are not happy. I am sitting there when a member arrives at the door and he has a golf club in his hand he says the front of the convoy is being attacked by the riot police. He agrees I should take the golf club away as no-one should be putting themselves in a position where they may injure another, injure themselves or be arrested. I go to lock it in my cab, whilst doing this a member Majid runs past me injured and we both jump in my cab - he tells me to get in the back of the vehicle as he feels the cab will not be safe. We can't do this as the back is full of aid. The fear is that the riot police will enter the compound and start to damage the vehicles. After a short time I decide to get out and walk up to see what is going on. As I walk towards the gate I can see a hail of stones coming down on the crowd at the front, shouting, things being broken and general mayhem. The noise and chaos seems to continue for some time - there are guys running about extremely agitated, some are holding their heads, bleeding, I can see some lying injured away at the back of the crowd being treated under lights by those with some medical experience. A short distance away I can see a convoy member attempting to mediate in a situation where there are some Egyptian security staff that some agitated Turkish members are trying to get to. It appears these staff are nothing to do with the riot police of the authorities but have unfortunately been identified as possible Muhabarat by extremely upset individuals. The situation is calmed down. A Team Leaders meeting is called. I go up and all the Team Leaders VP organisers and George G are gathered. George asks us to agree on what the sequence of events was and it appears that shortly after the Egyptian negotiator left the port compound the riot police and other non-uniformed members of security outside. During the evening it appears that non-uniformed security have gathered missiles in the form of pieces of paving slabs and made piles of these behind the riot police lines. When some members of the US convoy have come in from town surprising the riot police they have been treated in a heavy handed way, this has elicited the convoy members from the front of the protest to move towards the fracas, next the lines of riot police have moved towards the crowd and the agent provocateurs have begun launching their missiles onto the crowd. The crowd responds by defending itself, several members have been caught up and some arrested. There are some Egyptian police who have barracked into a room inside the port compound. While we are having the meeting Ellie comes up to say that we should take action to prevent the conflict from starting up again as convoy members on the ground are paranoid that the police are re-grouping to attack and enter the port and are therefore getting ready to defend, moving forward towards the gate which could antagonise the police and spark further incident. So we go down and move among the crowd calming people down. This for me also involves standing in front of a vehicle and preventing it from driving up towards the gate. I also speak to a group of convoy members who are very agitated to ask them to be patient and calm at this point and they do listen. The main calming point is when the Turkish members return to their vehicles as this provides a significant signal to the convoy as a whole that the incident is over.