By Michael Coleman and originally posted at http://occupiedterritories.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/stay-human-the-story-of-freedom-flotilla-2-from-the-kayaktivists-perspective/
Well where do I start, I know it’s been several weeks since my last post – but I’ve been a little pre-occupied with a wall of bureaucratic obstacles and a possible prison sentence. Anyway I digress, let’s go back to the start and I can bring you up to speed on what has been one the most amazing month of my life – even if it did contain some of the scariest moments of I ever experienced.
So we started off in Crete at the port of St Nicolas, as the ABCD tour group – as we were mainly made up of members from Australia, Belgium, Canada and Denmark – the most diverse and unorganised tour group in the history of tourism. Diverse, aged from 23 to 80, students to retired politicians, 10 nationalities represented [yes Manon and Mary-Eve - I am including Quebec in that count] and more opinions than people. Unorganised, well at least it would have looked that way from the outside – we were constantly meeting in a small meeting room to discuss “outings” that kept getting postponed, our room bookings changed on a daily basis and the next stop on our tour changed every time we were asked.
While discussing the group I must admit that I am not a people person – put me in a room with 50 people and generally I might like 5 of them, if your lucky. However of the 50 participants of the ABCD tour group, or the “Tahririans” as Amira Hass has dubbed us, I respected and liked everyone involved – almost feeling out of place at times, for example while sitting around discussing wealth distribution with Bob Lovelace [1st Nations Chief] Sylvia Hale [former member of parliament] and Sue Breeze [a 30 veteran of peace and justice struggles].
For the impressive back stories of the “Tahririans” click here.
The four days of training that we undertook were designed to bring us together as a group and help prepare us for the challenges that lay ahead. Ladder Climbing Lee [LCL], we had to give ourselves a prefix to our first name that described you and started in the same letter as your first name – I was Manic Michael, anyway LCL facilitated most of the four days and I have to say was the best facilitator I have ever seen - and I have seen a few facilitators as I organise training for my day job. It was beautifully structured, invigorating and it pushed you, and all in a hot, overcrowded room, with minimal props – just LCL , some butchers paper and a few textas.
So let me set the scene we have all spent the last 6 to 12 months working and preparing to sail in uncertain water, to put it lightly. We have now just finished four days of training, that involved discussing some pretty heavy scenarios – how we would be boarded – where you wanted to be during the boarding – how long you were prepared to stay in detention before signing the Israeli deportation order admitting you “acted illegally”, i.e. that the siege of Gaza and the collective punishment they is enforce is legal. While I know answering these questions pre the event only gave an indication of how you would like to carry it, but speaking personally, it help me solidify a process I had started months before. So you getting the picture, we were up for it, where ready to roll – then we got our first paper cut.
Each day at the start of training Decisive David would give us an update in regards to timeline, tasks, and possible obstacles. As the training was coming to an end the obstacles began taking up more and more of the update – it seemed every time we fulfilled one of the INSB or Harbour Master requests, they hit us with two more. For instance at one stage the INSB had spent all day inspecting our boat, a regular occurrence, they discovered that the emergency beckon while it gave our correct position it identified the ship under its previous name and that the benches were not wide enough to be used as beds. The radio was replaced in half an hour and shortly there after we were demanding to see where in the regulatory guide it specified the width at which a bench can be used as a bed. Strangely they could not find that regulation in the book, but by the time that was figured out – we now needed a representative of the Comoros Islands, whose flag we were sailing under, to confirm that the representative that signed the first document was actually a representative of the Comoros Islands, no really!
Keeping in mind we had already passed all the relevant inspections prior to requesting to sail to Gaza, only then were they “concerned for our safety”. The other interesting point is that before we bought the Tahrir it did Island cruises between different Greek islands, without any concerns about its sea worthiness. Since we had bought the boat we had spent thousands on improvements to the engine, putting in larger water tanks and better communications equipment – yet now they were worried about its sea worthiness ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
So you’re with me, we were starting to get the sense they might not let the Tahrir leave Greek waters – people are starting to postpone flights home at ridiculous costs, hotel bills are adding up and all this at personal expense and on top of cost already incurred – some of us, me included, hoped Israel would deport us back to home countries rather than the other options of Athens or Amman. Well, if we got that far there was a good chance that the Tahrir would be impounded never to be seen again, so a flight home was not asking to much ; ] This tension built up for several days until two days after training had finished – while we were not training, we were still meeting at least twice a day to work on strategy, media and web presence. We received the news that the Swedish, Norwegian and Greek cargo ship that was part of the flotilla had had its propeller drive shaft cut and there was no doubt it was an act of sabotage. We immediately went to a 24 hour security roster and installed under water lights to increase night-time visibility. While there had been speculation about the level of surveillance we were under – this was the first piece of solid evidence we had that Mossad was in town, towards the end when they had fallen into certain patterns of surveillance we realised how much surveillance we were under – although our Greek comrades knew the whole time, insisting that during meetings all phones not only had to be off – but have the batteries removed as well.
Well it was becoming clear that our attempt at subtlety was not getting us anywhere, maybe it was time to change up? But before we had a chance the Harbour Police turned up and demanded our ships log, which Sandra Ruch refused to give it up, stating “If you take the log, you take me with it” – much respect, Sandra. The Harbour Police’s indecision gave us enough time to mobilise and get enough bodies on to the boat so that taking Sandra with the log was no longer an option. When we came out, I must say, it was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. We were no longer the ABCD tour group, we where part of Freedom Flotilla 2 – Stay Human. We dropped our banners and did what we do best: PROTESTED INJUSTICE. We quickly organised a march through the streets of St Nicolas to the Harbour Masters office, if she wanted the log she could have it along with us and a long list of queries about why the blockade of Gaza had been extended to European waters and questions about under whose authority was this done ?
While on the march we chanted and danced, alivened by the fact we could now openly express ourselves. Unfortunately the joy was short-lived, once at the Harbour Masters office it became clear that the Greeks had run out of bureaucratic hurdles and instead slapped a ministerial edict on us, stating that “No ship bound for Gaza could leave Greece”. The last of the 1000 paper cuts, or as fellow Tahririan Miles Howe described it “Where like a peaceful elephant getting taken down by a wild pack of hyenas – painfully and slowly being ripped apart”.
But this elephant was not out for the count yet, we decided to move on to the boat – the Tahrir was now home : ] Moving to the boat not only made it less likely we would suffer the same fate as the Swedish-Norwegian-Greek cargo boat, but it also lifted our spirits, giving us sense of progress. However this again did not last long and just when I was ready to re-name the flotilla “ready, steady – NO” news comes through that we were going to challenge the extension of the blockade of Gaza to European waters by leaving port without permission from the Harbour Master. Only problem was since we had come out, we had a coast guard boat moored next to us.
So bags packed, all aboard, but how are we going to get around the Coast Guard boat? Then Soha, who I had become already quite close to due our nocturnal lifestyles, comes up to me and asks whether I can help her out. She had been asked earlier in the day whether she would give up her spot on the boat to help the Tahrir get out of port, but she needed a partner in crime – I told Soha that I would do it, but needed to let some one from the Australian delegation know – so I could hand over the communication role and equipment. Soha said that no else could know, and that she would try to find some else, personally I thought phheeewwww! However an hour later Soha still has not found her partner in crime and tells me I’m in – I quickly grab Nick and bring him up to speed with the satellite phone, grab my gear from the boat and rush it back to Soha’s hotel room. At this stage I must admit I had mixed emotions, I had spent the last year organising and fundraising to get to this point – then just before we get to the second last hurdle, I‘m out. On the way back to the hotel I discover that we are going to position ourselves in front of the Coast Guard boat in kayaks in order to stop them blocking the Tahrir in port, we decided on a strategy and race back top the Tahrir.
Once back on board Soha and I start to prepare, familiarising ourselves with our equipment and trying not to show the emotion that was welling up inside – for me at least. Then the call came to get into the kayaks, at first we just played around splashing each other – and even though Soha won’t admit it, I won – we then slipped around the side of boat where the Coast Guard could not see us, waiting for the Tahrir to start its engines – which was our signal to go. We waited for what seemed like an eternity, then the engine roared into life – game on. Much to my surprise we had caught the Coast Guard off guard and made it to the bow of the Coast Guard boat unopposed, once in position I started to think “maybe it would have been better that they did see me paddling into position – what if in their panic they take of without realising where here”. Then much to my relief the Coast Guard begin to shout at us to move, trying to kick us off our kayaks while lowering themselves down to water from both the boat and the dock, even using their fender to shoo us a way like flies. We mange to obstruct the Coast Guard long enough for the Tahrir to get out of port, with almost a five minute head start. What now? As Soha and I looked at each other, neither of us thinking we would get this far and thus had not planned our get away – LEG IT! Or in this case, paddle for it.
We paddled out of port and headed to beach landing around the corner, the whole time focused on Tahrir and its dash for the deep water shoot – “Go the Tahrir, show the world the lengths Israel will go to – to stop humanitarian aid – and hopefully have the world ask: why?” As we approach the beach we realised there was a reception party awaiting our arrival, we tried to paddle for another beach, but soon realised that we were done – we came ashore with our hands up stating that we were peaceful protesters and that we were no threat. Soha and I were immediately cuffed and transported to the Harbour Masters office. Where we were separated and left cuffed in our wet cloths, listening to our future being discussed in raised voices and a foreign language. After an hour or so, John Turnball – not sure what John’s prefix from training was, but if I had to come up with it, it would have been Joyously Technical John. As James Brown would say “John was the hardest working man in St Nicolas” – anyway John brought Soha and I dry clothes, which we were allowed to change into – un-cuffed, but supervised. A short time later we were un-cuffed to eat, and this time the cuffs stayed off. That night we spent at the Harbour Masters office, I later found out that staff did unpaid overtime to keep us out of the cell’s in Napoli, and after seeing those cells while waiting to see the District Attorney the next day, I am forever in their debt.
Later that night, Sandra who had been down to see us several times throughout the evening, came back to Harbour Master’s office and was arrested - as the ship’s owner. This was because there been a “I’m Spartacus” moment on the boat post its boarding, with all 35 crew stating that they where the Captain – keeping in mind the experience of the American Flotilla boat, “Audacity of Hope”, where the only person arrested when it made its dash for open water was the Captain – OH Captain, my 35 Captains.
The next day in the afternoon we were cuffed and transported to Napoli to see the District Attorney about bail – we waited 5 hours for the privilege, but it was worth it, I avoided spending a night in the cells, which once I realised were dual occupancy, scared the shit out of me! Once released on our recognisance to appear in court the next day, we headed straight to the boat to see our fellow Tahririans. As we got out of the car back in St Nicolas, in view of the Tahrir, a round of applause started on board as word spread that we had been released, the cheering grew, and as we approached our 35 Captains – it dawned on me that I have 35 of the amazing people I have ever met giving Soha and I a standing ovation – it was special : ] Then Sandra appeared and the Captains Chorus stepped it up a level – breaking into our theme song -
“Get Up Stand Up,
Stand up for Gaza,
Get Up Stand Up,
Stand up for their rights.”
Stand up for Gaza,
Get Up Stand Up,
Stand up for their rights.”
That night was either my first night of renewed freedom or my last night of freedom for a while – so either way it was party time – maybe not the smartest option. Court was scheduled for 12.30pm the next day, so we had to be there 11.30am – which meant leaving St Nicolas around 10.00am – after a few coffees I was fine. Again there were long delays in Napoli and before the AC was turned on I felt like I was about to faint – a funny story in quite a serious situation, while waiting for the Judge the Tahrir three Sandra, Soha and I all received massagers from our fellow Tahririans, tell me again “why was Israel so scared of us”? Oh right, we’re the only threat to their continued impunity from international law – unfortunately there were no cameras allow in court.
As for the court case, it was like a Sydney horse race, the fix was in. From the get go it was clear the DA, who we already knew was not part of the international solidarity movement, and the Judge, we’re on the same team. On the evidence before the court – some very considered testimonies by the Coast Guard and Harbour Police – our own testimonies – and some impassioned arguments from our lawyers – I started to think we might, just maybe, be in the clear – although that impression came second-hand from a court employee’s interpretation. Still I was taken aback when we were asked to stand, one by one, and convicted, one by one, to 30 day sentences. Then we were asked if we had ever been convicted before, “No you Honour” – SENTENCE SUSPENDED – that was longest five minutes of my life.
Post-court and post several beers, Decisive David sidles up to me and asks, “When is your flight home?” – “I don’t have one” – “Good, this is not over yet !” – the roller coaster continues. So news has come through that some flotilla boats in Greek ports had changed tact and are now requesting to sail to ports in Turkey and Egypt – with some success. So for the next few days we rode the roller coaster, having several meetings that would possibly inform us we were free to leave Greek waters. At first I was trying to convince myself that I could bring my self back up for a last lunge toward the line, but eventually – knowing there was a chance of being deported back to Greece to serve at least my 30 days in general population – I decided to jump ship and join the home team – where I would mind luggage and post it to where ever my fellow Tahririans where deported to. I know that I let a few of you down with this decision, butI was happy that I had realised my limits – something I generally struggle with.
Unfortunately the bureaucratic wall held firm and the Tahrir is still in the port of St Nicolas in Crete – however, because of some of the most committed people I have ever met, the story continues. Firstly, Sylvia and Vivienne decided to join the “Welcome to Palestine” or “Flytilla” imitative – flying to Tel A Viv and stating at customs “I am here to visit Palestine” – this was a short notice call to arms that was impressively responded to, resulting in over 100 people taking part. Some were stopped in their home countries, such as France, where several French nationals were not allowed on flights bound for Tel A Viv – but the majority made it to Tel A Viv and were detained and were awaiting deportation. Not Vivienne and Sylvia though, they appealed their deportation orders and won, setting a legal precedent in Israel. The Flytilla was effective on two fronts – it showed the isolation of Palestinians living under occupation, even convicted criminals get visitation rights – but it also showed that like Greece, France could also be pressured into denying its citizens basic rights to appease Israel and the US.
Then Stephan from the steering committee, and Amira, a journalist, get themselves on the Dignity, the French boat that sailed from Corfu. The only member of Freedom Flotilla 2 to challenge the Israeli imposed blockade of Gaza. Much respect Vivienne, Sylvia, Stephan and Amira – after three weeks on the emotional roller coaster that was Freedom Flotilla 2, I was emotionally and physically spent, but you marched on and it’s a privilege to know people like you.
Well that’s my story, so far, but before I sign off I would like to publicly acknowledge the Sydney working group – Vivienne, Rihab, Raul, Adam, James and Sylvia – for their vision and commitment. The Canadian Boat to Gaza steering committee, your leadership and inclusive decision making was greatly appreciated. Lastly, to all my fellow Tahririans it was a privilege and an honour to serve with you, and I am looking forward to seeing you all in foreign port somewhere in the not too distant future.
* All photos courtesy of Jim Rankin -Toronto Star – and Miles Howe – Halifax Media Coop – Cheers guys.
~ reposted with permission by Sofia Smith