Waiting and more waiting beside the sea
Christmas Day was marked by convoy members in various ways. Muslims went to Friday prayers in the local mosque during the day, and an interfaith candlelit ceremony was held on the steps of the local Greek orthodox church after dark.
Meanwhile, one convoy member, dressed as Santa, appeared on Al Jazeera explaining that Gaza was the only part of the world where he had been unable to deliver presents that morning.
The general feeling was one of optimism, but there was much anger at the continued news blackout in the mainstream British media, and frustration at the closeness of our final destination. While the convoy’s situation and the plight of Gazans under siege was the lead story on Al Jazeera and many other middle-eastern TV networks, the British corporate media preferred to fill their air time/print space with items of such vital import as the potential life expectancy of a fascistic old Pope and the unexpected arrival of snow in winter.
In the evening, a large contingent of volunteers gravitated towards the beach, where the sounds of singing and general merriment drew a crowd of locals into the party.
Boxing Day was a day of rest for those not busy in internet cafes, but by 27 December, the anniversary of last year’s war on Gaza, and the date on which the convoy had hoped to arrive in Palestine, the mood had changed.
We marked the anniversary of the start of the war with a three-minute silence at 11.20am, which was broadcast live by Al Jazeera and covered by several other TV networks, including our embedded Turkish, Malaysian and Press TV crews. The names of the 15 martyred medics, deliberately targeted during the Gaza assault as they tried to reach the wounded, were read out in turn, along with the dates of their deaths.
Following this tribute, we left the compound and staged a solidarity protest at a major road junction nearby. Around 20 members of the convoy also started a hunger strike to highlight the plight of those going hungry in Gaza every day, and to protest at Egypt’s refusal to allow the convoy into Gaza via Nuweiba.
After the main solidarity demonstration, a smaller protest took place outside the Egyptian consulate in Aqaba, while on the beach more convoy members took Viva Palestina banners out into the Red Sea and onto the pier.
That evening, candles were lit to commemorate the 1,400 people killed during Israel’s 22-day assault on the Gaza Strip. Having missed the main vigil, a few of us staged another, smaller one down by the beach later on.
The hunger strike was called off the next afternoon following news that an agreement had been reached with Egypt that we would agree to travel via the Mediterranean port of El-Arish instead of the Red Sea port of Nuweiba in return for an undertaking to let all the aid and all convoy members into Gaza once we arrived in Egypt.
So back we drove, all the way through Jordan and into Syria once more, arriving late on the 29th at the Sahara hotel complex in Damascus, while Viva Palestina scoured the Med for a boat or three that would be able to get all the vehicles and all the people across the sea and be suitable for landing in the low-tech, shallow dock at El-Arish.
Two days later, we were on the move once more, heading for Lattakia in Syria, where we were put up in the Palestinian refugee camp while further negotiations were conducted. Not only was it hard to find the right sort of boats, but there were many firms who simply didn’t want to get involved with shipping cargo that might upset Israel and possibly cause them to be attacked. Meanwhile, written confirmation of Egypt’s agreement to let us all in was proving elusive.
Two days later, a Turkish boat had been found that was willing and able to carry all the vehicles to El-Arish, the only snags being that it first needed to make its way from Libya to Lattakia, and that it was a cargo ship, which meant that separate arrangements would have to be made for the drivers. So while we waited for the boat to arrive at the port, the organisers got to work chartering a small plane that could shuttle us all in several trips to El-Arish.
In the end, we waited four days in Lattakia, but the wait was made easier by the spectacular hospitality and generosity of the people, both in the camp and the town. In the camp, Palestinian families were queueing up to take convoy members home for food and showers, offering us beds and generally treating us like long-lost relatives. In the town, Syrian stall-holders and cafe owners went out of their way to be friendly and helpful, making gifts of food, giving discounted rates for hotels and internet and generally proving by the intelligence of their conversation to be a very civilised, well-educated people.
A day and a half after we had loaded our vehicles onto the boat at Lattakia, Viva Palestina finally received written confirmation from the Egyptians that our planes would be allowed to land in El-Arish and that all volunteers would be taken to the port to be reunited with their aid. Of course, it didn’t prove quite that simple. The first plane-load to arrive found themselves issued with emergency exit visas and were told they would be taken straight to Rafah.
A night of negotiation coupled with spirited protest ensued (publicised by Al Jazeera), following which the customs officials backed down, cancelled the exit visas and took the volunteers to a hotel to await the arrival of the rest of the convoy.
Meanwhile, the second plane-load of volunteers was held up by engine trouble, which meant that the plane was diverted to Damascus airport and a replacement had to be found. On arrival at El-Arish, more shenanigans ensued as customs officials, having failed to stop three convoy members they had given advance warning would be refused entry to Egypt, decided to detain three others instead. A combination of negotiation and protest carried the point in our favour once again, however, no doubt helped by the pressure of the last group of volunteers who were queueing up outside the building to be processed, having just arrived at the airport.
So now, as the sun goes down on another unpredictable day, we’re all here in El-Arish port, people and vehicles reunited and aid all in tact (thanks, Shak!) After all the delays and extra costs, Gaza is only 40km away, but there’s no way of telling what other surprises the Eyptians might have in store for us, so we’ll be sleeping (or not) in the vans and waiting for the go-ahead tomorrow morning.
Some more things we have learned since the last things:
1. Just when you thought you’d got everyone sussed out, the convoy can reveal new friends to surprise and entertain you.
2. Some of these apparently nice people may turn out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing, however. Do not trust people who attempt to induct you into strange, massochistic, swearing-related rituals.
3. You cannot cure people of swearing by punching them repeatedly on the arm. Claiming to he hitting “with love” will not make the bruises any more acceptable.
4. The sky in Syria is always luminous.
5. Sloe gin is the official taste of Christmas and will liven up any bonfire party.
6. You are never too old to have a little dance around the fire on New Year’s Eve. Even if you thought you were, the moves will come back to you if you let them.
7. If it’s been a really long time since you danced, it’s probably a wise precaution to get all those nearby drunk before you start. That way, they’ll be too sahamed of their own behaviour to remember yours.
8. Conversation by the sea is a fine way to see in the new year. Be aware that the tendency to talk nonsense increases as the hours go by, however.
9. A sea breeze is the finest lullaby known to man, and will compensate for the lack of almost any other facilities. It is better to sleep in your clothes listening to the waves and the wind than to hide in some anonymous hotel.
10. The above point is especially true when you are surrounded by people offering to let you eat, shower and do your laundry in their houses.
11. Boats need good weather for sailing. This is not a conspiracy. Weather-induced delays are probably the one thing we can’t blame on Egypt or Israel.
12. An airport is not a fun place to sleep. This is especially true when said airport proudly and inexplicably advertises the fact that it is heated to a sauna-like 28 degrees all night long, and when attempts at sleep are regularly interrupted by announcements to let you know that you won’t be leaving any time soon and may as well get some sleep.
13. There’s a reason your mobile service provider sends you messages about how expensive data charges are when you’re abroad. Ignore them at you peril.
14. The modern world is strangely hard to navigate without a mobile phone/internet-ready device of some kind.
15. Without Egypt’s complicity, there would be no siege of Gaza.
16. Throughout our journey, the middle-eastern media has done a spectacularly good job of highlighting this fact. Every last detail of the difficulties made for the convoy have been detailed and discussed.
17. Muslim or not, the only phrase that properly sums up the state of mind arrived at when you have lost all faith in the ability of projected plans to come to fruition is “Inshallah”.
18. It seems almost impossible to believe that this time tomorrow, we will all be in Gaza … inshallah.