(source: Radio 786 Website)
The Israelis called the attack on the Gaza aid flotilla, “Operation Sea Breeze” – a rather mild name, for a brutal attack on humanitarian activists.
As the boats were in international waters, Israeli soldiers illegally boarded the ships during the waqt of fajr. I remember dozing off on Sunday night, and waking up to the sound of the fajr athaan, and then the sirens going off repeatedly. We were told to put on our life jackets, and women were told to remain in their quarters below decks.
Those of us in the women’s quarters sat and waited for any kind of news on what was happening on the ship. We heard voices of people we had joked with just the day before, telling us that armed soldiers had shot and injured several activists on board the ship.
We heard: “Stop shooting, we are unarmed” several times over the intercom – from the background noise we could determine shouting and gun fire. About three hours passed of sitting and hearing those screams and calls for mercy, and then we were told to go upstairs.
The steps that we had climbed so often before the attack were now covered in blood. Blood smears clung to the walls, and then when I looked up, I saw three bodies wrapped up in white cloth lying on the floor – their blood seeping through, while others were being tended to by medics.
We were told to remain seated and not to make sudden movements.We found a booth, I managed to get a window seat, and staring through the window directly opposite me, was an Israeli soldier, only his eyes were visible, with the tip of his rifle peeking past the windowsill. I took a look at the soldiers that were lined up outside watching us through the window, and they looked like teenagers. And I remember thinking that these teenagers probably saw the attack as a training mission – I couldn’t understand the hatred that these soldiers exhibited, even through the windows, even as they stood there armed to the teeth, with all kinds of weaponry at their disposal. Soon the injured were allowed off the boat – they were taken out on stretchers, and doctors had to raise their stethoscopes to show the soldiers that they meant no harm. Men were carried out with wounds to their backs, chests and heads. And then the dogs started barking. And the chopper noise filled the tense air. The window I was seated at couldn’t close properly, so the force from the chopper’s rotors forced sea water, and cool air into the cabin, and splashed my face – a welcome relief as the Israelis had disabled the air-conditioning. We were then told to leave the cabin one at a time, and were only allowed to take our passports, money and medication. We were searched from head to toe; I wasn’t even allowed to keep my phone’s sim card, and then we were bound with black plastic ties – some more tightly than others. I was directed upstairs to the top deck to sit in the sun – we weren’t allowed to speak, and we had to beg for water and for a tarp to be lifted over our heads. A pregnant woman had to ask repeatedly if she could go to the bathroom, and it took several entreaties before they would let her. One of the men, then made the athaan for thur salaah, and before we could do anything about it, the soldiers said we could go back down stairs to rest, they said. The women were uncuffed, but the men would remain bound until we arrived in Ashdod. The cabin was ransacked. I saw my microphone and my battery packs strewn across the floor, and when I made to pick them up, I was shouted at to leave everything. And so we sat while the Israelis lined the cabin watching us. Some of us dozed off, while others sat in silence. The captain’s wife and two year old son were allowed down from the bridge. And as we played with the baby to keep him busy, the soldiers looked on, the baby unnerving them. What had become clear about Israeli soldiers and the Occupation of Palestine is their funding and how they operate; one of the soldiers standing nearby had a black cylinder that was attached to something that looked like a rifle. On the cylinder were the words ‘made in the United States of America’; the relationship between the US and the Israeli regime proven in black and white – quite literally. We sat like that for several hours until we arrived in Ashdod, where Israeli officials boarded the ship and told us that we would be home soon. We would undergo medical checks, be given something to eat, call our families, have our belongings returned, and be deported. But one of the activists, Osama, got up from his seat, and started berating the Israelis for what they had done; calling them cowards, pirates, kidnappers, and shouting Palestine liberation slogans. We didn’t see Osama again – he was pushed outside in the blazing hot sun, to kneel there until the soldiers saw fit to release him. One of the activists demanded that Osama be given water while he was outside, and after much complaining – Osama was taken inside and we heard punching noises and cries of pain. The activists’ calls for mercy were rewarded with a different torture. And so we waited, we had to negotiate with soldiers on the conditions of going to the toilet, and we couldn’t make any sudden movements. I eventually left the boat at around midnight. We stepped off the boat, and were met by teenage girls dressed in t-shirts with the words, “Israeli Navy” on the back. They wore big combat pants and army boots. I was hooked in by one on each side and escorted to a tent, to be searched. Some women were asked to strip, while others weren’t – nothing about their methods was consistent. They checked the hems of our clothes, in between our toes, our hair. And when that was done, we were taken for a medical check, and then ‘processed’. There were several desks underneath this huge tent, equipped with computers, printers and a camera. I asked the officials – two men – if I could speak to a member of my embassy, and I was told, “This is Israel, you don’t get to see your embassy” and then I asked for a lawyer, and they said, “you get a lawyer in Europe, this is Israel”. And then they would ask questions, like did you know that you were threatening Israel by being on the boat at – I can’t remember how far from the shore – and when I said I’m not a sailor, I don’t know, the one told the other, put down “yes”. But while all of this was going on, one of the officials was flirting with my teenage escorts. So that was the kind of “interrogation” we underwent. I was given a blue form which basically said that I admitted to being a threat to the Zionist state. I refused to sign it. We were then corralled in a waiting area, and then sent to be fully searched again. I was then sent out in the pitch of early morning, and put into a van with no windows, and the door was slammed shut – I had no idea where I would be taken. I sat like that for a few minutes, when someone else from the flotilla was put in next to me. I don’t know for how long we drove, because I fell asleep. When I woke up, we were outside a prison. We were put four to a cell, and told that we were lucky, because it was a new prison. Being held hostage in general I’m sure is no picnic, but being held in a foreign country, against your will, with no contact with the outside world is probably one of the more nerve-wracking and stressful experiences I’ve ever had. When we arrived at the prison in the pitch darkness (checking my watch it was around two o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, June 1) we did not know what to expect; we had already undergone three body searches, had our belongings stolen, and subjected to several kinds of torture. The air-conditioning had been turned off with no real ventilation – it being a prison – the windows were sealed shut, and we weren’t allowed to call our families. Later that morning, we were served with raw vegetables and bread. One of the Turkish women sat in silence, she wouldn’t eat wouldn’t speak – I later found out that she had witnessed her husband being shot and killed by an Israeli commando. Some women were concerned for their husband’s safety, as we had had no contact with them since we left the port. When they asked the wardens after them, they were told everything would be ‘sorted out soon’ with no indication of when that would be. Later that afternoon the embassies started trickling in, and being the only South African I was concerned that my embassy wouldn’t know that I was there. But they arrived, and I was told to agree to be deported, which basically meant that I would be admitting to a crime that I had not committed. I sometimes wonder what would have happened to me if I had not signed – I hear the Israeli legal system is not foreigner friendly. The next morning, we were told to get dressed; we were all going home. We were loaded into a prison van with slits at the top so that some light came through, but so that we couldn’t see out – doubt started creeping into my mind as to whether we were really being deported, or just transported to another prison. We sat in the van, along with small cockroaches that scurried across the walls, and were driven to Ben Gurion airport. There we had our passports stamped and found out that the Turkish government would ensure our safe passage to Turkey. Three Turkish airplanes stood waiting for every person that was on the Free Gaza Flotilla before we left Occupied Palestine. And so we waited until about midnight before take off – we spent about 12 hours on that plane, as members of the flotilla trickled on board – some with minor injuries, some with more serious ones. One man came on board and said, that they were attacked on the airport as well, showing us his broken finger, and another man had to be carried up, because his legs had been reduced to spaghetti. We later found out that we were delayed because they were waiting for the leader of the IHH, Bulent Yilderem to be released, and while we waited, armed soldiers started surrounding the planes, and I thought we may be in for another encounter. I remember thinking from my view on the plane, that those buildings and trees looked rather insubstantial. It looked as if should a very strong wind decide to blow across the occupied lands, Israel would be no more. The irony of the attack on May 31st, is that when initial plans were made, and when the boats started sailing, mainstream media either didn’t know, or didn’t care that aid was going to Gaza Strip. And I seriously doubt that I or any other of the journalists or activists would have received such a welcome or attention as we did when we arrived in our home countries. So when 700 international human rights activists and journalists embarked on the aid mission to Gaza Strip, it was as a symbol of solidarity, and a declaration to the world that being oppressed is not a normal state of being. When Israeli soldiers illegally boarded the Mavi Marmara and the other aid ships, in International waters, 700 people became instant witnesses to Israeli brutality. And even though the Israelis blocked the ship’s communications, footage still got out of the attack, the world could not turn a blind eye to the Israeli regime’s modus operandi. The question is: does the new movement of the Freedom Flotilla constitute a chance for the international conscience and the Arab and Islamic worlds and international organizations to undertake their humane and moral obligation and take action to break the siege imposed on people in Gaza. I realise that we have our own Palestine right here in South Africa, but the reason that Palestine exists is because of what it symbolises; resilience and resistance against a tyrant occupier – Palestine is a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit. Today is the 31st international commemoration of Quds day; today we join people of conscience worldwide, in expressing our solidarity with the oppressed and exploited of the world in general and Palestine in particular.
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