Monica’s Trip Report

Monica and Siba from Bristol Gaza Link

Part #1

Sunday 6th December

The first 10 days on the road…

Set off amid much consternation. One of our drivers, Siamak from Chepstow, has had his van break down on the way to London. Tony from Berkshire, also driving for the Bristol group, can’t find his passport. We very reluctantly leave both of them behind to catch us up later. A long and uncertain wait at a service station South of London, while we try (and mostly fail) to find an alternative driver to take over the van Tony was going to drive. In the end a lovely young Irish guy volunteers. He’s a film maker, and soon has me working for him, pointing his camera at road signs saying ‘Channel Tunnel’ and at the stream of convoy vehicles, while he drives.

Even when the vehicles are gathering at the first service station, it’s moving and inspiring – as it always is to see human beings moving together in solidarity, coming to the rescue of others in need. Vehicles from Birmingham, Ireland – a couple who’ve travelled from Malaysia, after hearing George Galloway speak. Ambulances of all shapes and sizes, many of them bearing the names of Palestinian medical workers killed during the Israeli bombing.

Wonderful signs and banners – in Irish and Welsh, in Arabic – everywhere on the vehicles. ‘A gift from the people of Wales to the people of Gaza.’ ‘From Birmingham with our love.’ Palestinian flags everywhere. Two men bring sandwiches and pickles out of their van and distribute them to everyone. ‘Your journey to Gaza will be long,’ one says ceremoniously in explanation. ‘Sister, have you seen the van for the Sheffield group?’ a young man asks. I like being addressed as sister. It feels like family. Women of any race are significantly in a minority on this trip, although there are four from Wales, all driving together. Large groups of young Muslim Asian men, and plenty of greying middle-aged white people with big tents and well-equipped camper vans.

After what seem like hours of waiting, George Galloway arrives and says a few words of encouragement. He also emphasises the importance of keeping to schedule over the course of the journey. The Egyptian government, he points out, will be under maximum political pressure from their own people to allow the convoy into Gaza if we arrive punctually on the 27th December, the anniversary of the Israeli bombing.

A brief warning to any hotheads who might be thinking about speeding or overtaking that the convoy leaders will watch out for dangerous driving and order the perpetrators home if necessary, and we’re off, heading down to Folkstone and through the Channel Tunnel. After what seems like endless hours of driving the convoy comes safely to our first overnight stop – the bleak terrain of a fairs and exhibitions parking ground on the outskirts of Brussels.

Monday 7th December

A freezing night spent under canvas or curled up uncomfortably on a seat in a vehicle makes the morning’s discovery of heated washrooms and hot water in the morning especially welcome. ‘We should have slept in here last night,’ becomes the oft-repeated joke of the day.
In a little while the police arrive – I see them talking seriously to a young Muslim woman with an enviable command of fluent French. It’s already 9.30, they point out. They’d imagined our convoy would leave much earlier. We assure them we’re on our way. In fact we’d better wait an hour, they tell us, and avoid the rush hour. I offer to pass on this message, but Amer, one of the Viva Palestina co-ordinators, asks me not to. ‘If you tell them 10.30, we shan’t get out of here till half past 11!’

Off at last, travelling through the flat Belgian landscape, to arrive at a motorway services where we hang about for what seems a long time. I buy what I fondly imagined to be a loaf of good Belgian bread, that turns out to be sub-standard Hovis. (Wonderful what clever packaging can do. )

David is having a great time now, with his filming. He’s enlisted a graduate student named Adriano, also bent on a film project for his university back in the States. The two of them fill the van I’m travelling in with bits and pieces of tecchy equipment. They stick a mike on me, and do an interview. It’s apparently been agreed that ‘Mrs Middle England’ will be a good subject to attract the viewers back home. This is fun for me, but has its drawbacks, as they seem to enjoy pouncing on me in unguarded moments – when I’m emerging from my tent with dishevelled hair and a mouth full of peanut butter sandwich, or unguardedly waving my arms in time to the van radio. They assure me it all will make for very sympathetic viewing, and lead to new awareness of the Palestinian cause. Let’s hope the viewers don’t just think we’re all quite mad.

All the mucking around at the services has made us late. Another pit stop late in the afternoon sets us back still further. Nightfall sees us hurtling round a series of terrifying bends made scarier by rain and darkness, in the direction of the German border. With the different levels of driving competence, confidence and rashness, our vehicles in the convoy’s ‘C’ group are at constant risk of losing touch with one another in the night. Here the radios really come into their own. In between foolish and sometimes surreal banter – ‘Roger? Watch out for the rabbit’ – we manage to convey that the vehicles in the lead need to slow down, that someone is overtaking dangerously – a thing we all have told sternly not to do – or that someone is at risk of falling behind. We are misled – possibly by the optimism of co-ordinators – about the closeness of our destination. A promised forty minutes turns into nearly two hours – but at last, after rolling through the outskirts of Stuttgart, we find ourselves coming to a stop alongside other vehicles at the verge of what looks like a meadow, but turns out to be a piece of wasteland by an industrial estate.

As the few of us who are camping in tents get to work on pitching them, the rain streams down. Bedding, mats, the clothes some of us will sleep in, all are drenched. I foolishly get further soaked by going up to the nearby all-night garage in quest of a toilet, to find that goods are to be paid for at a bullet-proofed security hatch, and that the toilets inside the building are out of bounds till morning. A wet night turns to a freezing one, and we all toss and turn in damp and inadequate bedding until a chilly winter light and the annoying early morning chatter of neighbours send the by now quite welcome news that it’s morning.

Tuesday 8th December

We make an earlier start today – off site by 10.00. I had no idea this part of Germany was so pretty, the thickly wooded rolling farmland, the villages with their steeply sloping roofs, their steepled or sometimes onion-domed and mosque-like churches, the high hills with wind farms atop them. An unsettling moment as we near Munich, when road signs repeatedly flash up the single word ‘Dachau’. A spectre from the past has reared its head among the peaceful, pleasant world of the modern Germany. As we pass the long lines of railways nearby, I realise that these must have been the very tracks used to transport those being borne helplessly towards their fate.

Now we’re climbing, ever almost imperceptibly higher. The cold in the air grows sharper – something we’re acutely aware of, as our van has no functioning heating. We travel through tunnels and among conifer plantations, until the silent shapes of real mountains loom up in front of us, then mountains whose peaks are dusted with snow. In the midst of awe at the inspiring scenery, thoughts all the same turn to how many blankets each of us has for weathering the night.

We stop at a lorry park and garage at Kelversfielden, where a warm if overpriced service station keeps most of us comfortable and entertained till well after nightfall. Here Tony and Siamak turn arrive – Tony having recovered his passport thanks to the honesty of a garage attendant at the place where he accidentally left his passport. Both have driven for 24 hours without sleep. We greet them with pleasure – though I shall be a little sorry to lose the lively company of David and Adriano in the van. (For one thing, Adriano laughs at my jokes, something I can’t expect of everyone.) Most people are sleeping in their vans, but some of us pitch tents on grass near the road. My tent gets drenched again while I’m pitching it – but at least some of the bedding can be dried out in the service station.

Wednesday 9th December

Am woken at 6.45 am from my first warm sleep of the journey by a terrific shouting outside the tent. It might be a hangover from nuke protest days, but I become convinced they’re telling us the police are on their way to check us out. It turns out to be only our group leader Shak telling everyone to get up. ‘Get up, get up – we’re leaving.’ I crawl out of my tent, objecting feebly that no one has mentioned this early start till now. (The Welsh and Irish rebels in the tent next door are lying low meanwhile, and have evidently opted to remain silent. They do so for a good twenty minutes, while I scrabble around, gathering up my possessions in the semi-darkness – thinking evil thoughts about overbearing men, incompetent organisers and unscrupulous people who lure unsuspecting innocents into joining long-distance convoys.) To my objection that no one mentioned the early start till now, Shak retorts, ‘This is not a holiday,’ an answer that leaves me speechless. Later, to be be fair, he apologises for the rough awakening, and promises we will all get fair notice of starting times in future. So all is Lovefest. Shak seems a really nice person doing a difficult job. He has a load of responsibility on his shoulders I do not envy.
Some of us do manage to snatch a coffee and dry out a bit of bedding in the over-heated service cafe before leaving – concessions which improve the mood greatly.

Out ot Germany and into Austria, past the longest queues of lorries I’ve ever seen, possibly stretching for a mile or two – all waiting to cross over from Austria into Italy. Before we’ve gone more than a mile through Austria our convoy is pulled over by police for a spot inspection. Then Sakir, our Bristol Turkish lorry driver at the wheel of our 44-tonne truck, is held back a long time in the queue of exiting lorries – until police pull him over too. They let him go without further incident, however.

At the day’s first pit stop, still in the shadow of the mountains, I get various camera buffs to show me how to work the tiny digital camera I’ve brought with me – a new source of stimulus. I go round the car park snapping everything that moves or doesn’t – the Bristol lorry with its colourful decoration, paintings and slogans on other vans – folk drinking their coffee, mountains, the bus stop, signs in German, etc, etc. The pros with their video cameras are also out and about gathering footage. I get to do my first interview in Arabic.

We enjoy the drive up through the Brenner pass – the tiny steepled villages in the looming shadow of the snow-covered mountains – really snowy now. Mist that is not quite cloud drifts across between peak and peak. Below the big ones, on the still impressive crags, conifers, conifers, conifers … The fields under these dark plantations look like velvet. Where the snow lies thick we see tracks in the snow where people have been ski-ing, and once or twice a ski lift. David, having got separated from his Irish lorry and his co-driver in the ‘F’group, spends another day in our van and is delighted to be freed up from driving by Tony’s arrival, so now he can film in earnest. A couple of times he leans out the open side door to record the amazing scenery, held back from sudden death only by his seat belt as he hangs over the road. That’s dedication for you.

We’d just crossed into Italy and are starting down the other side of the Brenner Pass, when Siba starts shouting excitedly over the CB radio that van number C7 – driven by the women from Swansea – is on fire, and ‘going to explode’. (This prediction, we learn later, greatly disconcerted C7’s passengers, who were convinced their end was nigh.) Fortunately the smoke turned out to come from nothing more serious than an aged bit of fabric or lagging that was getting singed by the engine. Anyway, the whole group stopped for repairs before anything worse could develop. All of us pulled into our first Italian services, where not only the Swansea women, but Siamak and Sakir worked on servicing their respective vehicles. The rest of us had a jolly time. Dave Cole and friends built a snowman, and wrapped it in a Palestinian flag. We all took turns to be photographed with this icon. We were joined by two friendly Italians, who also wanted their picture taken, when they learned what the convoy was about. Dave promised to email them a copy of the photo.

3.00 pm

All slightly frozen ourselves by now, we set out again on the 299 kilometres to our first Italian sleeping point of Modena. How cold will it be tonight? – the inevitable nagging question presents itself.

7.30 pm

Tony, pressing on through the darkness, has been doing a miracle of steady driving, considering his recent lack of sleep. At last we come to the spacious lorry pull-in and services near Modena, where our vehicles are lined up side by side, and those of us who are camping go off to camp. David is delighted to be re-united with the Irish van in ‘F’ group, with his personal possessions and his ‘bedroom’ – a sleeping bag on the floor right on the edge of the lorry’s rear end – which he shows with great pride as if it were a designer apartment. (He seems to have a box of chocolate bars for a pillow, which can’t be entirely comfortable.)

Our convoy’s arrival attracts the curiosity of the locals. There are not one but two minor accidents, as drivers, taken with the novelty of our colourful vans with ‘Gaza’ and ‘Palestine ‘ on them, climb curbs and hit traffic bollards in their excitement. The police are called to sort things out.

Quite a few tents are pitched tonight, as we’re with several other groups whose members go in for tent accommodation. I find a quiet spot at the back of the site, where the silence is broken only by the bellowing of truck horns and the loud humming of a lorry generator. Ah, silent night.

Our night camping in tents and vans round a lorry pull-in and service station near Modena, though windless, was one of the coldest so far in terms of actual temperature, with the thermometer well below zero. There was ice on our tents in the morning. What do you do with an ice covered tent? Not easy to pack it away in a bag. So it sits thawing behind me on the van floor.

As we drive down from the hills into the plain we pass fields full of empty metal trellises that in the summer will be heavy with fruit. Now all is chilly and bare.

Often you come up to the vans or a service station building to find the Muslim men there, all praying together. The fervour, the simplicity of it, is moving. No ostentation, no phony piety. They just find whatever space presents itself – an out of the way corner by the washrooms – under the stairs in the restaurant – out in the carpark if there’s nowhere else, and they do what their faith requires at that time of day. I wonder what the women do about praying? Maybe they pray individually?

Shak has promised, not for the first time, to call us all together in the evening and let us know what time our group is to set off in the morning. This time it will happen, insha’allah. So much easier , especially for those of us who are camping if we have precise deadlines allowing us to calculate how much time for packing up tent, brushing teeth, getting a cup of coffee, etc etc.

Out on the road at last this morning, gliding past flat fields and factories, the occasional stretch of woodland. A farm. Some of the wooded areas look like Suffolk.

We’ve been promised a shared fish meal before getting on the ferry at Ancona today, to cross ovr to Greece. It will be good to spend a bit of quality time together, and get to know one another better.

Thursday 10th December

We didn’t get on the ferry today ! – turns out the ferry doesn’t leave until tomorrow. So we enjoy an afternoon in the beautiful seaside town of Rimini. Francis and I walk on the beach, while some of the young lads play volleyball. Siamak sings and plays his guitar. Mohamed does the most amazing and moving rap about Palestine, and we all cheer. We sit in a teashop till gone 3.00 pm. Buy some fruit in a supermarket called BILLI.

10.00 pm

We left Rimini for Ancona as darkness was falling. Four of our ‘C’ group vehicles almost immediately got separated from the rest of the group, and we spent a crazy, anxious evening chasing round trying to contact the others. Had almost caught up, when we got stuck behind a toll booth and while we were flapping about trying to find which machine to put our money in, we saw the police come and move them on. It was most frustrating – we could see them parked up ahead of us, but couldn’t reach them in time.
After getting lost several times we somehow make it into Ancona, and belatedly find the remote out-of-town car park near a football stadium, where we bed down for the night. A couple from Bradford Selim and Saida – very kindly invite me for a hot meal. He has a market stall business – she was an engineer but found the pace of life working in London too stressful, and now works as a volunteer for the causes she believes in. He seems sensitive and kind – she is full of energy, idealism and creative ideas. Has set up an association of ethical Muslim businesses, and is encouraging people to support rights of the Palestinians. To meet such people is inspiring.

Friday 11th December

10.30 am

We’re at the docks – about to get on the ferry for Greece. Hope the seas are calm.

Saturday 12th December

Think we all enjoyed our afternoon and night on the ferry. Time to wander and look at the wake of the Adriatic flowing behind the boat as it left the harbour. To chill out and chat. Have a shower, a coffee. David is still hot on my case, filming. You have to admire the guy’s commitment ! In the afternoon a meeting was called, of the entire convoy community. A few grievances got aired and ironed out. A common complaint concerns the bleak camping spots where we’ve been staying. It was explained that finding halls to stay in, as opposed to car parks, simply isn’t practical, owing to the sheer number of vehicles with us, and the relative smallness of most civic building car parks. One of the Muslims complained that some ‘sisters’ were not wearing the hijab. He was politely but firmly put in his place by ‘sisters’ of all faiths and none. ‘Our diversity is our strength’ became the slogan of the hour. Kevin gave us the exciting news that 66 more vehicles are to join us in Turkey, and another 47 are being unloaded at Alexandria, coming from the US. This will give us 192 in all! On a more sobering note Kevin has also warned us that even getting into Egypt – let alone into Gaza – may prove very difficult for us this time. We shall see.

At dinner on the ferry later in the evening a Greek man sitting next to me spoke up. He was a bus driver, he told me. ‘Are you with the convoy? That’s good.’ I explained that it may not be easy for us to get into Gaza, in spite of having brought our aid all this way. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘I heard about it on the news.’ So whatever the UK media isn’t covering, other people in the world evidently are.
Spent quite a good night on the ferry, asleep on one of the landings – warm, in a sleeping bag, with earplugs and a scarf over my eyes to shield them from the ceiling lights. One gets quite creative about dossing down in odd places. We all were woken at five, and bustled about getting ready to disembark.

On our way now from the port of Igoumenitsa to Thessaloniki (Salonika), where we shall be staying the weekend.

12.00 noon

The ‘C’ group vehicles have struggled over the Greek mountains from Igoumenitsa, in spite of the impressively smooth new motorway, with its long well-lighted tunnels through at the highest points. We haven’t had an actual breakdown yet today, thankfully – but at times it’s looked as if one might be imminent. The weather has been foggy, mingled with sleet. Snow lying everywhere. Even on the flat terrain where we are now, snow is thick on the ground. We could be anywhere in the world – even in Devon. (So much for sunny Greece.)
Tony somewhat concerned that he may be relieved of his driving responsibilities when we get to Istanbul, and replaced with a Turkish driver from the aid organisation that paid for most of the vans. This would be a pity, as he’s an expert driver, and obviously enjoys this role. Also if the idea is to fill the van with more stuff, what are we to do with the things that are in here already?
Again, we shall see.

Monday 14th December

We’ve spent a very enjoyable weekend in Thessaloniki (Salonika). Our temporary home there was a brand-new sports centre kindly loaned to us by the city. We’re all staying in the basketball stadium, where the young lads spent a great deal of time hurling basketballs around and generally letting off steam. Socialising is done sitting in the stands – or by the foolhardy, seated behind netting on the basketball court floor. (A good place to cop a blow from a flying basketball.) On our first night there the city’s mayor came in person to welcome us, accompanied by two socialist MPs, and there were gracious speeches from the Greeks, and from Kevin, leader of our convoy. They fed and looked after us all the time we were in Thessaloniki. I think we were all quite touched by the goodwill and the kindness.

On the Sunday morning all the vehicles formed up in a long parade, and escorted by a couple of police on motorbikes, toured the city. It was a pity we had to do this so early, as few people were about – though a number of those who were smiled and waved. Lots of photos got taken en route to the seafront, with its bike lane and rows of cafes. (You have to wonder how a relatively small city supports so many. We all lined up in a long, long line stretching along the parade and out of sight round a corner. It looked most impressive. More photos, some with local people. Kevin gave a press conference. Then we all dispersed to enjoy our ‘afternoon off’ in the city centre. Many of us seized the chance to send emails in the internet places and Wi Fi cafes. All the tecchies crowded into the Nikei cafe on the seafront – a place worth remembering to recommend to anyone else going through Thessaloniki on their way to Gaza. I sent a press release to the Evening Post, though I don’t know if they’ll use it, as the photos with it weren’t that good. I’m still learning to use technology bought at the last minute before leaving the UK. Letting my camera battery go down was an elementary oversight that could have been avoided !

Never mind – they tell me there will be lots of good news stories in Istanbul and Damascus – and hopefully accessible internet cafes to send them from.

Part #2

Monday 14th December (contd)

On our way to the next stop we were witnesses to a minor accident. A car had gone into a traffic barrier. An elderly woman, who seemed to be the sole passenger of the crashed vehicle, was wandering along the road in a dazed state towards a young man who was apparently going to give her a lift to the nearest hospital. The driver of the crashed vehicle sat in it, perhaps waiting for the police. The lady seemed unhurt, apart from a small cut on her chin, and we were able to offer antiseptic cream before she got in the other car and was driven away.

Apart from the usual disorientation at nightfall, and several botched attempts to find the night’s camping ground, the rest of Monday was without incident.

Tuesday 15th December

After a night in Alexandropolos, about 30 miles from the Turkish border, we’re on our way to the border, through pelting rain and fog. No wonder the whole area is so green, if they get this kind of rain every day. Pleasant rolling farmland, and mountains away in the distance.
Yesterday we stopped for lunch at Kavala – nice little harbour town with a brand new ferry terminal and cafe. People strolling along the quayside stopped to look at our vehicles and ask what the long colourful line was all in aid of. Tony chatted with an elderly man in German, and he wished us luck on the journey. Our departure from the quayside coincided with the arrival of the ferry – much confusion as disembarking passengers with large bits of luggage tried to negotiate through our moving line of vehicles. Greeks mostly seem to regard such chaotic situations with good humour, and there were rueful smiles and friendly waves as we made our way onto the main street without killing anyone.

Overslept this morning, and woke to pack the tent in a tearing hurry. Then off to a royal ticking off by Kevin – not of anyone in ‘C’ group, but of ‘certain persons – they know who they are’, who are letting the side down by various forms of misbehaviour. As Rachael Milling and I said to one another, it took us back to schooldays. ‘Some girls are not wearing their berets on the bus.’ Kevin has a point, of course – as when one is on a protest camp of any kind, one is in a fish bowl, one’s smallest action subject to scrutiny by the public at large. We owe it to the Palestinians to behave ourselves.

The whole convoy is now queued up at the Turkish border, waiting to enter. We shall be going through Turkish customs today. To write ‘shortly’ would be tempting fate.

We got through customs surprisingly easily – though given our 70+ vehicles, it did take some time. Emerging the other side in the early afternoon we were greeted by groups of people waving and holding Turkish flags. Some of them have driven to join the convoy and are with us now. There’s an organisation here called IHH, that Viva Palestina seem to be working closely with. They’ve sent vans and a big truck. So our Dunkirk-style rescue mission grows and grows.

All through the afternoon as we’ve come through the rolling farmland, where patches of fallen snow have gradually given way to green land under a drizzly sky, other little gatherings have appeared by the roadside. In one, two men held up a large banner that read ‘Welcome to our town.’ Even the men mending the roads stop work to wave and give victory signs.
We travel along by the sea for miles, past seemingly endless lines of flimsy looking beachfront villas, that at this time of year seem deserted.

It’s dark, and we’re about 35 miles from Istanbul now, where we expect to spend the coming two nights. With luck, I should be able to find an internet cafe and send this update tomorrow.

One does feel strangely detached from the rest of the world out here, living in what for all practical purposes has become a travelling village – but it will be very good to see everyone again one of these days, insha’ allah …

Very best wishes, then, to everyone at home.

Wednesday 16th December

Four vehicles, including ours, got lost for over four hours last night, driving round and round trying to find the sports stadium where we were to spend the night. The police were unable to help, though one of our number saw this an easy solution. Then someone hired taxi driver – but after driving round in circles for about an hour this local admitted he had no idea where he was supposed to going. Enormous haggling then ensued about his payment. Someone found the Beykoz Stadium on Tony’s Sat Nav, so we set off again, driving for about an hour – until the Sat Nav instructed us, ‘Get on the the ferry’ (!). At this point it suddenly occurred to everyone that the way forward was to ask the locals along the shore of the Bosphorus. With their aid, and that of the Sat Nav, we finally made it to the Beykoz sports complex at 10.30. It proved to be a beautiful modern hall, where the manager gave us a speech, and laid on hot tea. Heaven !

We still didn’t get to bed, as there was a meeting to sort out the confusion and unhappiness spread by the announcement that Turkish drivers might be taking over from Bristol drivers to take our vehicles the remaining distance to Gaza. It was agreed that sharing both the driving and the expenses would be the way forward, and that all of us should be willing to take on both new co-drivers and new passengers where space permitted. So all went to bed after midnight, more or less satisfied with this agreement.

Not nearly enough sleep this morning – and our day of relaxation turns out to be perhaps more organised than we could have wished. Out at 8.00 am sharp, and down to a place called Feshane, for a press conference with George Galloway. We had to take all our belongings out with us, as we shan’t be going back to Beykoz.

The drive down to Feshane was quite dramatic. All along the road people stopped to wave, as the long lines of dozens of vans and ambulances crawled along the city roads. Even people picking litter, and a man cutting branches off a bush, stopped what they were doing to wave and smile at us. A police helicopter flew overhead, and hovered over the open parking ground in Feshane, while police on the ground directed our vans into the spaces. Locals turned up to give away or sell things – the usual hats, scarves, flags (Turkish as well as Palestinian now), but also to sell cakes and sesame bread. I had a definite impression we were helping in a small way to boost the local economy. Groups of young Turkish women were there in large numbers, as well as men. A lot of the women were students from a theological college, along with staff of the IHH, the Turkish health organisation that has paid for the vans we’ve brought from Bristol.
In due course George Galloway turned up, speaking eloquently as ever. Through an interpreter he thanked the gathered crowd of several hundred Turkish people for attending and for their support for the convoy, a rescue mission for people who are being punished for electing the ‘wrong’ government. ‘To kill children’ Galloway said, because of the way their parents have voted, ‘Is an obscenity.’ ‘It’s time,’ he said, ‘for people in every country to organise aid convoys and come to the rescue of the Palestinian people.’

Part #3

Saturday 19th December

(Or it could be the 20th – getting a bit disoriented here !)

At breakfast this morning we learned a bit more about plans for the coming week.  The Americans are with the convoy now, travelling in buses.  They hope to get their trucks brought from Alexandria and unloaded at a Turkish port in the next few days.  These will then be brought to catch up with the rest of the convoy in Syria.

The Turkish volunteers are with  us, both driving their own vehicles and as passengers in existing vehicles.  Among their vehicles are two worth mentioning – a small garbage truck and an enormous lorry that turns out to be a mobile kitchen.

The Turks bring a new vibrant energy to everything we do.  Our departure from Adana was something between a victory parade and a festival, with people leaning out their car windows, sometimes three at a time, often waving five or six flags at once in all directions.  The young headscarved women are particularly fond of doing this, smiling and making victory signs, while the young children chant ‘Allahu Akbar’ and ‘Free Palestine’.

We drove out of Adana in a flurry of honking horns, fluttering flags, in a long, long line of vehicles, swelled by the cars of well-wishers, while people waved from the pavements.  A majestic mosque, a wide expanse of river – then the industrial zone, then a short  stretch of bumpy road, and now we’re on our way to Gaziantep.  It seems we’ll actually be staying the night there – a chance to dry out some laundry maybe.

Sunday 20th December

A disconcerting start to the day.  I woke in a half-dark room in the sports centre in Gaziantep to find it full of Turkish ladies, some of whom were helping small children get dressed.  Other women lay on the floor still swaddled in blankets.  A few were getting up to pray.  A child was wailing pitifully – toothache, maybe?  The Viva Palestina crowd were nowhere to be seen.  Apparently yesterday’s dinner and social gathering were quite a big event for people from the Gaziantep area, and having come long distances to greet the convoy, some had opted to stay overnight with us.

In alarm, I packed up as fast as I could, and ran upstairs.  I was relieved to bump into David and Siamak, and find them enjoying a leisurely cup of tea.  So the convoy hadn’t left without me, after all.  (In fact it was only six am, and most people were still asleep.)

Managed to get my linen skirt at least half-dried in the electric dryer in the laundry room, where an altercation was going on over who had somehow gone off with someone’s T-shirt – different people’s clothes having all been thrown in the dryer together.

After the usual early morning confusion of manoeuvring vehicles and getting people and possessions crammed into tight spaces, we set off along the road between flat fields and olive groves, to the Syrian border.  A foggy morning at first  – then the fog gradually lifted, though the sky stayed overcast till well after midday.  We can feel it getting warmer, but quite gradually.

Tony gets anxious as we approach traffic lights.  It’s so easy for a vehicle to get left behind the convoy if the lights change to red before it can get through.  As we were driving out of Gaziantep the light did change.  It was a long straight road, with no side turnings and almost no traffic.  To keep up with the vehicle in front Tony took a chance on it and ran the red light, straight past two policemen, one of whom saluted as we shot past.  It’s not often you can flout traffic regs with the open approval of law enforcement.

At the Syrian border the passports and visa seemed a formality – and the anticipated customs inspection simply didn’t happen.  We came through a tunnel of wire and fencing to the Syrian side, and were quickly surrounded by crowds of students, paramedics and volunteers from the Red Crescent, party officials, members of Palestinian groups in Syria, army officers wearing scarves in Palestinian colours over their khaki and epaulettes.  A man in traditional dress poured out coffee for us from a copper spout, while journalists took photos.  At first it seemed all quite formal – the students shy and self-conscious, the officials stiff.  As the open space filled up though, everyone relaxed.  Viva Palestina volunteers posed for photos with medics, or with elderly men with their grandchildren.  Groups gathered to chat.  Reporters hovered for interviews.  The loudspeakers boomed out patriotic music and speeches.  Officials retreated under a canopy to drink tea.  Shak ended up dancing the dabka with a crowd of excited Palestinians.  It feels good to be able to speak with people again in a common language.  I can practice my Arabic – and many more Syrians speak English, than the people we met in Turkey.

‘C’ Group seems to be travelling ahead of other groups for once.  We wondered if everyone following would meet the same kind of enthusiastic reception we have.  Whole school classes seem to have come out along the road to wave Syrian and Palestinian flags and cheer our arrival.  The whole effect seems rather more officially orchestrated than it was in Turkey, but the warmth of the smiles on people’s faces is couldn’t be more genuine.  They all want to see us get through to Palestine.

A chat with a Palestinian man named Mohamed, who’s recently joined the convoy.  Mohamed, who carries a Turkish passport tells me he hasn’t been back to his family in Gaza since 2000, when he was allowed to visit them for one week.  This certainly puts our own minor discomforts on this trip into some perspective.

We’re staying in a hotel tonight – definitely a first for the convoy!  We may be going to sleep three to a room, but still are quite looking forward to the fleshpots of Damascus …

Only 400 kilometres to go.

Part #4

Monday 21st December 2009

11:03am

The convoy was one of the main stories on Syrian TV last night, with footage of the vehicles rolling into town, of ecstatic Syrians greeting us, interviews with volunteers, and one with George Galloway ….

Managed to do an interview with Syrian TV yesterday – so did Steve, a man from Gloucester. People said we came across OK. (Didn’t actually see it myself.)

This in itself might be worth mentioning to folks back home, who probably can’t imagine a national government getting so excited about a line of ambulances – even a big one …

Malaysians came in today – now, with Americans, Belgians, Australians, Brits, French, Turks, we are becoming truly international.

These are the figures – 400 + people and 200 + VEHICLES!

Part #5

Tuesday 22nd December 2009

All safe in Amman now, el-hamdulillah.  Usual kindness and generosity.  A supermarket owner paid my taxi fare down to this internet caff,  and refused even to be thanked.

After the long days of stressful driving yesterday was a wonderful respite for all of us.  A substantial buffet breakfast at the hotel, and then we set out in shared taxis to explore the old quarter of Damascus – some to visit mosques and other ancient sites, others to wander the market.  The latter is a fascinating place.  The shops, in little alleys and covered arcades, seem to stretch on for miles in all directions.  You stumble upon greengrocers’ stalls with fruit and vegetables arranged in symmetrical patterns like abstract paintings – one selling nothing except different varieties of olives.  Others sell nothing but pungent herbs and spices.  On a street corner a man with a barrow and a hammer was breaking open a coconut for a waiting customer.  Two men hung limp flat loaves of bread along rails, like washing hung out to dry.

I wandered about, and bought a jacket (my fleece having been left behind on the Ancona ferry), a tin of shoe polish, socks (my other pair having been last seen in Gaziantep getting run over by an ambulance), a cheese pastry and a bunch of fresh mint for putting in tea later.  Also several copies of a Syrian newspaper. In a small cafe, I ordered a cafe and sat in a corner to read the paper.  It was an all-male cafe, but no one seemed surprised at my being there.  The place was full of smoke from hookah pipes.  Among the dominoes players sat a few scholarly types – students perhaps.  The paper had a full page devoted to the Gaza convoy, including lengthy quotations from volunteers.

In the evening George Galloway gave a press conference, to which all Viva Palestina volunteers were invited.  He said how shameful it was that the UK government had felt obliged to apologise to Livni, after an independent British court had issued a warrant for her arrest.  Livni had a case to answer for possible war crimes, and she had been in the UK when the warrant was signed, contrary to what the public had been told.  Galloway also had a message for President  Mubarak of Egypt, to the effect that the Egyptians will surely want to do the right thing and let us into Gaza – especially on the anniversary of the start of last December’s bombing.

We learned that a new consignment of aid was coming, a gift from the Syrian government.  Some people stayed up late to find space for the new aid in their vehicles – a generous act, as our getting up time in the morning was 5 am.

In the event most of us managed to be up at six, and stagger down to breakfast by seven.  We actually left Damascus between eight and nine.  Tony, Cliff and I got into a terrible flap, about cleaning the windscreens, who was filling the water cans (first time we’ve had to think about doing this), what Monica had done with the key to the van.  We all lost it a bit, and nerves were generally frayed.  Mainly, I think, it was the stress of the early start, and the shock to the system of having to get on the move again.  We were quite civil to one another by the time we came within sight of the Jordanian border.

And here we are – still on the Jordanian side of the border, where we arrived about two hours ago.  Our now roughly 200 vehicles have all crawled, one by one, through an X-ray machine.  It’s nearly 3.30.  Our vans are standing in long lines in the mellowing sunlight.  Some people have been asked to Some of us have got out water bottles and camping stoves, and tea making is in full swing – also a free-for-all football match in the middle of the marshalling yard.  The vehicles are drawn up in wobbly lines of ten each that create odd little side alleys and corners.  Our village has totally colonised this vast  expanse of tarmac.  It’s all beginning to look a bit like a holiday caravan camp without the mud.

Wednesday December 23rd 2009

We were still there on the Jordanian side of the border a little after 6,30 pm yesterday.  A stand-off between the convoy and the Jordanian police, who wanted us to surrender our passports to them – which we were reluctant to do.  (I’ve since heard that this is standard practice for all HGV and commercial vehicle drivers in Jordan, on the grounds that drivers may be intending to sell off their vehicles here while avoiding customs duties.)  However, no one knew this, and the rumour mill went into full swing.  In the end, it dawned that unless we wanted to spend the next few days sitting at the border – and possibly never enter Jordan at all, we really had no choice.  A compromise was arranged whereby some of us handed over passports – one from each vehicle – and the convoy crawled out of captivity.

All along the roads to Amman we had a police escort. The police held us up repeatedly at intervals.  No one knew why, and again conspiracy theories had a fertile breeding ground.  When we were stopped for more than 20 minutes at a time, all the ambulances and vans sang aloud together, sounding horns and sirens, in a hullabaloo that might have been heard 50 kilometres away in Amman.  Jordanian drivers starting getting trapped in what quickly became a massive traffic jam.  Most were very good-natured about it.  There was much waving, smiles of encouragement, victory signs, and ‘God be with you – bless you – where are you from?  – To Gaza, insha ‘allah.’  Drivers wound down their windows and waved keffiyahs as we rolled past. It was a very moving demonstration of support – to me, more touching even than the well-organised demonstrations in Syria, because it was so spontaneous.

We finally rolled into Amman a little after 10 pm.

A generous Jordanian sponsor has arranged for the whole convoy to stay two nights in hotels around the city, so we are more than well looked after.  Some people really need this.  One woman I shared a room with last night slept all morning, as if she’d never slept before.  So thank you, thank you, whoever you are !

We all got given our passports back – so all is well for now.

The Association of Professionals is hosting press conferences at their club.  George Galloway had one last night.  We caught the tail end of it, where he was in upbeat mood. ‘We will camp in the desert if we have to,’  he said, to loud applause.  George is not famous for his love of camping.  ‘Who’s we?’ was heard from a few malcontents.  But it has to be admitted that he has made a powerful impact on public awareness wherever we go – also that Galloway’s connections across the Arab and Muslim world have made a great difference to the convoy’s ability to get this far.  On the whole I personally am happy with the way things have gone so far.  The Jordanians could have really made our life much more difficult than they have.

Someone said – but I can’t confirm – that one Jordanian TV station broadcast a welcome to the convoy.  This may well have been a satellite station, rather than state broadcasting.  The Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds today gave the arrival of the convoy in Amman front page coverage with a colour photo.

Now our thoughts more and more turn to the real challenge – getting from Jordan into Egypt, and persuading the Egyptians to let us into Gaza with our precious cargo of aid intact.

To Gaza, insha’allah !!

Part #6

Thursday December 24th 2009

One of the Jordanian papers carried a blurry photo of the convoy on its front page yesterday, along with the statement that the Jordanian authorities wish to do everything possible to facilitate the convoy’s passage through Jordan.

Our main hosts in Amman have been the Professionals Association.  Yesterday they organised not one but two rallies.  Galloway spoke again, and there were fiery speeches by Muslim brothers, socialists and communists. A common theme, from a whole diversity of political perspectives, was the need for people in the wider Arab world to do more to support the cause of justice for the Palestinians.  ‘They hate this place,’ one man told me, referring to the Professionals’ clubhouse.  One can see why an authoritarian monarchy would not be keen.  After the afternoon rally a Palestinian flag the size of a double bedsheet was spread on the ground, and supporters wrote their names on it in Arabic, and messages to the people in Gaza.

There are four more vehicles with us today – lorries full of medical aid bearing the Jordanian flag, and donated by the Engineeers’ Union of Jordan.  The convoy has been steadily growing almost without our noticing.  There are now 250 vehicles, and over 500 individuals taking part – from 17 different countries.
I knew in theory about the Palestinian population in Jordan.  It’s only when you’re here, though, walking about the streets and talking to people, that you realise just how many there are.  Every other person you talk with says, ‘I have a Jordanian passport, but really I’m Palestinian.’  This applies even to people who were born in Jordan, but still think of Jerusalem or Haifa as ‘home’.

Sat in an internet cafe last night for two and a half hours, and uploaded some bits of film footage, taken with my small camera, to send to Bristol.  Don’t know at all if they’re any use, but I’m learning all the time.  I had no idea how slow the uploading process could be! Got back to the hotel by 1.00 am, thinking my roommates would be worried about me.  In fact they got in an hour after me, having been on similar internet missions.  Viva Palestina really could help all DIY bloggers and photographers a lot by (a) supplying a list of places where internet can be accessed in each town on the convoy route, and (b) arranging transport for groups of people to these places for internet sessions.  Maybe not practical this time, as the convoy is following a new route – but for next time perhaps?  It’s frustrating that we have sometimes to spend an hour or two tracking down an internet connection, and then only have half an hour or so to use it ….

10.30 am

On our way to Aqaba now, to get the ferry to Egypt.  It sails at 1.30 am on Christmas Day.  The actual drive to the port is only two hundred miles – but after that we’re warned to expect hours of delays and bureaucratic pootling about.

We had a briefing last night, and one this morning, at both of which we’ve been warned to expect the unexpected.  The rumour mill is now in full swing.  One person reported this morning that the Jordanian authorities are about to try and stop us leaving Jordan.  This sounds highly improbable to me. I imagine they can’t get rid of us fast enough.

We set off this morning about an hour ago, and now are rolling smoothly along a bumpy tarmac road through stretches of sandy desert.

It was an emotional goodbye in Amman, where whole families had come to the car park to see us off.  At the gate, as the long lines of vehicles slid by, a group of women stood silently and made the sign for victory with tears streaming down their faces.  I wondered how many were cut off from beloved relatives in Palestine, or had lost people dear to them.  Two of the women promised to pray for us.  So many prayers go with this convoy !  Of Turks, Palestinians, Syrians.  Of the Muslims travelling with us.  Of Bristolians …
This is Christmas Eve, but couldn’t feel less like it. Christmas Day will – all being well – be on the ferry.  Tony has brought a cake.

5.00 pm

We stopped on the road twice today, for little welcoming parties.  At the first one there were speeches – Galloway there again.  He is lionised in the Arab world – and certainly is a most powerful, eloquent and moving speaker.  At the second gathering, young men in traditional dress gave us small bags containing cakes and juice.  The people sitting in the tent set up there seemed to be all male, but there was a little group of women with young children, standing by some cars, and I went over to say hello.  It turned out to be a grandmother and her four daughters.  The children seemed bright and intelligent, and not a bit shy.   ‘Do you live round here?’ I asked. ‘We’re Palestinian,’ one of the younger ones said. ‘We live here, but we’re Palestinian.’  I made the mistake of saying that I hoped one day all Palestinians would have their freedom.  At once the tears came.  The woman I was speaking with started wiping her eyes.  The grandmother started crying too.  The family is cut in half.  Those members still living under occupation on the West Bank might as well be on another planet.  And this old lady who has been forced to make Jordan her place of residence can never hope to die in her old home.

To change the subject I started asking about the children – names, ages.  ‘These are the future,’ we agreed.  Two little girls, three boys, none of them more than eight years old.  They all want to be doctors or engineers.  No doubt some of them will be.

Spectacular desert hills now, with the sun sinking down behind them.

Part #7

Tuesday December 29th 2009

It might have been our hunger strike that did it – but somehow I doubt the Egyptian authorities had their appetite spoiled by the thought of Viva Palestina volunteers depriving themselves of food.  More likely it was the quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy that has brought us out of the stalemate of the past four days, of camping and staying in hotels around Aqaba.

As in every country since we entered the Middle East, ordinary Jordanians have worked overtime to support us.  They put up money for hotel rooms for us, fed us free of charge, and allowed us more or less free run of the community centre belonging to the Aqaba Professionals Association.  If it hadn’t been for the uncertainty of waiting, we would have been thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

Am intrigued to learn that one meaning of ‘Aqaba’ in Arabic is ‘obstacle’.

We started our hunger strike – drinking water, but not taking solid food – not so much because we thought it would bring pressure on the Egyptian government, as to signal to the world the difficulty we were in, and raise awareness about Gaza.  And this bit of it definitely worked.  We took over a corner of the community centre compound and put in chairs, mattresses, placards and bottles of water.  Here volunteers took it in turns to sit for the media, holding up placards: ‘Hungry for Gaza – please help us take aid to them.’ ‘Hungry every day in Gaza,’ said another sign, reminding us all that for ordinary Gazans their sacrifice is both involuntary and very real.  Our token protest, which only had to last a day or two, did bring Al-Jazeera, Press TV and the Turkish media to do interviews.  So we thought it justified.

When someone brought the news that a deal had been finalised with the Egyptians, and that we were leaving Aqaba in the morning, we all rushed gleefully and joined in the abundant meal the Jordanians were setting out in the compound for our final night.  A party atmosphere broke out.  Suddenly everyone was laughing at silly jokes and talking nineteen to the dozen.  ‘At last !  We’re going.’

George Galloway made a gracious speech from the compound platform, thanking our hosts in Aqaba for their kindness, and all those who’d helped broker the deal with the Egyptians.

Our friend Leah was distressed.  The delay in Aqaba meant her leave from work had expired, and she couldn’t afford the extra days it’s going to take us to get to Gaza now.  She said tearful goodbyes, while we all assured her of the importance of getting the word out about Gaza and the convoy, when she gets back home to London.

We’ve made so many good friends on this journey.  I’ve no doubt some of us will meet again.

We spent last night camping in the car park where we left our vehicles.  It was a warm night, and most of us seem to have managed a bit of sleep.  I got up early, and found myself making coffee and tea for a queue of people who’d spotted my camping gas stove with a pan of water boiling on top.  There was even time for a spot of laundry – smalls wrung out and put to dry in the back of our van, (not to provoke an international scandal by displaying them in public).  Then out on the road bright and early, escorted by Jordanian police.  An elderly man in Bedouin dress raised his arms in blessing as the convoy went by.

The deal worked out with the Egyptians by Viva Palestina – through a representative of the Turkish government  –  is that we get let into Gaza (insha’allah !), provided we go back to Latakia in Syria, and take ship to the Egyptian port of al-Arish from there.  The Turkish government has generously agreed to fund the extra costs to the Viva Palestina convoy of sailing along the Mediterranean coast in this way.   Why the Egyptian government want us to go this route, rather than via Nuweiba, is anybody’s guess.  Is it because we shan’t need to drive through so much of Egypt in this way, and so will be less conspicuous to their citizens?  Egypt’s co-operation with Israel in enforcing the siege of Gaza is deeply resented by many Egyptians, who both feel humiliated by the complicity involved, and upset at the suffering the blockade inflicts on their fellow-Arabs, the Palestinians.  Gaza has at times been part of Egypt, and the culture there is strongly influenced by Egyptian ways – so the sense of fellow-feeling is all the stronger.

Whatever the reasons in the minds of politicians, here we are, fairly hammering along the road towards Amman – back over 500 miles along the route we came by.  (No stops for receptions this time !)  After that, Syria, and a ship from Latakia on the border with Turkey, for the 19-hour journey that should land us at last in Egypt.

4.30 pm

Apart from two short stops for essentials, we’ve been driving fast all day.  The stops, though, were interesting.  At the first one I went into a roadside grocer’s shop to buy dates and biscuits.  While paying I started telling the shopkeeper our story.  He cut me short.  ‘I know already.  It’s that Hosni Mubarak.’  He turned out to be Palestinian.  Everyone knew what had happened he said, and that we were on our way to Latakia.  He wished us luck, said he’d pray for us.

Next time we got to speak with anyone, it was a group of young men who were laughing and pointing by the side of the road.  They kept pushing one of their number forward – a tubby man with curly hair.  They kept pointing to the convoy, as if urging him to come and join it.  They obviously were getting endless mileage out of their joke.  We called to them and they came over to speak to us.  ‘He’s Egyptian,’ one of them said, indicating the tubby man, and they all laughed again.  ‘It’s not my fault,’ the Egyptian young man said. ‘It’s Hosni Mubarak.’ ‘It’s Israel,’ the others said. Mubarak and Israel are very good friends.’  Further down the road we came upon two people waving big Turkish flags at the passing vehicles as if their lives depended on it.

Is anyone in Jordan actually Jordanian?

A few miles outside of Amman we were greeted by about a hundred people of all ages and both sexes, waving green Hamas flags and shouting ‘Allahu akbar.’  While I was trying to film this impromptu demo, the front of the van filled up with packets of chocolate cream cookies someone was throwing in through the window, and the box after them. The filming done, I had to retrieve my camera from under a pile of packets of biscuits.

I had a glimpse of smiles and waves and headscarves, beards and glasses, and of an elderly lady who was shouting something I couldn’t catch, but which probably was not polite, about Hosni Mubarak.  Then the  victory signs and waving green flags swept behind us, and we were out on the road again.

Part #8

Saturday January 2nd 2009

New Year – 2010 Happy New Year !

This will be a quick update, preparatory to going on an exploration of the town of Latakia. (It is Latakia we’re going from – not nearby Tartous.)

Viva Palestina has found a ferry large enough to carry our vehicles to al-Arish, and it’s expected to reach Latakia some time tomorrow.  Volunteers are sought, to stay with the vehicles during the 19-hour voyage.  As there’s no provision for passengers on board this cargo ship, everyone else is going to fly.

We got here yesterday evening, having driven from Damascus, and have been housed in chalets in a schoolchildren’s holiday camp, within earshot of the sea.  The chalets have peeling paint and barred windows.  Access to the beach is fenced off with wire mesh, but you can look at the waves through the wire.  To us it all seems a bit grim, but no doubt the kids have fun.  There are none at present, as it’s dead of winter – so we have the run of the place.  The camp is next door to the ‘Returners’ refugee camp – now a small town, really.  So we’re overwhelmed with hospitality and welcome.

The uncertainty and delays have taken their toll on people.  Before yesterday, stupid squabbles broke out all over the place.  Over trivia – over who didn’t pay for their coffee, and who mislaid the key to the van.  Aside from our own petty affairs, we learned last night that there have been demonstrations in Cairo, calling for the convoy to be allowed into Gaza.  Some French people were beaten up, right outside the French embassy, and one woman is in hospital.  In telling us this last night, Kevin took the opportunity to remind everyone that now we need to stick together more than ever.

It was good that the night before last was New Year’s Eve, which brought out a lot of goodwill in all of us.  Some of the Turks lit a huge bonfire.  There was singing.  This drew some of the men of other nationalities – then a few of the Western women.  By midnight, as huge fireworks burst all around us in the sky above Latakia (they really like their fireworks round here !)  we were a dozen people round the blaze, all hugging and wishing one another a happy 2010.

As we all said, a New Year to remember.

Jan 2 - Convoy Loading on ULUSOY-6

We’re here at least until tomorrow – probably most of us until Sunday.  So I shall go and explore the town.  All my pens have disappeared – also cutlery.  So it’s also a chance to stock up on basics.

OUR VEHICLES WERE LOADED ONTO A TURKISH SHIP THIS AFTERNOON.

WE HUMANS ARE STILL WAITING FOR CLEARANCE FROM THE EGYPTIANS FOR OUR CHARTERED FLIGHTS TO LAND IN AL-ARISH.

Part #9

Wednesday January 6th 2009

Convoy Snakes and Ladders

The plane was a shuttle service, that left from Latakia airport at four-hour intervals.  All of us in the ‘C’ group were on the second flight, that took off at 8.00 pm.  I sat next to Rachael and Paul Milling (Rachael well dosed with Valium, as she has a phobia about flying).  The plane was loaded to the gunnels, the seats cramped and tiny.  A stewardess came and served us half a cup of fruit juice each.

We can’t have been airborne more than twenty minutes, when it was announced that we were going back to Syria – to Damascus.  One of the engines had failed.  It was at this point Rachael and     I noticed the name of the airline – ‘Sham Wings’ – printed on the sick bags in our seat pockets, and burst into hysterical laughter.

Mercifully, the plane landed safely in Damascus, where we spent a fairly wretched night in the overheated airport.  We were given a complimentary coffee and a sandwich, but after that it was thin pickings for most of us, all our Syrian currency having run out.  We took off at sunrise, and after an hour were in Egypt.

It was a bit startling to walk into the airport building and have a nurse, without saying a word, jab a thermometer half-heartedly in the direction of my ear.  Testing for swine flu, I suppose.

We spent hours in the airport, waiting for everyone to get a visa put in their passport.  The Red Crescent brought us food and drink in cardboard boxes labelled ‘Beik Sweets’.  By the time everyone had got through these, the place looked like the aftermath of a particularly manic children’s party, and I pitied whoever would have to clear up after us.  As for the bureaucracy, it was more of a nightmare than usual – complicated by an unholy alliance of Egyptian shambolism and Viva Palestina laid-backness and general disorder.

When we were finally allowed to go on the buses brought to take us to rejoin our vehicles at Al-Arish harbour, our luggage had mostly disappeared, having been flung into the holds of the buses without our knowledge.  (Most of it did resurface, scattered about in dusty heaps in the harbour compound, but we couldn’t know this for sure when we got on the buses, and had to trust and hope.)

Then a major incident arose.  Two of us were inexplicably refused permission to enter Egypt.  (This was odd, because three others who had originally been told they were on a ‘banned’ list had been finally allowed to enter, and these two new ‘rejectees’ – both men – seemed to have had their names more or less picked out of a hat.)  On the bus where I was sitting,  a big argument broke out over what to do.  Should we leave for the harbour without the two men, and get George and Kevin to negotiate, or should we refuse to leave, and send for George?

The discovery that the police had tried to lock us on the bus triggered an enraged stampede on the part of some of the young men, who forced the doors open and got out onto the airport steps.  Some of us followed, and we all stood around – police of all ranks, airport officials, no doubt some plain clothes agents, three women – two of them in Islamic dress – like the cast of a comic opera.  A great deal of posturing and arm waving ensued.  A young white convert to Islam raised his arms to the sky, roared and ranted in Arabic like an old-time prophet, till another brother took him aside and calmed him down.  He clearly wasn’t helping.
We managed to talk to the two ‘banned’ persons through an open window in the airport window, and to establish that they, at least, would appreciate it if we did our best to stick around.  So we all sat down on the airport steps as if posing for the school photo.  Seeing us relax a bit, the officials also started to relax and joke among themselves.   We waited for our Leaders to come and help sort things out.  In a little while Kevin did arrive, accompanied by a man named Ron who he introduced as a friend of George Galloway.  They went into the airport and after a while came out all smiles, amid applause, accompanied by the two allegedly dangerous banned persons.

One of our number has been less lucky – but it has to be admitted that he seems to have brought his misadventures upon himself.  Just before we left Latakia, we learned what had become of David, the likeable young film maker who volunteered to drive C6 from Folkestone to Germany.  Though only a handful of specifically named persons were allowed to accompany the vehicles on the ferry from Latakia to Al-Arish, David apparently let his enthusiasm for his film get the better of him, and  stowed away on the boat.  When he was found and dragged out of hiding, the captain was said to be furious.  The captain could have lost his job for harbouring a stowaway.   So David has been shipped back to Turkey, and is banned from the convoy.  While one can’t defend what he did, I shall miss his cheerful company, and his charm.

We spent a troubled night encamped on the dockside at Al-Arish.  Who it was who started throwing rocks over the gate from outside the compound, is open to speculation.  There are so many versions of what happened last night that it’s all swaddled in confusion, even for those who were there.  One can really only say that people believe what they want to believe.  The most likely theory is that government provocateurs threw the rocks to get the young hot-heads of Viva Palestina to react, thereby making us all look like hooligans in the state-controlled media.  (One member of the port staff told me privately that he blamed the police.)  If this was the plan, unfortunately it succeeded, and more than a few have-a-go heroes came forward from our camp, ready for a running battle with the forces of the Egyptian state.  Seven people were arrested – including anyone with a large film camera who looked as if they might be recording independently.  (These were later released.)  Quite a few people sustained cut heads and bruised arms.

Interestingly, it seems that the Egyptian police were not altogether acting as one.  Several eye-witness accounts have it that some of the ordinary riot police actually lifted their shields to cover the bodies of elderly Americans who were trying to get back into the compound as the ruck began.  Unfortunately this gesture was misinterpreted by onlookers as an act of violence, and only served to fuel bystanders’ rage.

I really can’t comment further on this incident, as I was inside my tent most of the night.  I woke fitfully from time to time, wondering why the neighbours were making more noise than usual.  At one point I opened up the tent to find the ground drenched, as if it had rained, and someone said, ‘That was when the police used the water cannon.’  Maybe the chest infection was making me feverish – but anyway I didn’t believe it.  I was so fed up and exhausted by this time that I scoffed off even this dramatic statement as a feeble excuse, and finally fell into a deep, deep sleep. I have a hacking cough (easing slightly after a quiet day by the harbour).  But I have partly lost my voice.

This may be a great relief to some people, I don’t know.

5.50 pm

We’re all at the port gates now, waiting to get out on the road to Gaza.  The Egyptian police are checking and double-checking everything – so the whole process is set to take a while.  At this rate, if there are checkpoints all along the roads, we may not make it the 40 km to Gaza tonight.  Or they may whizz us there, to keep the convoy as little seen as possible.  Only time will tell.

One huge disappointment – though everyone tried to put a good front on it – is that the 59 American vehicles will not be allowed into Gaza.  Rather than have them handled through Israel – which probably would result in them never arriving in Gaza at all – it’s been decided to hand them over to Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon.  There seems to be little option .  It’s particularly sad, though, as apparently many of these vehicles have been specifically requested, by type and make, by medics in Gaza, who evidently knew exactly what they wanted them for.

It all sums up the injustice of the siege, and the hardships it inflicts on ordinary people.

Part #10

It’s done, al-hamdulillah, and we’re all heading home.

There’s a lot I could say about the last days of our convoy adventure, but I don’t want to be hasty – and no doubt plenty of other people will have their views, and probably better information than I do.

So it will be enough to say here that we did finally get to Gaza – with all Bristol aid intact (and indeed every other scrap of aid, with the exception of the 59 American cars, that unfortunately were not allowed to go through).  Siamak Alimi has told me what ‘s been done with most of the Bristol vans and ambulances, and it all sounds very sensible.  Siamak will be able to give details to anyone who’s interested.

Our van C6, that brought Tony Gratrex, Cliff Hanley and me so dependably from London to Gaza, has been given to the Gaza Baptist church.  With Tony’s consent, we also gave them all the boxes of stationery, schoolbooks and other aid from Berkshire, as they have children’s projects that could use these.  (If they can’t use anything themselves, they’ll pass it on to someone who can.)

I was able to give Isam Farah the letter and picture from the Friends at Bristol Area Quaker Meeting.  He gave me a very nice plate of home-made biscuits – most of which got distributed to the many small children who were hanging around in the street outside the hotel, watching all the funny foreigners getting ready to leave.

It was a great shame that Isam Farah and I were only able to speak briefly, and take a hasty photo in the hotel lobby, just as we were all about to be whisked away on a bus back to the Rafah border.  Never mind – the connection has been established, and hopefully we can build on this.  I gave them both the keys to the van, plus two copies of a letter stating that Bristol-Gaza Link authorise them to have it.  This church has a very good reputation for practical, caring work on behalf of the people of Gaza, so I feel sure they will find a good use for C6.

To end the story, I’ll allow a few last pictures to do the talking: –

0632 – Bomb damaged house.
There’s surprising little evidence of bombing remaining.  In the bus out of Rafah we passed flat grassy areas where, we were told, there once were groves of trees.  A few ruined buildings.  Given the dire shortage of building materials, much of the bomb site rubble has already been recycled.  It all looks deceptively peaceful.  Even so, there was bombing on the second night we were there.  Forty people were injured, they said.

0634 - A man harvests his cabbages in a field beside the road to Rafah.Even in a war zone life goes on, and Palestinians have perfected the art of coping in the midst of war.

0652 - Welcome to Palestine

0644 – Palestine flag flies at Rafah crossing.

0611 – With Isam Farah (right), and Farid Ayad of Gaza Baptist church. Mr Farah is holding the picture given him by Bristol Quakers. It's taken from the Quaker tapestry, and represents the basic Quaker principles of Peace, Equality, Simplicity, Truth, Justice.

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