Day 3 – Saturday 24 September
Today is a busy admin day. We meet the Women's Boat to Gaza participants who have arrived so far, some from home and some from the first 2 legs of the Zaytouna's journey from Barcelona. They have travelled 700 nautical miles to get here. We go straight from the introductory meeting into a press conference. The Mayor of Messina comes to welcome us in his "Free Tibet" t-shirt. There are group photos to be taken, a couple of interviews and some more photos.
The plan for tonight is an opportunity for participants to give a longer testimony about why they are here. A number of locals come to engage with participants and a well-known band, with a Palestinian band member, performs. Some of the participants from WBG also perform either through music or testimony. It is a beautiful evening with participants. I go back to my room and write my diary entry. Tomorrow will be a long day so I get to bed early.
Day 4 – Sunday 25 September
After a good night's rest I woke up excited to participate in the non-violence training and to hear from the many women here who have been on previous Freedom Flotillas. What to expect when stopped, when boarded, when arrested, when interrogated and when deported. I've always liked to be prepared. I've also always prepared for things by going to the worst case scenario. Prepare for the worst so nothing anyone does will be that bad. So this morning is my worst case scenario training and whatever we do practically in training I will probably take to an even worse place in my imagination.
The workshop began with the question, what is non-violence to you? For me it is the creative, critical and strategic response to an oppressive situation. Others answered that it was being human, seeing humanity in others and not just passivity. Our boat leader said it is an attempt to obtain your objective by not harming other people either physically or emotionally and for another organiser it was human solidarity in action.
We heard the testimony of Turkish participant Cigdem Topcuoglu who was on the Mavi Mamara. Her husband was shot by the IDF and died in her arms. She said that they did not go to spread violence in 2010 and that we will go again in peace with the Women's Boat to Gaza later this week.
Lisa, our trainer, spoke to us about strategic non-violence: "The USA is a very violent country and culture and we carry that violence in ourselves. I recognise that there is a war being waged on people around the world; a war on immigrants, war on Palestine, war on black people, war on women. When there is war, we can choose to fight or not. And if we choose to fight we can fight violently or non-violently. The power of non-violence is about taking the violence of oppression and bringing it back to their home. Bring the crisis back home. Because the crisis will bring deep change."
It will be very difficult but when in a group then we have to make an agreement and stick to it. It's important to be clear about what will be best for the common good. This is sacred work; it is not a joke or a game. This is about life or death and people could die on this mission, but I hope it won't happen. We must remember that the young Israelis have been trained to believe that we are all terrorists, they will be afraid of us, we must understand that fear can produce stupid reactions.
Today we are going to do a variety of activities and discussions. Usually we would do 3 days' of training but we only have a few hours. We will focus as much as possible on what we must do during this mission.
Power continues because we cooperate. We need to understand the choices that are available to us and what the consequences of these choices are. Our choices will either oppress us or liberate us. It is worth remembering that there are 4 types of power: power over – oppression; power with – shared horizontally; power within – to change the world; power under – we cannot.
Some of the words and phrases from the training that have stuck in my head are: detention centre, holding facility, prison, deportation, arrest, interrogation, imprisoned, detention camp, processed, deported and techniques designed to break your spirit.
Throughout this mission we must remember the women around the world and those in Palestine who are powerful despite their imprisonment, hunger, exhaustion and fear. Trauma is neurological and we must try our best to stay calm and centred. For our 9 days on Zaytouna the laws won't matter; this is all about politics.
We break for tea, or so we think… We are in a corridor at the bottom of the stairs and an unscheduled role play of the Israeli Occupation Forces boarding our boat begins. There is lots of shouting, lots of commands being given, water is thrown at us and some people are being grabbed. After this exercise it all feels more real. Next are the interrogation simulations. This is all meant to prepare us if the Zaytouna is intercepted in international waters and we are kidnapped by Israel. Fortunately for us we have two women who are 70+ on the mission and they have been through flotilla missions before. Our boat leader, Ann Wright, is a retired US army Colonel. She is amazing and kind. I'm not sure how her amazingness was formed in the brutality and horror that is the US military. She stepped down when the US invaded Iraq.
I was really grateful for the non-violence training. We really do go in peace on this mission and I feel a bit more prepared to deal with the provocation that we might have to withstand. Inshallah we will make it to Gaza without incident. I spend the rest of the day repacking and picking up last minute supplies. I have a night watch shift at the port from 7-11pm to ensure that Zaytouna isn't tampered with and then I will head to bed.
Day 5 – Monday 26 September
We meet this morning at 9am to make the final decision about who is on the first boat. Apparently there are whispers that the Amal 2 may not be fit to sail yet, which means only 8 participants will sail tomorrow with 3 crew and 2 Al-Jazeera journalists to report live daily.
I am sitting in the meeting room and the intensity is palpable. Everyone is committed and wants to be on the boat but there are some hard decisions to be made. To complicate things further most participants have to check out of the hotel this morning because the boats were meant to leave today already.
As we walked over to the meeting venue there was a refugee boat rescued by a bigger ship pulling into Messina with about 900 people on board, apparently from Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.
We have just heard that the Palestinian ambassador in Italy will come to meet with us at 4.30pm this afternoon to wish us well.
Overview: we have two boats, the second Amal-Hope is unfortunately not ready to sail as it needs some repairs and the captain won't be able to sail if the timeframe shifts. This means it needs both a captain and crew. Apparently there are few female captains in the world and fewer still who would take on a mission like this.
The meeting was to share this information with the group of possible participants. Also to ask everyone what their own time commitments are in order to have as much information as possible to make the final selection. How to decide who goes tomorrow will be a treacherous process. Of the group, 6 participants agree to wait in Messina to see if the Amal-Hope can be repaired and a new captain and crew can be found; a few people will not be going at all. How do you prioritise one person over the other? The committee adjourns the full meeting to continue their selection work and we all agree to convene at 1pm when the team to leave tomorrow will be announced. I decide to walk across the street to see the refugee ship that has been lifted onto a huge boat to be docked.
I arrive at the palisade fence to see four Red Cross tents, a few other tents and lots of people in uniforms — coast guard, navy, police, some kind of immigration force and military. There are already some people who have been "processed", mostly men, but just inside a tent is a family of four, the youngest child looks about 4 years old. I stand there watching this tragic scene unfold. Who gets to be in uniform, who gets to be legal, who gets to be illegal and who gets to be on the right side of the fence?
All of a sudden there is a flurry of activity and shouting. A young man, no older than 20 has made a dash for the fence. He makes it away from four armed and uniformed people and throws himself at a fence about his height. He is up, he is over, but his foot gets stuck and he dangles on the right side of the fence. He is the "wrong" kind of person so the uniformed people pin him down and then escort him onto the other side again. Why would he run? Isn't he already safe now that he has made it into the port? I don't have words to describe that scene in any more detail.
I walk to the Zaytouna and along the way two high school students recognise my t-shirt and one speaks English. It turns out that she volunteers for a Muslim youth organisation that helps with the migrants who arrive weekly in Sicily. She tells us that the Syrian refugees are allowed to stay in a camp but everyone else is deported within 7 days. Now I understand why that young man had to try and jump the fence. Surviving on an unsafe vessel on a temperamental sea and being herded into a Red Cross tent is not the end; jumping the fence successfully is not the end; hiding illegally is not the end; working illegally is not the end…
At 1pm we are back in a meeting and the participants are announced. I am one of them but it doesn't feel good. So many are crying and disappointed that they will be unable to leave tomorrow morning. On board are the following people: Mairead Maguire, Irish Nobel Laureate; Marama Davidson, Samira Douaifia and Jeannette Escanilla who are members pf parliament from New Zealand, Algeria and Sweden respectively; Dr Fauziah Hasan, a Malaysian humanitarian; Sandra Barrilaro, a photographer and author from Spain; and our boat leader Ann Wright.
I need to get a few more supplies and then be ready to leave at 7.am tomorrow.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.