Here I am again. Sitting before this blank computer screen barely able to put my fingers on the keys, holding my breath and wondering if this little lap top can possilby absorb all my grief and frustration or capture the bits and pieces of thoughts that are flying through my head.
How can it? How can I?
Grief, gratitude, frustration, friendship, determination, powerful, powerless…my trip to Cairo for the Gaza Freedom March was surreal, and weeks beyond my return the only word that comes quickly to mind as a description is intense.
I have talked and written about the siege and blockade of Gaza. As noted in an earlier post, to talk about it in the abstract is one thing, but to actually come to Egypt and find that Gaza is harder to visit than a prison is something else. Not only did Egypt revoke permission for us to enter Gaza through Rafah, but they also kept us from even getting close to the border. Buses hired to take all the marchers to Gaza were prevented from showing up, and small groups who tried to get to Gaza on their own were stopped and turned back, or put out along the way. Unable to get to Gaza, the nearly 1400 GFM delegates spent our time on the streets of Cairo, figuring if we couldn’t get to Gaza we might bring Gaza to the streets of Cairo and the attention of the world – gathering in nonviolent protest throughout the week. We were met with Egypt’s military and riot police at every event we organized. At one point, we were under what was essentially house arrest – not allowed to leave our hotel and our phones were blocked. Our short stint with house arrest was not the only time our phones were blocked. With phones blocked , no internet in the hotel and gatherings of over 6 people illegal we found ourselves literally cut of from communicaiotion for hours at a time.
Not that we didn’t gather. We did.
The Egyptian government made it clear they did not want us to protest in Cairo,to be visible on the streets, to be interviewed by the press, to interact with Egyptians. We did all that. Every event was met with Egypt’s military and riot police. We were followed by Egyptian secret service everywhere. At times the days and events all run together. Daily breifings in the lobby of the various hotels were followed by protests at key spaces throughout the city: the UN building, the consulates of the various countries represented, the Israeli consulate, etc.
Yes, at times the events all run together and I seem to have lost any sense of a linear time line. And yet specific moments stick out.
Our rally at the World Trade Center Building – home of the UN (yes, really.) MPT members stood upon the small wall of a raised flower bed type structure with others holding a Palestinian Flag and a Banner “Women of the world say Free Gaza”….signing, dancing, chanting and being with others who claimed space in front of the UN delcaring it to be the Gaza Embassy. Quickly surrounded by Egyptian riot police who told us to get down, while smiling and quietly thanking us for being there as they shuffled their own feet to make room for ours atop the small planter wall. Until the order was given. On command the young men pushed us backward roughly. Several in the crowd responded with loud voices and expressive gestures. Quickly things started to escalate – particularly between the soldiers and a group of young Italians. With nothing more than the briefest of eye contact our MPT affinity moved from the role of demonstrator to the role of violence reduction peace team in a moment. Placing ourselves between the line of riot police and the rest of the demonstrators. Joking w/ the Italians and prompting anohter round of “Bella Chao”. Talking with the soldiers sharing protest songs, children’s songs and other folk tunes. Laughing at the commonalities and differences. Each time a group of the young men would start to get too friendly they’d be replaced by a “fresh group” who would initially tell us they didn’t speak english – only to shortly thereafter be trading songs and language lessons.
Another memorable moment was the US embassy. Riot police, K9 units. Penned in from the moment we showed up. We’d heard of several other delegations who have had successful meetings with their embassies, most notably the French. For several days, the French had camped out at their embassy and been joined by their ambassador and embassy staff who have stood with them in solidarity. While not expecting the same reception, I did think they would at least attempt to maintain the illusion by sending some low level person out to smile and pretend to listen to our concerns. HA — was I wrong!!! When access to our embassy was denied, the Americans linked arms in groups of threes and marched to the gate where they held up their passports. Within a couple of minutes, one of the Americans was on the other side of the fence and on the ground. She yelled for help as she was surrounded by a large group of Eqyptian Security personnel. GFM delegates surrounded her as well “pulling” her back from the security personnel. Egyptian plain clothes police, uniformed police, and riot police as well as numerous Egyptian “security” officials continued to grow in number— along with an American K9 unit. Kim and I were able to document the situation although, at several points we were warned not to photograph or take notes. And on more than one instance security threatened to or tried to take our cameras away. Since, this area is recessed and not too visible from the street, Kim and I decided to continue observing from the sidewalk in front of the area where the Americans were being detained. We felt it was important both to see and be seen, and the sidewalk gave us a good vantage point. Almost immediately, we were ordered to move off the sidewalk by one of the security personnel who demanded that we reenter the recessed area and join the others who were being barricaded. It was so odd and surreal. If I wrote a role play like this no one would believe it was realistic. The plain clothes and uniformed security were literally telling us “go in the pen”. There were two other American women, including one who walks with a cane, who were seated on the sidewalk. Plainclothes security forces, led by a man who identified himself to me as Mr. Sieead physically shoved one of the woman and shouted at her. As this occurred, Kim and I moved in between her and the men who were shoving her. Almost immediately, a police van arrived and we found ourselves ringed and barricaded by the metal barricades and a group of about 20 policemen. Again, most of the young conscripts seemed to have their hearts with us – singing “we shall overcome” and giving thumbs up out of the eyes of those in command. But the plain clothes security and those who seemed to obviously be in positions of power were less sympathetic to us. While we continued to document and attempt to photograph “Mr Sieed” grabbed my hand that held my camera squeezing painfully until my hand was red and sore. He quickly pulled his hand away as I maneuvered my camera into my pocket.
Still, even with this I know we were treated w/ “kid gloves.“ We observed a young man who appeared to be of Arab ancestry shoved and screamed at by “Mr. Saieed“. who then directed a group of security officers to pick the man up and hurl him over the barricaide to the ground Kim and I remained in this position for about two hours, observing, documenting and holding the space. It should be noted that while the woman with the cane was being treated roughly, a man in shirt and tie who appeared to be American or European simply looked on. When the other MPT members arrived, they were ordered away from the area where the others were being barricaded. Crossing the street, they were met by a group of plainclothes officials, including “Mr. Saieed“, who screamed at the team and then roughly pushed Yusif down the street.
And yet, while we found Egypt to be a police state that met us with blocked phones, riot police, and revoked permits we found the citizens of Egypt to be warm and friendly. I felt safe walking among the Egyptian people on the streets of Cairo even late at night -there is hardly any crime in this incredibly crowded and busy city of open markets.
Most of the Egyptian citizens we spoke with support Palestinians and like the people of the US. They expressed an initial excitement about President Obama and were impressed with his talk in Egypt. They, like many of us here in the US wished the reality of his presidency was living up to the hope.
We could relate to a a disdain for our governments foreign policy with Israel regarding Gaza and the West Bank. I am so …. so, so what .. words feel, angry, sad, distressed… not even sure what the word is – so grieved to know that our government, our tax dollars support the blockade on Gaza. To see this year’s foreign aid, see http://www.aidtoisrael.org/. US foreign aid to Israel was over $2.4 billion dollars and Egypt $1.7 billion in 2007 http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3255291,00.html Another good resource for this information, http://www.ifamericansknew.org
One of the most upsetting things is the U.S.direct involvement in the plans underway to seal off the tunnels across the border to Rafah http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/01/17-1. While weapons have been smuggled through the tunnels – and I obviously don’t support that. These tunnels are also the main avenue for bringing in supplies of food, medicine, replacement parts for medical equipment, and supplies to rebuild the infrastructure and sewage system destroyed by the continuing bombing and siege.
I would like to find out why these much needed supplies and goods are not allowed across the border. I never was able to get an answer, just the “security” rhetoric. But, I tend to believe the reports of NFOs and INGOs regarding the humanitarian crisis in Gaza more than the empires who have a political interest in the area: namely oIsrael and the United States. According to groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others the food that is allowed in is not enough to meet the demands of 1.5 million people living in Gaza. Malnutrition is high and growing, children go without basic school supplies, and many go without the medical care they need. The humanitarian crisis has led to raw sewage being routed into the Mediterranean Sea due to Israel’s refusal to let materials to fix the infrastructure through the border.
If the blockade was truely about security and not vengful punishment it seems to me these basic humanitarian supplies would be let in.
And yet – mixed in with the despair, the anger, the grief and frustration is gratitude and hope.
It was amazing to be in solidarity with the over 1,400 international human rights activists from over 42 different countries – working together to break the seige. I found hope knowing we joined in solidarity also with our Palestinian and Israeli brothers and sisters who gathered on the other side of the Gaza border.
And while the tactic of allowing only 100 of the GFM delegates in seemed clearly designed to break the solidarity I am nontheless grateful for the eye witness reports of those delegates. Such inspiring, sad, stories:
* One of the organizers noted she has been there 4X since March and every time it is more intense. Every time more and more surrounded by Hamas. Every time more evidence of a police state emerging
* “Every bottle of water we drank. Every piece of TP we used. Every everything was brought in through those tunnels. It is the only way.”
* Every person noted with awe the Palestinians resiliance, their ability to still love, forgive and have hope in all this. They also noted the ingenuity.
* Women met w/ a group of Gazan women who’s husbands were killed in operation cast lead. “We do not want/need your charity. WE need your solidarity and your help to have us help ourselves. We neeed sewing machines, we can raise rabbits, chickens”
* Many many spoke about the rabbi’s. 4 Rabbies who tried to get to Al Arish themselves and were left along the way. The GFM bus literally picked them up from the street in the middle of no where. At first the children in Gaza were afraid of them. They didn’t understand or recognize thier closhes, thier hats, their long beards and ringlets etc. But they soon won everyone’s hearts and were the stars. They said “Judism has been hijacked by Zionism. We all lived in peace together before and we can do so again.”
* One woman spoke of pictures drawn by school children and spoke of a girl around 10 who drew and bright eye with tears of blood.
* a man spoke about being shown a box w/ what looked like cement pieces it was actually sand. It was the sand that contained the blood of the father
* Palestinians have kept their dignity under the cruelty of occupation and collective punishment sometimes refusing money saying “We can provide for ourselves. We want the siege and the occupation to end. Money cannot buy freedom.”
And yet in the midst of all the the anger, pain, frustration and grief there is gratitude and hope.
I am beyond grateful for my MPT affinity team and our ability to work together in challenging and changing circumstances. Dorothy, Kim, Bella, Liz and Yusif were wondeful partners and I felt no matter what happened we would be there for each other. Nightly we had time where we could be present to one another, sharing our experiences and analizing events of the day — laughing together and often crying together.
The power of nonviolence continues to inspire me and give me hope. By keeping us in Cario the Egyptian government brought the attention of the media to us – stories in the New York Times, and multiple media sources. The Egyptian government seemed afraid of our protesting – of the truth expressed in words, music and art. Especially when the threat of military force and violence did not dissuade us from our mission to open the borders and go to Gaza.
I am glad for the chance to hold the Egyptian government and even more importantly my own government accountable for thier role in the blockade and seige. There is much work to be done.