On July 1, 2011, the US Boat to Gaza, the Audacity of Hope, was intercepted by the Greek Coast Guard as we attempted to sail to Gaza and escape the Greek “red tape” blockade of Freedom Flotilla 2. Although our Captain had argued valiantly for two hours that our boat was seaworthy, and we had completed all required inspections, several armed commandos had arrived and assumed battle positions with loaded and cocked rifles pointed at all of us. Those armed men put an end to our voyage just a few miles off the coast of Greece.
Our boat was herded into a Coast Guard dock and impounded, and our Captain put in jail. We would sail again, but we could not endanger our unarmed passengers (22 to 86 years old). These brave people included celebrated author, poet and activist, Alice Walker, holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein, and a dedicated and creative group of musicians, retired military, social workers, and others dedicated to ending Israel’s cruel and illegal blockade of Gaza.
It fell to eight women to stay on board to prevent any kind of sabotage (two of the flotilla boats had already been sabotaged in an attempt to prevent them from sailing). Our group included leader and retired U.S. Army Colonel and a former US diplomat, Ann Wright; British crew-member Jenny (OJ) Linnel; Free Gaza co-founder and passenger on the first boat to enter Gaza in 41 years, Greta Berlin; consultant and indigenous human rights advocate Regina Carey; progressive anti-war activist Missy Lane; peace activist and co-coordinator of Voices for Nonviolence Kathy Kelly; founder of Code Pink, Medea Benjamin; and public health activist, Carol Murry.
Over the next three weeks, our numbers dwindled, as women had to leave. Finally on July 20, Ann Wright departed Athens as the last of our audacious guardian angels, leaving the boat in good hands with the Free Gaza movement.
Our open air “prison” was over an hour away from Athens by walking, bus, train, and more walking. At first we were totally engaged in inventorying and storing all the food, water and supplies that had been intended for our aborted voyage to Gaza. Next, we had the sad task of stripping away flags, artwork, and letters to the children of Gaza and packing them away.
It was 1000 most days inside the boat. Then the port authority turned off the shore electricity (at the direction of the US embassy we were told). Although we had been given 2 porta-potties and they were regularly cleaned, the heat cooking the contents was nauseating. If we needed to use them at night, the trip required going down a treacherous stairway, cautiously stepping from ship to land, and walking across the floodlit patrolled dock.
A Russian ship was docked behind us and a grain elevator was brought in to unload the huge trucks continually arriving full of wheat ? the chaff covered the ground, our boat, and us, and made breathing difficult. Water to the boat was extremely limited and the ambiance became grittier as time went on.
The compound was surrounded by rolls of razor wire, and Coast Guard and Army personnel continually patrolled the perimeters. They also “inventoried” our dwindling group of women guardians on a regular basis, sometimes arriving near midnight.
We had to walk up a dusty road to a nearby small shop if we wanted anything, and it was extremely dangerous. One guest was sideswiped and more than one passenger had close calls with large trucks skidding out of control, with walkers having nowhere to move to avoid being hit. Although the Embassy is charged with ensuring the safety of confined citizens, they were not among our visitors to check up on us.
But, life on the boat also had its sweet side. One morning one of the Coast Guard personnel offered us coffee. We drank the strong black liquid out of mugs with a peace motif, while discussing reasons behind the rioting that was going on in Athens. Another guard was interested in going to the United States, marrying an American, and starting a taxi business in Pennsylvania “near Las Vegas”.
Some nights we sat in a dilapidated food stand outside the gate, so we could drink a glass of beer or wine and eat rolled grape leaves. We usually slept on mats on the top deck and were gently rocked to sleep, the stars keeping us company. When the fishing boats left every day, sea gulls wheeled above the ship with loud shrieking cries, waiting for the detritus from the boats to be thrown overboard. And, one of our hard-won pleasures was taking a shower on the slippery catwalk at the stern, where bed sheets rigged up offered a semblance of privacy. We would stand under the cold water delivered with incredible force by a huge fire hose. Luckily, no one ended up sliding off the catwalk into the garbage-filled water.
And sunsets and sunrises were beautiful even when framed by barbed wire.
Our Secretary of State said that if we were killed or injured it would be our own fault. We are civilians, and we were being told that the Israeli military didn’t care. They were determined to hurt us, and our own government was in support of Israeli threats instead of worrying about U.S. citizens.
And so we each left, one by one, with mixed feelings for our last walk out the gate and down the dangerous dusty roads to return to our homes from the prison that had become our home. Before leaving, some of us threw bottles into the water with the letters to the children of Gaza. The letters had been the “dangerous” cargo on the Audacity of Hope that Greece, Israel and the United State had to stop at all costs.
But such “dangerous” ideas as ending the modern apartheid of Gaza will not be stopped and we audacious women will be among those who will keep sailing until it has ended and children and their families in Gaza are freed from their open-air prison that makes ours in the Coast Guard compound look like a playground.
Carol Murry has lived and worked in rural Thailand and Swaziland; started a community health worker program on Micronesian outer islands; did leprosy research in eastern Bhutan; directed NGOs; was University of Hawai’i faculty; and did research on HIV among youth in Pacific Islands for UNICEF. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greta Berlin is a founder of Free Gaza and was on board the FREE GAZA, the first boat with internationals to reach Gaza in 41 years. She helped run three more successful voyages, ran the media office for Freedom Flotilla I and has been a spokesperson for Freedom Flotills II. She can be reached at: email@example.com