A harbor near Athens, aboard the US Audacity of Hope.
July 1, 2011.
The sky is azure blue, not a cloud in sight, a gentle breeze caresses us, the 37 passengers, four crew and 10-12 journalists aboard, the waters of the Aegean sea gently rock our beloved boat.
Together with others, I am at the back of the boat, facing land. Astonished, I watch as the strong, tanned arms of a man unwind the rope from the pole that held the boat in place, the gang plank, horizontal for so long, slowly rises to an upright position. Slowly, ever so slowly, so smoothly, so confidently the boat moves away from land. I look at my watch, it is 4:45 P.M. Cheers, tears, cries of joy, of farewell and the sound of music fill the air as we wave to our friends, standing on the pier. It is finally happening, I am on my way to Gaza, my fifth try.
The distance between land and our boat increases, our friends on the pier are getting smaller, then just small dots, now no longer visible, we are heading for Gaza. An enormous sense of freedom, I never felt like this before, overwhelms me, ignoring what my brain knows, that we will be stopped, prevented from reaching our much sought goal.
I refuse to let that knowledge interfere with the incredible feeling of utter freedom and just live and fully enjoy these new found feelings.
Still engulfed in my new feelings of freedom, I/we see a Greek Coast Guard boat coming towards us. I do still not want to believe this bodes ill. I look at my watch again as the Greek Coast Guard boat pulls alongside our boat; it is 5:18 P.M. Thirty three minutes of feelings of utter, glorious freedom are coming to an end. We are asked to turn around and return to shore. John, our much beloved captain, stops the boat, negotiates with the Coast Guard man. The latter begs us to return, yes, I heard him say several times, “I beg you, turn around.” He tells us he supports us, supports our mission, but has his orders, so. “Please, I beg you, turn around,” again and again he repeats his plea. One of the passengers offers the Coast Guard man dinner which had been prepared for all of us by our expert volunteer cooks. He declines, repeating his pleas. Ann, Medea, others try to talk to the Coast Guard man – in vain.
Two or more hours have gone by, when we see a zodiac, a black rubber boat, speeding towards us, manned by commandos (are they Greek or Israeli?) are boarding the Greek coast guard ship, dressed in black, black masks hiding their faces, guns at the ready, pointed at us. I should be worried, scared. Yet, mysteriously, I am calm as never before in my life. I reach for an apple, savor its tart flavor, filled with confidence that John, our captain, will know how to handle the situation. Wisely, he decides to turn the boat around and lets the coast guard guide us back to shore, rather than have the commandos (jokingly, we referred to them as ninja turtles) board our ship and carry out their destructive instructions.
Disappointed, defiant, we break out in song, as we slowly return to shore, to a different port, controlled by the U.S. government. I ask John how far did we travel? “Nine nautical miles,“ he tells me. Nine nautical miles closer to Gaza!!
On July 2, 2011, our captain is arrested, taken to a Greek jail, no food, no water, no toilet, no visits from the American Embassy, seemingly too busy with July 4th celebration, or more correctly stated, following instructions from Washington, and maybe Israel.
The rest of the crew are not allowed to leave the boat for a few days. John, thanks to some dedicated work by our attorneys, is released after four days on his own recognizance, with some issues pending.
Though Greece is a sovereign country, currently in dire financial straits, took its orders from Israel to let no boats leave Greek ports for Gaza. In other words, Israel has “outsourced” its occupation, its siege of Gaza, to Greece. What next?
Sad, but not defeated, I returned home on July 6, leaving behind to a then unknown future “The Audacity of Hope” boat, moored behind razor wire in a Greek, but American-controlled port near Athens. We did not make it to Gaza, but for two weeks we brought the plight of the Palestinian people, the people in Gaza, to the world’s attention, thanks to the dedicated media, accompanying us.
Hedy Epstein left Germany at the age of 14 in 1939 on a Kindertransport to Great Britain. She came to the U.S. in 1948. She’s been a human rights activist for decades. She works in St. Louis, Missouri with the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Women in Black. Her web-site is www.hedyepstein.com.