As part of a delegation of 100 women from around the world, this day was earmarked as a day we would meet with our sisters in Gaza - women who have little. Women who endure ongoing hardship and lack of services and support due to the blockade imposed by Israel.
I was to keep a daily blog on our activities and experiences.
The idea was to meet ordinary Palestinians and listen to their stories; visit fishermen, university students & various other organisations and as a gesture deliver solar lamps so they may have light during the darkness.
Our delegation ‘Women against the Gaza blockade’ is a collection of women from around the world. Women who see the injustice of the blockade, and who's mission it is to bring attention to what life is really like as a Palestinian under Israeli rule.
Initiated and coordinated by CAPJO - EuroPalestine & CodePink, a broad selection of women answered the call including Irish activist & Nobel Peace laureate, Mairead Maguire & Algerian activist 79 year old Djamila Bouhired as well as many others. I was just a small cog in a much larger machine.
Wanting to do everything by the book and to coordinate with the Egyptian government, a list was sent with the names and details of all the women participating - including passport details, to everyone’s respective Egyptian embassies as required, including details of where we were going and why - a full month before our travel date. No objection was lodged by Egypt.
March 4th - on the eve of my departure, news arrived that Medea Benjamin, one of the founders of CodePink had been detained at Cairo Airport but Col Ann Wright had made it through ok. What was going on? As time ticked by more confusion reigned. Medea was able to message from what she termed her ‘dorm’ room (holding cell) complete with pictures. In the ensuing hours several more delegates passed through ok but Medea was deported for apparently being on a ‘black list’.
The harrowing account of her ordeal can be found here.
In the ensuing hours three more women were deported and 3 more allowed through. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to any of it. All I could do was arrive and take my chances, after all, I have been to Egypt before and had never caused any trouble either there or anywhere else, however, I was on THAT list!
March 5th my departure was uneventful. News was coming through sporadically regarding the other delegate’s departures so I was characteristically optimistic. With suitcase packed to bulging with ‘goodies’ such as rechargeable lamps, Turkish delight, decorative Turkish scarves etc… all meant as gifts for Gaza’s women I set off. Destination Gaza!
4:40pm my arrival at Cairo International airport was uneventfully - Cautious optimism crept in.
Visa? Check! Customs/Security stamp? Check! Access into Cairo? DENIED!
Once my Visa was stamped, the lady at customs made a call. The next thing I knew a man was ushering me to go and sit down, minus my passport. Optimism diminishing.
Once seated, I noticed several other women together at the other end. I decided not to approach them; my reasoning was that if they were part of the delegation I might lesson my chances of getting in if I was seen cohorting - at that point I figured being seen as a solitary ordinary tourist would do the trick. Good try!
The next wave of delegates arrived approximately 30 minutes after me. Resistance was futile. By now it was clear that nothing was going to happen particularly fast. Security seemed to be picking off anyone they suspected as being part of the delegation - list or no list. I had a lovely conversation with a young Syrian girl who was studying in Cairo and I suspect they thought of as a delegate. She was held for about an hour then let through leaving me with a ‘good luck’ key ring.
Minutes turned to hours very quickly and soon there were approximately forty of us. Predominantly from the French CAPJO - EuroPalestine , the rest consisted of Americans from CodePink, myself and ladies from Belgium, (I think) I never got to meet them.
During the course of the night people were madly texting and talking on their phones trying anything to get messages out, passports back and as hopeless as it seems now, entry into Egypt.
My luggage was nowhere to be seen and every time I enquired about it, I was told “Don’t worry”.
Eventually I called my husband and asked him to get a hold of the British embassy. Predominantly to get my passport back, but also to notify the Egyptians that officials knew where I was and would be watching.
Time was marching on and by now the French part of the delegation had set up camp in the middle of the arrival hall much to the chagrin of the officials. I think it was becoming clear on both sides that this was a stalemate that would not be ending anytime soon.
Banners were unfurled; ‘check-point’ signs erected and anti-Israel songs were being sung. As it became apparent that we would not be entering Egypt, items that were meant for the women of Gaza were unpacked and displayed as a show of defiance to the Egyptian officials who were obstructing our mission and thereby denying the women of Palestine.
In all of this, I have to say Olivia Zemor is my new hero. Her spirit and fight for justice knows no bounds. She worked long into the night and the next day, negotiating with delegates, Egyptian & French officials and anyone else who might have been able to help. She was the strength that kept us all going and is one lady I would never want to cross.
As hours rolled by the Egyptian officials were clearly trying to divide and conquer. At one point they convinced some of the women that if they wanted to leave they could but it would have to be NOW!
We found out the next day that ‘now’ was a ploy and they were still being held, hours later in another part of the airport. Clearly our trump card was to remain as a group - strength in numbers.
I still did not have my passport or luggage and no one, save the British Embassy had approached me for alternatives. I eventually got my luggage back after I told an official I needed my medication which was in my luggage. Hours had gone by and I was praying that it was not still revolving on the conveyer belt. Fortunately, it had been checked in at lost & found and after several guarded marches back and forth we were reunited.
During all of this it was clear that we had to make our presence felt and make the most of any publicity that we could get. There was a reporter and photographer travelling with us but we needed to get the word out there as loud and fast as possible. Not just for our current plight, but for the original reason we were there. If we couldn’t get to Gaza then were would bring Gaza to the people, much to the bemusement and frustration of the Egyptian officials.
During the twenty six hours we were held, many songs were sung, dances danced and protest chants uttered. The reaction was mixed. Most people were bemused, some irritated, but many still cheered. People wanted to take pictures but were stopped for the most part by security. The security men themselves, tired of having to constantly video our disruption installed a permanent video camera in the hall facing the group. It shall be forever known as the ‘Women against the Gaza blockade’s’ camera. Look for it at the top right hand side of the security gate when next you arrive in Cairo.
The Egyptian attitude to Gaza surprised me. I expected a ‘brother in arms’ type of attitude, instead what I saw was contempt and no interest for the most part as to the plight of the Palestinians, mainly because they associate Palestine with Hamas; as does the rest of the world, which is a shame because while Hamas is the main focus and excuse for Israel’s abhorrent behavior towards the Palestinians, the ordinary citizens of Gaza suffer and die.
I did however see some hope in the attitudes and comments from several of our airport ‘minders’ once their colleagues were out of ear shot. Thanking us for what we were trying to do and wishing us well. At one point even a passing pilot gave us the thumbs up in full public view - all is not in vain.
And so now I am home, thanks to my very supportive husband and British Embassy staff who did a great job speaking with the Egyptians & coordinating my exit.
As I left, the ladies from CAPJO - EuroPalestine were still in high spirits. Still pressing for their release, both for themselves and the people of Gaza. I, who was already unwell, had developed a chest infection during the long air-conditioned confinement that stopped me from most of the singing and dancing but not dampening the enthusiasm that comes from meeting such incredibly courageous and strong women.
Women who share a passion for justice, and freedom for all and that I hope to remain friends with.
If anyone is in any doubt regarding the hardships of Palestinians, ask yourself these questions. What other country or territory in the world can you be barred from visiting by a neighboring country? What other country in the world has sway over other completely independent nations to the point of stopping people even boarding their planes on their way to visiting another country?
And so it is with a solemn disposition that I spent March 8th - International women’s day.
Reflecting on what I was supposed to be doing today with wonderfully inspiring and courageous women from around the world and reading reports of how Israel treated Palestinian women on this their day.