By Donna Wallach
Aki Nawaz, Yvonne Ridley, Ramzi Kysia, Mary Hughes Thompson, Theresa MacDermott and Donna Wallach as we wait and wait
My twin sister, Darlene Wallach, and I were very honoured and privileged to be invited in 2006 to be part of the planning, fundraising and organizing for the Free Gaza Movement’s first boat trip to Gaza, Palestine. Soon we started having meetings in Berkeley, CA with Paul Larudee, Kathy Sheetz, Steve Greaves, Nedal Selah, and Fadwa Musleh. Often Jane Jewell would attend to advise on creative ideas to raise funds. Later Aamir would also attend meetings to be part of the ground crew along with Nedal, Fadwa and Jane.
We were an international group, people from Los Angeles, Texas, Washington D.C., and various cities in England, Australia and Cyprus were all part of the efforts and work to make it happen, raise awareness and funds and keep a watchful eye once we finally set on the voyage.
Usually Darlene and I, (but sometimes just one of us) attended all the fundraiser/awareness events in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. At first our fundraising was just to raise funds to purchase the boats. Later on, closer to 2008, we started raising funds to enable ourselves to afford the trip. We had to pay for our trips to get to Cyprus and stay there until the boats arrived. We didn’t have to pay to board the boat, but it did take 2 years to raise the funds to buy the two boats and all the gear that needed to be on the boats. People throughout the world were very generous!
Most people who attended the fundraisers/awareness raisers were very supportive, if not very doubtful that we would succeed. At one fundraiser/awareness raiser in Walnut Creek, Ren Tawil came and was so enthralled by the trip that he requested to be one of the fortunate people to be on one of the boats. He was accepted, and was one of the last of the 44 who voyaged to Gaza.
Greta Berlin used her creative skills to develop a very powerful PowerPoint presentation that was used at all of the fundraisers. It really worked well to express what our goals were and why we wanted to go by boat to Gaza - to break the illegal blockade/siege. She, along with Mary Hughes Thompson, and many more had been deported from Occupied Palestine and were denied entry. Since the situation in Occupied Palestine is constantly getting worse and they had not yet been to Gaza, (and Israel was assuring the world that Gaza was free) the time was ripe for this idea – to break the illegal blockade/siege of Gaza by boat.
From 2006 until July 2008 many of us raised funds and public awareness for this momentous first boat trip; two rickety old fishing trawlers, changed into passenger boats, from two different ports in Greece to Cyprus. Darlene Wallach was one of the lucky ones to be on those boats all the way from Greece; she used her knowledge of software engineering to help with the computer on the Liberty. In addition, she also volunteered to do lots of the work that was necessary to have the boats ready for the voyage as they went from Greek port to Greek port until they finally set off to Cyprus (several weeks late, but coming, or so we thought).
Fourteen were on the two boats coming to Cyprus, the other 30 of us were waiting in Lefkosia, Cyprus for the boats to arrive. A supportive Cypriot arranged for us to stay at the student housing at a University in Lefkosia until the boats would arrive in Larnaka. Although we had been told that the boats would arrive in mid-July, they didn’t show up until the 20th of August 2008. During the long weeks we waited, we had daily meetings discussing many things to prepare ourselves for the boat trip, one of them including writing our wills in case the Israeli Occupation Force Navy killed us en-route. Scott Kennedy came to Cyprus to drive back and forth from Larnaka to Lefkosia bringing people from and to the airport. He chose not to be a passenger on the boat so that in the future he could return to the West Bank. Adam Qvist, the youngest participant, had been studying Arabic and was also artistic. He painted some humongous banners in English and in Arabic. Later they were attached to the boats, so that all could see what our journey was about.
Our time in Cyprus was also used to do radio interviews. Various radio hosts from different parts of the world called Greta and she invited Hedy Epstein, Sister Anne Montgomery, Mary Thompson and Attorney Thomas Nelson to be interviewed. However, one time I got to be interviewed!
Finally, all of us left Lefkosia to stay in Larnaka because the Liberty and the Free Gaza were getting close. I can remember the day that we heard the boats were arriving in port! Fathi, Eliza, and me, (I can’t remember who else joined us), ran to the port in Larnaka. We were hoping to see the boats as they arrived. We really wanted to get on the boats! We were just so done waiting, and we weren’t actually sure there were any boats by this time.
We had to find more patience within us. The two crews who arrived needed a layover to shower and get some rest. Also, there was still need for meetings; decisions had to be made. The weather was very hot and humid, the rooms weren’t air conditioned where we were staying, so it wasn’t conducive for us to participate in these meetings, which lasted late into the night. But we people on the land just wanted to go. We were tired of waiting, while the people who had been onboard those weeks just wanted a good shower.
Unfortunately a few people who had come to Cyprus in July to be on the boats couldn’t wait until the boats arrived and had to get back to their jobs or other obligations. But the great majority of the people who had arrived to Cyprus to break the siege on Gaza were there in Cyprus, all of us anxious to be on our way to break the siege and arrive to Gaza, to let Palestinians know that they were not alone, that many people in the world want to end this illegal blockade/siege.
I was on the Free Gaza boat. My twin sister Darlene was on the Liberty. It was decided that if more than one family member were passengers, each person would be on a different boat, in case one boat would sink from attack by the Israelis. The Israelis kept on sending email and phone threats to some of the organizers that they would sink us, that we better know how to swim and there was a bomb on board. We had scuba divers checking the boats every morning and evening before we left.
Boats finally arrived in Larnaca
Finally the day came, our boats left the port of Larnaka, Cyprus. It was smooth sailing until after we were out of the port and really in the sea. I succumbed to being very sea sick for most of the journey. Luckily Kathy Sheetz, an awesome nurse, was on my boat. She along with others took very good care of me that afternoon and all night. Finally, the next day, 23rd August 2008, I started feeling better and was able to cheer and cry tears of joy as “land ahoy” was shouted and we could all begin to make out the landscape of Gaza City port.
As we got closer to the port our joy expanded beyond our wildest dreams. Palestinians had decorated their boats with Palestinian flags. What looked like tens of thousands of Palestinians were cheering from every part of the port where a human being could stand. Young boys were jumping into the water of the port to greet our boats. Men on Palestinian boats were trying to board our boats from theirs before we even docked. 23rd August was the happiest day in my life. I will never forget it. I still get very emotional when I talk about it and think about it. I am sure it is the same for many, many people.
Coming into Port
I am still very, very thankful and grateful that I was invited to be a part of this, the first boat trip of the Free Gaza Movement. There were another 4 successful boat trips! And later other countries also wanted to participate with boats of their own and the Freedom Flotilla Coalition was born in 2009 because we realized we needed to send more than two small boats. Although sadly none of the flotillas have succeeded to arrive to Gaza City port in Palestine, the determination to send flotillas of boats with the specific goal of breaking the illegal seige is as strong as ever.