Antalya, Turkey: Many of the activists and campaigners on the Freedom Flotilla have been to Gaza and Palestine before, but the campaign offers a unique opportunity for many others to see Palestine for the first and possibly the only time.
Mohammad Abu Ahmad is a 78-year-old Turk. He has been sleeping in a sports hall specially arranged by the flotilla organisers for the participants. While most participants spend their days lazing around their sleeping bags, sitting on the floor and going outside to eat, Mohammad sits in a chair on one side of the hall all day.
People pass by him to pay their respects, journalists visit his corner to interview him while he sits on his chair, smiling, with both his hands resting on his walking sticks.
“I feel like my going to Gaza is a response to a calling from the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). It’s my duty as a Muslim to relieve the people of Gaza from their suffering. I have to do this,” he said.
His children and grandchildren have been supportive of his participation in the campaign. “In fact, they are happy that I’m doing this,” he said.
The organisers have been strict in accepting people above the age of 50, but Mohammad is one of the few lucky ones to get through. “I’m going to do this, even if I die doing it. I have to get in to Gaza,” he said.
Also on the flotilla is 30-year-old British national Abed Mahi, who left his pregnant wife to join the fleet.
“I had initially planned to go but backed out because my wife is nine months pregnant. But then another person who was going backed out, and I had to go,” he said.
Mahi said he was uneasy about leaving his pregnant wife, but it was she who encouraged him to go. “She said that while she has her whole family around her for support, the women of Gaza are left without medical care while giving birth. Their needs are much more than ours,” he said.
“I don’t know what Gaza will be like. I expect that there will be a lot of rubble, destroyed homes, and children playing around them,” he said.
Shatha Barakat is one of the three Syrians on the flotilla. She is a scriptwriter who is working on a TV series on the life of the late Shaikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ spiritual leader, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004. For her, the trip to Gaza will serve two purposes: “research and to break the siege on Gaza”.
She said her family was supportive of the endeavor but her youngest son, 13, was scared for her. “But he eventually accepted it and encouraged me,” she said.
“When I get to Gaza, I hope and expect to get a taste of its resilience. Gaza might be destroyed but the morale of the people there isn’t. They’re surviving. Otherwise we wouldn’t have heard about them. We wouldn’t have been here today,” she said from the sports complex where participants have been staying.
Rif’at Odeh is a Canadian-Jordanian-Palestinian translator who has been trying to get into Gaza since January, when he unsuccessfully attempted to board the Viva Palestina aid convoy. He joined to late and had to be turned back. “It was the least I could do. People had driven thousands of kilometers to get to Gaza. I just went to Aqaba in Jordan to join them,” he said.
This time, he’s back and determined to get in and believes he will. “Well, the organizers have said there is no turning back. So there’s no where else for us to go. We’ll get in,” he said.
Odeh is expecting there to be a lot of destruction in Gaza. “Their situation is much worse than that of the West Bank. They’re not even allowed to rebuild. It’s an alternative reality. It’s different” he said.