The Telegraph
Thursday , December 30 , 2010
Since 1st March, 1999
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Motley caravan team waits to enter Gaza

Latakiya, Syria, Dec. 29: For three days now, in this eastern Mediterranean port, where the Syrian navy’s missile boats idle in the dockyard, Madhura Chakraborty, 25, has been marching in processions shouting slogans for Palestine morning and afternoon, demanding her right to reach the besieged Gaza Strip.

Madhura is a member of what the Turkish and Arabic press has begun calling Asia One, the first Asian land caravan that aims to deliver humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The Jadavpur University alumnus, now working in New Delhi, is one of more than 50 Indians stranded in this Syrian port city, negotiating with Egypt the complexities of taking the Rafah Crossing into Gaza.

The caravan now has 164 members — 60 from India, 32 from Jordan, 20 from Iran, 13 from Indonesia, 10 from Lebanon, nine from Pakistan, six from Turkey, four from Bahrain, three from Malaysia, two each from Japan and Bangladesh and one each from Syria, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.

The Indian contingent also includes Magsaysay award winner Sandeep Pandey.

Most of the campaigners have been on the road since December 2 when it was flagged off from Rajghat, New Delhi.

The trip so far has involved being driven in buses for backbreaking trips through desert country for a 1,000km in a single day.

Senior citizens, some of them diabetics, have sometimes worried over the long gaps between meals. One gentleman, an Indian academic based in Mumbai and in the US, developed dental problems. But most say they are here to reach Gaza and, gritting their teeth, will wait it out till the permission is received.

A frisson of fear ran down the collective spine of the caravan for a short while on Sunday when The Jerusalem Post reported the Israeli Navy was tracking the “Asian Caravan” that has planned to load its aid in Latakiya port for shipment to El Arish in Egypt. The aid is to be loaded on a Sierra Leone-flagged ship that will be re-christened Asia One.

After covering about 7,000km by road and stopping in 11 cities from Lahore in Pakistan, the travellers are now likely to board a flight to El Arish from where they plan to take the aid to Gaza.

On May 31 this year, Israeli naval commandos raided the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, an attack in which nine Turks were killed. Israel said their commandos acted in self-defence. But the event may have soured the public mood in Turkey, where the Mavi Marmara reached Istanbul on Saturday after being released by Tel Aviv. The Erdogan government in Ankara has taken a hard line on Israel since the killings.

In Iran and Turkey, at impromptu roadside receptions, many of the members in the caravan were asked repeatedly if they were not afraid because Israel is perceived as trigger-happy.

“I told people I have not thought about it. Besides, why should I be afraid on a peace mission?” wonders Madhura.

Pradyumna Ramesh or Paddy, a JNU student of modern history, says he is here because this was the first opportunity for Indian civil society to engage with the people of Palestine. “All other attempts have been mostly European, Turkish or Arabian. The issue of Palestine is often seen as outdated in India but this can introduce a new dynamic in the Indian public discourse on Palestine,” he argues.

Strangely, the mainstream Indian Left parties backed out of participating in the Asia-to-Gaza caravan after promising support. The Indian official policy supports Palestine but over the years the engagement has got diluted.

But now the caravan has hit a temporary block because Egypt is re-negotiating the terms of the permission required to get into Gaza. According to the original plan, the campaigners were to board a ship and set sail for the Egyptian port of El Arish from Latakiya.

“The Egyptians are co-operating but we have to be patient. Besides, we know that with the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, we have to be careful with the way we deal with the situation. People do not travel 7,000km over land these days without a clear purpose,” says Firoze Mithiborwala from Mumbai, one of the most prominent representatives of the group, who was invited to speak at the Majlis-e-Shura, Iran’s Parliament in Teheran, when the caravan was in that capital.

Sketchy reports that the caravan has been infiltrated by extremist Islamist elements have worried the travellers.

“I think the best way to look at us is a collective comprising people from disparate backgrounds,” says Bishruddin Sharqi, 33, a giant 6ft 5-plus softspoken leader of the Solidarity Youth Movement of Kerala, a wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. “There are Leftists and anarchists and Muslim politicians who have all come together with the single objective. It is a victory,” he insists.

Bishru, as he is usually called, is one of the few in the Indian contingent who speaks Arabic. He has been active in organising film festivals on Palestine and instrumental in getting the works of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish translated into Malayalam.

Most in the Indian contingent say the objective of delivering aid to Gaza is uppermost in their minds but they are also here for the experience of driving through countries that get less space in the Indian mindset despite being nearer compared to the Western world.

Among the participants in the caravan are Leftists from Kerala, Bengal and Maharashtra, a leader of the Muslim Political Council and a retired Indian army brigadier who served in the 1999 Kargil war. The youngest Indian participant is a 20-year-old student from Mumbai, the oldest a 71-year-old trade unionist from Kerala.

Shadab Shameem Siddiqui, a 35-year-old writer and volunteer with a Mumbai-based NGO that popularises Indian government welfare schemes such as the Maulana Azad Maliati Fund that gives soft loans to minority women, says that she is excited about the way in which people from Asia have stuck together, overcoming language barriers.

For Biraj Patnaik, who works with the Supreme Court Commissioners on the Right to Food Act in New Delhi, there are reasons why people come on such adventures. The idea of a political objective lends a certain amount of nobility to the cause. But someone could be here to nurse a broken heart and someone else could be here just to push the limits of personal boundaries.

Swara Bhaskar, a 25-year-old Mumbai-based actress, gushes, “It is flattering how welcomed Indians are in these parts”. Swara says she was so moved by war correspondent Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine that she read up on the Israel-Palestine dispute.

“Quite a few of my notions have been demolished. I did not know, for example, that Syria is a secular country. Personally I also got interested in seeing how young women negotiate the hijab with low-waist tight jeans,” she says.

Paddy, the modern history student, being on the caravan is part of his academic engagement since he has been reading on the Israel-Palestine dispute for years now. He rates his 10-minute meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus and a speech he gave in Van in Turkey as the highpoints for him on the trip

“Many of us have seen the global north, not the global south,” says Gautam Mody, an economist and national secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative as a bus with the travellers drove through the suburbs of Damascus hours before reaching Latakiya. Someone in the bus had remarked that Damascus’ suburbs look a bit like Ghaziabad, near Delhi.

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