Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Battle at Salam Bridge

[For an eyewitness account of these and other Convoy events, come to Salam Church, 345 Ovington Avenue, Brooklyn, Monday, July 27th, 7 pm.
[Photos at bottom of post.]

By Dahlia and Dima Abi Saab (Al-Awda-NY)

After four days of attempting to leave Cairo, we were finally on our way to Gaza! These four days were truly a test for everyone's patience, determination, and resistance. However we succeeded in all categories thanks to every person's help, and all the negotiations that took place.

Saturday the 11th, a group of approximately 50 of us decided to make our way toward Al- A'areesh to wait for the people following who were in Alexandria and for some of the folks who stayed at the hotel. There were four buses that were draped in Palestinian and American flags, ready to hit the road. As we were driving on the road, people began singing and clapping at disbelief that we were actually, FINALLY going to Gaza! Most of the songs that people were singing were about Gaza, and emotions were getting high. Many people who hadn't been there for years, for they haven't been permitted to return, and many people like us who where entering Palestine for the first time, were extremely emotional, and we could not hide those emotions no matter how hard we tried.

As we arrived at the Suez Canal, Mubarak Peace Bridge, our trucks were directed towards the side of the bridge, for there was a checkpoint. An officer came onto each bus and told everyone to write his or her full name and passport number on a piece of paper. After about half an hour all that work was done and we were told we should be out of the area at 11 PM (we had arrived at 9). After waiting two hours, we were told we were not allowed to cross the bridge, and that we needed to turn back to Cairo (which was about three hours back). After arguing and yelling, the authorities agreed to allow us to stay by the bridge for two hours, just until our paperwork of passports and names were submitted to the government. (Despite the fact that all this was already submitted and done even before our arrival in Egypt.)

The authorities were not allowing us to do much by the bridge. We weren't allowed out of the buses, if we had to use the restroom, we needed an escort to walk us there, wait for us, and then walk us back. After an hour of sitting in our buses, we all slowly began coming out and sitting on the side of the street. People began conversing, and then we decided to make the best out of the situation. A group of us held hands and began doing the debka in the middle of the street, in an attempt to show the cops that our spirits would not be broken. After a little debka, someone brought out a soccer ball and a large group began playing, until the cops confiscated the ball.

The paper work was submitted and we were all just hanging around waiting for permission to go. Here and there, there were arguments because the authorities would come back and tell us to leave and we would all refuse. At one point, the security official of the bridge came and told everyone to get on the bus, that we were allowed to cross the bridge. After everyone began jumping and screaming because of excitement, we all heard loud bangs on our trucks from one of the members of VP-USA telling us to get out. One member heard the security official tell the bus driver to pretend we were heading toward Al-A'areesh but to really take us back to Cairo.

We all brought our flags out and held our American passports in our hands and began a protest at 6 AM on the side of the Salaam Bridge. We were chanting and screaming and the officials looked dumbfounded. They were all standing on the side just staring at us for about 15 minutes. The security official of the bridge told all the drivers to return to Cairo, so we all went to the back of the bus, locked hands and stood in the way of the buses. The security official was screaming at the bus driver to keep going, basically indicating to run us over, but no one even flinched.

After 12 long, sweltering, hours the convoy as a whole decided to go back to Cairo and get done the new paperwork "necessary" to be filled out before our venture onward. (That paperwork was a whole other issue that we will explain in a little.)

During our campout we called the U.S. Embassy in Egypt numerous times questioning why it was that even though we had paid for and received an Egyptian visa to stay in the country, we were being held and refused crossing over the "Salaam (PEACE)" Bridge. The answers we received were useless and did nothing to speed up the process. Our rights as U.S. citizens in Egypt were not protected or demanded by the U.S. Embassy, however we were less then surprised. A good seven to eight hours into our protest a designated convoy leader and two other convoy members attempted to cross the street in order to hop in a cab and head back to Cairo and finish the necessary paper work that the authorities demanded before giving permission to cross. It was then that three members got swarmed by Egyptian police, undercover agents and random men in suits. They did not kindly ask the convoy members to go back or explained that they could not leave, they shoved, pushed and in some cases slapped people in order to move them back to the other side.

After this disgusting display by the authorities and their blatant refusal to let us move forward, and their demand for us to "bring George Galloway and come back" (as we're assuming they did not believe we were members of his convoy we, as a group, decided the best decision would be to in fact head back, get the affidavits demanded done and come back as a larger group. We headed back into Cairo, most of us to the American Embassy where we signed affidavits that stated:

"I, name of representative, vice Consular officer, certify that on this day 12 July 2009, the individual named below appeared before me and, being duly sworn, made the statements set below:

"I have read and understood the travel warning issues by U.S. Department of State relating to travel to the Gaza Strip. I assume the risk for myself and I understand the Embassy does not recommend my travel to the Gaza Strip.

"I also understand that the Embassy cannot provide me with consular services in the Gaza Strip."

This "necessary" document took us three days to acquire for the convoy in its entirety and cost at the U.S. Embassy $30 -- 30 USD to sign off that OUR embassy will under no circumstances assist us while we are in the Gaza Strip. It will however provide the state of Israel billions of dollars annually and the weapons to be dropped on the children of the Gaza Strip, just no services for American citizens traveling to the region.

For three days after our stand off with the Egyptian Authorities at the bridge, we woke up at 6 AM and told that we were going to leave for Al-A'areesh. And for three consecutive days, we were waiting in the lobby of our hotel, after we had checked out and all, and the authorities would not let us leave our hotel lobby for several hours - and we were forced to check in again and wait for the following day to attempt to leave. But finally we had all the necessary paper work, and we finally were on our way to Gaza! Although those four days were draining and tiresome, all that we experienced would be the last thing on our mind once we entered Gaza.

Photos: 1. Doing debka while waiting; 2. still waiting; 3. Charles Barron; 4 and 5: Blocking the bus; 6: Black nationalist, US and Palestinian flags on the bus.

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