A long, strange trip
For one Chicoan—and those alongside her—a freedom march in the Gaza Strip turns out to be something different altogether
Ann Polivka spent Christmas Day 2009 on an airplane bound for Cairo, Egypt.
The 62-year-old retired Butte County Public Health nurse, along with two other local women, Peggy McCormack and Hayley Wallace, was among the 1,362 delegates from 42 countries around the world, including 330 Americans, traveling to the Middle East to take part in the Gaza Freedom March on Dec. 31 in the tiny, densely populated Gaza Strip inside neighboring Israel.
Polivka knew ahead of her arrival that the Egyptian government had not yet given permission for the freedom marchers to pass through the Rafah crossing, but the situation on the ground once she got to Egypt turned out to be not at all what she expected.
“I went because I wanted to support the Palestinian right and desire for self-determination,” explained Polivka of her two-week trip, “and to protest the Israeli- and Egypt-supported blockade of Gaza. I wanted to call attention to the Gaza blockade as a humanitarian crisis. The border crossings [into Gaza] will allow very little in the way of food or supplies or medical equipment or people to go in and out of Gaza.”
The Gaza Freedom March was organized by a number of organizations worldwide, including U.S.-based international women’s group Code Pink, and included several international luminaries, such as writer Alice Walker, retired U.S. Army Col. Ann Wright, and 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein.
The aim was, after entering the Gaza Strip from Cairo via the Rafah crossing, to deliver humanitarian aid to the people there and to join them in staging a massive nonviolent demonstration against the ongoing Israeli siege described by the United Nations’ Goldstone Report of September 2009 as “collective punishment of a people under effective occupation, destroying their means to live a dignified life.” The march was planned to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Israel’s 22-day war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, which cost approximately 1,400 Palestinian lives, destroyed thousands of homes and schools, and left 400,000 people without running water, among other things.
“I got there [to Cairo] late the night of Dec. 26, the morning of Dec. 27,” said Polivka, whose trip was made possible by fundraising efforts of the Chico Peace and Justice Center, of which she is a member. “I went to theLotus Hotel in downtown Cairo … and found out that the large meeting hall at the local Jesuit hall that we’d expected to use, the permit had been revoked [by the Egyptian government].”
Polivka said that the 1,362 GFM delegates were forced to break up into smaller groups to hold meetings to discuss the progress being made on securing entry into Gaza, all the time being watched over and eavesdropped on by Egyptian tourism police and secret service agents.
“The joke was, ‘If you want to know what’s going on with the Gaza Freedom March, ask an Egyptian policeman,’ ” said Polivka.
Next, “The Egyptian government told the Code Pink organizers to tell us, ‘Just go be tourists. Go see the Sphinx and the pyramids. Go enjoy the River Nile.’ ”
The marchers decided to take the Egyptian government up on its suggestion, but with “a little twist,” Polivka said. They planned to board feluccas—tourist boats for cruising down the Nile—holding banners saying “Free Gaza” and “End the Gaza Siege,” and “float[ing] little candles remembering the 1,400 Gaza inhabitants that were killed a year before by the Israeli attack.
“A whole bunch of us, several hundred, went down to the docks all set to get on [the feluccas],” Polivka continued, “and the boat drivers said, ‘No, no way—broken,’ in very broken English, and shoved us on our way. Later, we found out from a Code Pink briefing that Egyptian officials had been a part of breaking the boats.”
Polivka said her frustration only increased when, on Dec. 29—after holding peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Cairo during which she and fellow protestors were corralled into small groups, surrounded by Egyptian police curtailing their movement—she and about 40 other Americans showed up at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to ask for help in securing their entry into Gaza.
“As soon as we got there,” she said, “the Egyptian police said it was closed. … One of the Egyptian police grabbed one of our people … and pulled her back toward them, on the other side of the barricade. We were trying to pull her back under the barricade, and the Egyptian police were pulling her by the ankles the other way. It was very rough handling. We eventually got her back over with us again. I saw some of the roughest behavior that happened that two weeks right there in front of the American Embassy.”
Polivka never did make it into Gaza. Only about 100 of the Gaza Freedom Marchers were allowed entry, and those only after a deal was brokered between Code Pink and Suzanne Mubarak, wife of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, and head of the Red Crescent (equivalent of the Red Cross), Polivka said.
She did, however, hear the many stories brought back about the “incredible physical hardship and frustrations and loss, and level of PTSD in children, and the not having the basic necessities of life available to [Gazans]. There are 4,500 kids on a waiting list with severe PTSD waiting for help. Most kids are suffering from this because so many of their relatives have been killed.
“I also heard about the incredible spirit, liveliness and pride [of the Gazans], and the hope that things will get better, and the appreciation for others’ knowing and caring about their situation,” added Polivka, who took part in pro-Gaza demonstrations “each day, three to four hours a day” during her stay in Cairo.
Leslie Johnson, local attorney, Chico Peace and Justice Center member and co-founder of the Chico chapter of the ACLU, described Polivka as “a wonderful person to go” to represent the community of Chico in Cairo.
“She’s so caring and compassionate and concerned about people,” said Johnson. “She was willing to learn about the situation, and as a nurse she had the right eyes to see and understand the health situation. She’s also so calm and even-tempered, which is important in a big protest with an uncertain outcome. She’s the kind of person you want to have there.”
“Many Americans don’t really understand what the situation is in Gaza,” said Johnson. “We knew that Ann would share what she saw when she came back home.”