2014 March Freedom Ride concludes

The March Freedom Ride has officially come to an end. 

Many new friendships have formed within the group but also with local communities. Everyone leaves inspired and strengthened by the unique and life-changing experience that is the Freedom Ride. Palestine is in all our hearts! Mabrouk (congratulations) to everyone who has worked hard to support communities, braved our encounters with the occupation forces and given so much of themselves – be that through planting an olive tree or sharing through playback theatre workshops. This year’s Freedom Ride may be over but the Freedom Family will live on!

“I don’t know if there are words to express how I feel or the truth that sings in my heart. Today was the last full day on The Freedom Bus and I am feeling so many conflicting emotions. I am happy to be going home to my partner, family and friends, and yet I will truly miss the new friends/family that I have made along this journey. The injustices that I have witnessed with my own eyes is at times too catastrophic to explain, but I know I will do my best. My hope is that I will bring this truth home with me and share it everyone and anyone I come into contact with. I will carry this truth with me wherever I go. The stories that I have heard the people that I have met will always be with me. Inshallah.” – Meredith Pass, March Freedom Ride participant

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Day #12 and #13

Well rested and freshly showered, we leave for a tour of Bethlehem and a visit to Aida Camp.

We meet our guide and the first stop is the nativity church. During a detailed tour we visit all its different sections and we learn that renovation stagnated because all faiths involved have to agree for each step to be taken and it is not easy.

Upon leaving the church we head into town, it is a very hot and beautiful day as we walk through cobblestone streets with romantic little alleys leading into the old town of Bethlehem. During a quick stop for tea and coffee we get to watch a local shop owner make delicious bars of candy made from sesame seeds and nuts.

After that we visit an old market, a shop that sells sling shots (David vs Goliath) and in the shade of a narrow winding alley we buy Tamarind, Almond and Lemon juice from a mobile street vendor, “The Juice King”, and soon we all agree – he most definitely is juice royalty!

Our round trip concludes walking down the steep hill to the main road where we had left our bus, before continuing on we visit one of the best known souvenir shops where everyone finds one or the other treasure to procure! The shop harbours everything from religious inspired motives, figurines and carvings made of olive tree wood to Palestnian kufeyeh, prayer rugs and jewellery. It’s high walls are covered by shelves stacked up with the most unique and beautiful items.

Back to the bus we continue to Aida camp where we watch a brief film about the work of the local NGO, then we devour a delicious lunch and desert after which we get the chance to buy locally crafted traditional items from a small shop inside the building.

The tour through Aida camp is brief, it’s a very densely populated space and we are told that it is impossible to keep any privacy because houses are squeezed in beside and sometimes perched on top of each other.

We walk downhill and as we turn a corner the apartheid wall itself greets us with its hostile and grim counterfeit. The watchtower had been set on fire the day before and it is blackened and its foundation crumbles not only in a symbolic way.

To see the wall shocks us all, in disbelief we look at it, to the right the road leads out of the camp through a gate that has a gigantic metal key on it – the well know Palestinian Key of Return – and it is adorned in read writing “Not for Sale”. This part of the road is a different kind of Wall Street, it is known for fights and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli Occupation Forces and soon we find out things are tense today – later that day we learn that shortly after we left the camp, the occupation forces began to shoot tear gas inside the camp.

We stop by a wall inside the camp that is adorned with many murals and pictures that tell about the issues and struggles  of the inhabitants of this camp. It talks about generations of “refugees” in their own homeland and many artworks express the deep longing to be free and able to return to a non-refugee status. One of the murals is particularly meaningful and moving – it is the outline of Palestine and on each side the names of those villages are listed from where people were displaced to what is now Aida camp. They keep the list of village names because people here have not given up the idea to one day be able to return home.

Back at the guesthouse people rest and digest today’s impressions, contact details are exchanged as it is our final evening together – and what better way than to finish it with The Freedom Ride’s final Playback Theatre performance for 2014?

At 8 pm people of our group and also locals flock to the beautiful venue of the AIC, the Alternative Information Centre. This is our only indoor performance and it turns out spectacular and emotionally charged. As usual we begin with simple experiences and light or funny stories for the Playback Theatres to re-enact. Marvellous pictures are painted as the Playback Theatre actors breathe life into stories without prior talk – like fish in a bowl they move on stage and although each of them expresses what they heard individually, their actions tie back to each other.

The evening’s final story is a very sad one, a young Palestinian shares his memory of his father being murdered by the Israeli Occupation Forces and the aftermath.

Whilst acting out the story actors along with some people of the audience have tears in their eyes, one visitor needs to step outside, another bursts into tears after the performance.

In a somewhat solemn mood we leave to return to our guesthouse. It’s been a great but intensive day, some retire, others go out into town or sit outside the guesthouse.

On our final morning together we have a very special morning circle, reflecting on the previous two days. Afterwards we gather in a big circle and everyone is given the chance to remember a moment they had during the past weeks – the idea is that upon hearing about the individual’s experience, other members of the circle will step into the middle and express with a movement how they perceive what was said – the freedom family is having its very own playback theatre performance!

Finally an evaluation circle is giving everyone the chance to share their feelings, provide feedback and give suggestions for improvements for future freedom rides.

The common sentiment is that everyone who shares their experience, does so in a fashion that suggests that of course they will be part of the next Freedom Ride…

After our final lunch as a group, people begin to leave and things get very emotional. The March Freedom Ride 2014 has ended, but the journey of this freedom family will continue in our hearts and minds forever.

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Day #11

“Imagine somebody moves into your house and takes three rooms… you don’t negotiate with people like that.”

After nearly two weeks living with little water and hardly any opportunity to take a shower, people have a whole new appreciation for water. When we clean the two rooms at the clinic, lots of water bottles are found with some water left in them. People feel bad about throwing them away and start to drink the water instead.

Today we are off to Beit Sahour where all of us are longingly looking forward to the first hot shower in nearly two weeks – the Freedom Ride 2014 will conclude in a guesthouse with twin-bedrooms and ensuite bathrooms.

After long and heartfelt farewells in At-Tuwani we are ready for the home stretch of the Freedom Ride 2014. The previous evening had concluded in a meeting with the community and the feedback from locals was praise and gratitude connected with warm wishes and an open invitation to return to visit At-Tuwani anytime.

The Freedom family gets on the bus and the drive to Beit Sahour turns out something wonderful and very special. Listening to songs about longing for freedom from artists such as Tracy Chapman, everyone quietly reflects, looking out the windows over the by now so familiar, beautiful landscape, Palestinian towns, villages, Bedouin communities – all interspersed with fortress-like settlements and military watchtowers. Together with the music this drive feels magical, we all have so many achievements and great results of hard work to be proud of and look back at.

Upon arrival at the Saviour guesthouse in Beit Sahour, which is a converted greek orthodox church, our group disperses instantly, all heading for the longed-for hot shower and some rest.

The guesthouse is very beautiful, high ceilings, arches adorn the upper hallway, cooling marble floors, soft light flooding in through the windows – just upon entering reception we all feel instantly relaxed and comfortable.

After yet another delicious lunch some take a quick break outside in the garden, sitting in the sunshine, enjoying the bliss of this peaceful oasis whilst others have a quick power nap before the afternoon’s BDS (Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions) workshop.

Our BDS lecture, given by a member of the by now well-known Palestinian BDS movement, takes us through the different types of boycott, divestments and sanctions that the organization pursues and talks about examples of current success stories. The boycott of Israel is growing and increasingly proving to be the strongest weapon next to cultural resistance in the fight against occupation and apartheid.

We work our way through the BDS one letter and category at a time, starting with “Boycott” which is the main instrument for all of us as consumers. “Divestment” is directed towards Israeli companies or foreign companies that invest in Israel and thereby profit from the system of occupation, apartheid and colonialism that Israel pursues. The company Veolia, who is involved in the light rail project in East Jerusalem that entails confiscation of Palestinian land, is one example of a company that has suffered great losses due to global BDS efforts. The “Sanctions” part of BDS is up to governments and transnational organisations such as the EU and the UN but as individuals we have the power to influence them to take such steps.

Back in the day the South Africa apartheid regime finally collapsed thanks to a similar approach – because it all starts with the people. First the people move and by that eventually the governments are forced to follow and international pressure will increase until the apartheid regime finally crumbles.

Opposite initial doubt, the BDS movement is growing worldwide and rapidly at that! The goal is to pressure Israel until it adheres to international law.

Finally we discuss the struggle BDS faces within Palestine. Palestinian society is not poor but impoverished – natural resources exist but are controlled by the occupation regime. Palestinian consumers are oftentimes more likely to buy the cheap Israeli products as the local business are unable to compete on the markets. This is coupled with circling propaganda that Israeli products are much better than those of Palestine. BDS still celebrates successes; more and more Palestinians are willing to make sacrifices and more conscious choices when shopping.

The BDS workshop leaves us all charged with new information, ideas and inspiration.

The rest of the afternoon we are free to spend at our own leisure – some go into town for some shopping, others just enjoy the beautiful gardens around the guesthouse in its tranquillity.

After everything we have witnessed since day #1, we all agree that today almost feels like a holiday!

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Day #10

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After breakfast and morning circle our group splits. While some participate in a playback theatre workshop, the rest of us set out to visit two communities at great threat that suffer constant incursions by the occupation forces and illegal settler violence – Om Alkhair and Susya.

Just when we leave, news reach us that we need to change our program for the day and visit Susya first, and upon arrival it becomes clear why. We get off the bus next to the road from where we can see military vehicles just a little further down the road. Looking further to the right, we see a bulldozer roaming a stretch of land, what used to be a grove with olive trees resembles ruins – the occupation forces have uprooted every single olive tree and demolished homes. In disbelief we witness how homes and livelihood of people are reduced to dusty rubble and wooden splinters.

It’s tough to watch what is happening right before our very eyes, how different it is to be present, in person to witness what we usually read about. Outrage is taken to an entirely new dimension. Despite the bus and a group of people observing from a mount, the occupation forces ignore us, in fact, as they leave they mock us by waving with smiling faces from the car as they pass us.

Once we have recovered from what we had to witness, even though from the distance, we walk to the nearby community of Susya where we are welcomed with the usual warmth by the locals. You wouldn’t be able to tell that yet another demolition serving the purpose of ethnic cleansing has taken place; for Palestinians this have become a daily hurdle to take.

“Most countries have military. But Israel’s military has a country.”

In a comprehensive presentation we are shown a satellite picture of the region we’re in, it has been turned into a map by the Israeli occupation forces and with tiny tags that bear white numbers hundreds of further unlawful evictions of Palestinians from their own land are signified. A laminated sheet with small printed numbers to decide about the fate of thousands of people… ethnic cleansing tactics to drive them off their land. Most interestingly there are blue marked patches that Israel claims to be its land – in areas C, B and even A!

It makes the Oslo accord look like just another atrocious crime committed to the people of Palestine.

Permits to build have become impossible to get for Palestinians. Expensive and elaborate red tape and other requirements mean that the locals will remain forced to live in metal structures covered with tarp held down with tyres and wood to protect them in any season.

The Israeli government once approached the people of Susya by suggesting that it would be so much more beneficial if they agreed to be moved to a different area, given that here they had no facilities, no hospital and schools nearby etc. Susya’s response was that they had no intention to move, however in order to obtain access to mentioned elusive facilities they were happy to grow the surrounding Palestinian communities and connect them to the town of Yatta.

This of course is not in Israel’s interest and the authorities retorted that this was not feasible given that the “planned growth” would come from Yatta downwards, not from Susya to Yatta… go figure.

We hear about stories of how the Zionist regime uses different laws from Turkish over Ottoman to old British laws… whatever serves their purposes will do.

By the end of it everyone receives a glass of honey from Susya and we all walk back to the bus in silence, everyone is engrossed in deep thoughts.

Later that day we visit Om Alkhair, another village that is not recognized by Israel. A high fence of mesh topped with barbed-wire is the only thing that separates the Palestinian village from the illegal Israeli settlement. Settler attacks are frequent and violent. On the settlement side of the fence a yellow sign in Hebrew, English and funnily enough also Arabic, warns of “danger of death” when nearing the fence.

Hostility exudes from the houses, blinds are shut, it feels like this must be a ghost town.

The rightful owners of the land show us the papers and deeds to prove their claim to the land is legit. They tell us that originally the first members of this community had bought this land from Palestinians from Yatta. The people who purchased the land are still alive, the contract was made around 1948, yet the Israeli regime refuses to recognize the village.

As we walk around Om Alkhair, it is the first time for all of us to get this close to a settlement. In the background we see construction work – of course illegal settlers can construct to their heart’s content without any permits… In fact, oftentimes they build entire houses and receive a hasty permit by the government in the aftermath.

Our Palestinian guides explain the situation very matter-of-fact, everything said has a common underlying message: this is our land, we’re not going anywhere!

But few of us can even begin to phantom what the people of Om Alkhair must be going through on a daily basis. “Yesterday the settlers watered all their grounds for no reason.” “Why did they do that?” Our guide responds with a sad look in his eyes “Because they can.”

Every few metres the fence surrounding the illegal settlement is fitted with an even taller spike that carries a high voltage flash light lest any outsider should approach. The Palestinian community here hardly has water supplies or electricity.

Driving through the West Bank one cannot help but wonder why every Palestinian village has water tanks on the roofs of its houses while houses in Israeli settlements do not – it’s because Palestinians have to buy their own water which is against international law and defies human rights. Most Bedouin communities do not even have houses to speak of and the tanks are on the ground.

It has been a great day for learning, gathering new facts, bearing witness to Israeli crimes committed to Palestinians and for absorbing the reality of occupation and apartheid. It has been an exhausting day for the mind, most of us feel tired and some even overwhelmed by the amount of impressions to take in and digest.

This is Palestine.

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Day #9

At the crack of dawn, 6.30 am, some of us get up to join the Italian volunteers for their daily trip to pick up children from the military escort. After those who joined yesterday had shared what they witnessed with the group, more people wanted to see the transfer of those school children with their own eyes.

From our new friends, the Italian volunteers, we learn that there was an incident yesterday in the afternoon, as the children were on their way home from school: settlers threw stones at them. So today the volunteer in charge needs to speak with the soldiers and remind them to adhere to the agreement.

We also learn that since we arrived an Israeli soldier has been stationed outside At-Tuwani, observing the village – these news coincide with one of our group members having spotted six soldiers walking around the construction site of the new kindergarten which is only metres from our accommodation.

This is part of life under occupation, we don’t worry about it, we carry on as usual.

While we wait for the children, many ask questions and they mostly evolve around – why does the army not protect the children? And how about the police? Occupation and all its ugly accessories are difficult to comprehend at first. It also reminds those of us who spend more time in Palestine that we must be careful not to adapt too much but always be conscious of the crime in the acts of the oppressor regime.

One of our group members is a young mother, and at the sight of children being herded down a dusty slope by a military jeep with four soldiers in it, the tears run down her appalled and saddened face.

Illegal settlers sometimes drive past the kids, hitting, pushing and verbally abusing them. The soldiers remain in their jeep. We learn a new tactic is used. The youngest soldiers are sent for this job, meaning they don’t dare to push back violent settlers twice their age. In the beginning more senior soldiers were allocated to this task and at least they tried to actually protect the children.

We return to At-Tuwani, breakfast and morning circle time and after that we set out to one of the most exciting missions yet – today we are heading out to Mufaqarra with a tractor to plant 200 olive trees!

Upon arrival the local Bedouin farmer explains us the situation in detail. He received an internationally unlawful notice that a patch of land where he plants olive trees is no longer his, it says he was illegally using it and he had no claim to the land.

These are occupation tactics for stealing land. First it is confiscated under pretence that it is needed for military exercises, later it suddenly becomes annexed to an illegal settlement.

Off we go to plant olive trees on that very plot of land. The work is hard, the land is on a very steep hill and gigantic rocks are interspersed with patches of rich soil of a unique and beautiful shade of brown.

Some pluck weed, others start toiling the land with pick axes and finally we begin to plant the olive tree saplings. There is something deep, true and magical about planting a tree. It’s like breathing new life into the earth, a tree can outlive us all provided it is not cut, poisoned or burnt by Israeli settlers, that is… but for now we are happy, we create, we make a true and hopefully lasting difference – to sum it up, it’s such a wholesome and symbolic act.

As part of the infamous “price-tag” campaigns, which is the settlers’ way of revenge for any support of Palestine, olive trees are often times popular victims. Settlers spray them with poison, cut or set whole groves on fire. Going against the very land they claim is holy and sacred…

Think of trees – nature has a way of protecting them wherever weather is adverse and storms are harsh, the roots of trees will grow deeper. This also applies to the people of Palestine.

 Everyone has a great time, people enjoy the oftentimes therapeutic task of tending to the land, it’s re-connecting with nature but most of all it means re-connecting to the reality of our world in which we live, where occupation and apartheid, land and water theft, killing of livestock, assault and murder of natives and their children, restriction of movement and all the other manifold ways of destroying Palestinians’ livelihoods are not something we will stand for.

200 olive trees later we are happy, exhausted and positively starving! Our host and his children are very pleased with the result of today’s work and they insist we stay for lunch.

On the way back we navigate carefully as to not trip over any rocks – the Palestinian plains are very unique – although they are luscious green there are thousands of small rocks littered everywhere, hence it is sometimes referred to as “Land of stone and thyme”. Conversations erupt as to how tricky it is to move slowly, let alone imagine settlers chase you when it is impossible to move fast.

As we cool off inside a comfortable tent the local women bring us food and it is so rich and tasty that none of us can stop eating. We all reflect on how generous and hospitable Palestinian people are, how they will either share or give whatever they have even if it is not much and always with a smile and so much warmth.

“I have never met any people that are kinder or more generous than the Palestinian people.” This sentiment can be heard several times a day as part of conversations between people.

When we finish lunch we say good-bye to our host and his family and The Freedom Tractor takes us back to At-Tuwani.

Everyone needs a break after a hard day’s work, yet we gather the final scraps of our energy and finish what we started yesterday – some of us accompany the two local shepherds and their flocks and others finish re-building the shelter for children (where they will wait for their escort).

The evening of another long day concludes with a movie night. We all begin to dread the upcoming end of the 2014 March Freedom Ride and we all agree that really, this ride will never end but continue in our heart forever.

Palestine is working its magic, as the days go by people feel increasingly attached to the land and its people and everyone already feels somewhat conflicted about departing.

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