Before leaving Diyarbakir on 19th December, 2010, for the last stop-over in Turkey, Gaziantep, the Asia to Gaza Solidarity Caravan visited the grave of Ali Haydar Bengi, the local man who got killed in the Israeli attack on flotilla from Turkey on 31 May, 2010, in international waters of Mediterrean Sea. His is one among the many graves with flowers planted on top in the graveyard but Bengi is now considered a proud martyr in Turkey as well as among Kurds. The members of caravan stood in silence for some moments at his grave.
Like all meetings in Turkey the one in Gaziantep was also organized in a sports complex. A student of Jamia Millia Islamia of New Delhi, Aslam Khan, said in his speech that supporting the cause of Palestine is important because success here will mean a setback to the march of imperialism globally.
The members of caravan were promised that they would be given Syrian visa on arrival. The process was smooth. The visa fees for 81 members from 9 countries was waived. The members waited in their buses as exit stamp was placed on their passports on Turkey side and visa was issued on the Syrian side at Eajaz. They changed into waiting buses from hosts in Syria. The Governor of Alappo province, Ali Ahmed Mansoora, was there to receive the caravan at the border. Five roadside receptions, including at Edlip and Homs, were given on the way to Damascus by people who came out with Syrian and Palestinian flags and hand written placards. Some of there were spontaneous.
The Red Crescent of Iran has decided to donate USD 7,00,000 worth of medicines to be sent with this caravan. With the money donated for ambulances and medical-surgical equipments by the Iranian parliament the total contribution from Iran alone as aid to Gaza has reached USD 1 million now.
Charitable Association for Palestinian Relief hosted a meeting for the caravan on 21st December in Damascus. Ahmad Abdul Karim, on behalf of this organization as well as a member of Baath Party in Syria, assured his full support to the Asian caravan. Palestinian leaders Ramzam Abdullah of Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine and Ahmad Jibril Abu Jehad, of leftist orientation, also spoke on the occasion.
Another high point of the caravan was meeting on 22nd December in Damascus which was addressed by Khalid Meshal, Head of the Political Affairs of Hamas, the group in power in Gaza. Khalid Meshal paid his tributes to Mahatma Gandhi for his inspiring struggle against the colonialism. He thanked the caravan, especially the two families - an Indian and a Pakistani - who were accompanying it as well as the families of caravan members who couldn't come for their support. He said he was happy to receive the caravan in Damascus and hoped that one day he will receive them in liberated Gaza and finally in liberated Palestine at Jerusalem.
Khalid Meshal made is clear that Palestinians are fighting for a real state without any occupation and with Jerusalem as its capital. All mosques and churches, including the Al Aqsa mosque, will be free in this Palestine and Jews, Muslims and Christians will live together as equal citizens. At the end of the meeting the Indian organizer Feroze Mithiborwala presented him a copy of Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography.
In an interview later in response to a question on Indian government's changing stand vis-a-vis Israel he said India, as an ancient civilisation, has had a traditional relationship with Arab world and it too had to fight against the imperialist power, hence it would do well to reflect on its position. In reponse to another question as to why, unlike Yasser Arafat, he was not reaching out to the world and especially to India, Khalid Meshal said he would be happy to come to India if invited. It is noteworhty that Brazil had recognized Palestine as a state just the previous day.
In the evening the caravan members were invited by Khaled Abed Al-Majeed, General Secretary of the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front, to visit the refugees in Yarmouk camp where close to one lakh people live. Damascus is home to about 5 to 6 lakhs Palestinian refugees.
On 23rd December, some members of the caravan were invited to Beirut where they met the former Prime Minister of Lebanon and now the President of International Committee to Break the Siege of Gaza, Dr. Salim Hoss. In an informal chat, at his apartment on the 6th floor of a building in the heart of city, he said one should be prepared for the worst from Israel which commits barbaric acts in the name of self defence whereas it is actually the Arab nations which have to worry about their self defence against Israel. He admitted that Lebanon has been the victim of Israeli aggression often but lately because of facing stiff resistance Israel has become careful. He said that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, numbering about 50,000 were quite well behaved even though the Lebanese government was not able to take complete care of them.
Former member of parliament, Osman Saad, welcomed the caravan in Saida, capital of South Lebanon, the next day after which it was taken to the hilltop war museum at Mleeta, centre of valliant resistance against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Beginning with the first attack on Lebanon in 1975, Beirut was invaded in 1982, the second Arab capital to fall to Israel after Jerusalem in 1948. It tool 15 years of struggle before Israel partially withdrew from Saida and villages surrounding Mleeta in 2000 before its conclusive defeat in 2006. While the South Lebanon Army was fighting along with the Israeli forces it was Hizbullah which emerged as the saviour of Lebanese society.
The caravan which has now grown to 164 members - 60 from India, 32 from Jordan, 20 from Iran, 13 from Indonesia, 10 from Lebanon, 9 from Pakistan, 6 from Turkey, 4 from Bahrain, 3 from Malaysia, 2 each from Japan and Bangladesh and 1 each from Syria, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan - is now awaiting the clearance from Egyptian authorities to leave the shores of Syria to sail to Egypt before its final entry into Gaza.
(Dr Sandeep Pandey is a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee (2002) for emergent leadership, who is a part of the Asia to Gaza peace delegation and writes for Citizen News Service (CNS). He is a member of National Presidium, People's Politics Front (PPF), heads the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) and did his PhD from University of California, Berkeley, USA. He taught at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur before devoting his life to strengthening people's movements in early 1990s. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www