IN the past 48 hours I have been struck by the power of friendship.
On Thursday morning I logged in to Twitter to see a number of friends and friends-of-friends whom I know through the whimsical (but marvellous) collective called Join Me posting some concerning messages. (Join Me is a story entirely unto itself, but it is a group of people connected through friendship, kindness and a lot of silliness to boot.) Around midnight on Wednesday night/Thursday morning, a press release had been distributed from the Road to Hope convoy, a non-activist convoy of aid workers hoping to get food to Gaza. The Egyptian government had denied them permission to enter the country, so they were attempting to reach Gaza by sea by hiring a boat from Libya. After fundraising to pay for the ship Strofades IV, and while waiting for permission to head towards Gaza, the Greek owner appeared to have an argument with an Egyptian broker and pulled out of harbour – the ship still moored, a number of the aid workers still on board and one of the convoy lorries in the ships doorway, which was half open. The aid workers were now hostages.
My friends were very concerned because they had reason to believe that one of their friends was one of those hostages. As somebody who has not been part of Join Me for a while, I assumed I wouldn’t know who it was. But I did. The person in question was a man named Kieran Turner, who, though I am not as close as many of my friends to him, I know to be a lovely bloke. The first time I met him he made a point of coming to speak to me, knowing who I was and wanting to know more about me. This news was highly alarming. Nobody knew what was going on, other than that a violent man had torn out of harbour – damaging the docks in the process – taking captive a number of aid workers on a vessel that would be liable to sink if the weather turned bad. Sailing with the back door open is highly dangerous.
Then the owner left the boat mid-voyage but the ship continued to sail. We now did not know who was sailing it or where it was going.
What followed was astounding. There had been only one piece of news coverage to date. No major news network knew of the story, so friends and joinees began a campaign to increase media coverage, thereby increasing awareness and maximizing the chances of people being able to help. People bombarded Twitter using the hashtag #GazaConvoyHostages, including asking celebrities to help spread the word, so that it would start to trend. Once it would trend attention to it would perpetuate, allowing people to be able to become both aware and up-to-date of the situation as it unfolded. Slowly news networks picked it up, first the Scottish Daily Record, then the Independent, the Guardian, the Sun, the Daily Mail and, eventually, 18 hours after it had started and 7 hours after they had first been tipped off about it, the BBC. It really was disappointing that the BBC had refused to cover the story for so long, especially when it involved British hostages.
Last night, however, we received word from Kieran that he was unharmed. Everybody was very relieved. Websites tracking the boat suggested they had docked and disembarked on Crete.
This morning, this turned out not to be the case. They were still sailing, still hostages. They were bound for Piraeus near Athens and, upon approach, became surrounded by Greek military, who boarded the ship. It could not be ascertained whether this was a good thing or not. Some reports suggested the hostages were being held by the commandos at gunpoint. Other reports suggested they weren’t in Piraeus at all. Others still thought they were in Crete.
As I write the latest is that the ship has been towed into Keratsini, the Greek commandos peacefully ensuring the passengers are passed over to the waiting British Embassy staff. But even now reports are conflicting, and the ship’s owner is attempting to claim that the captives came along voluntarily - though obviously, he is highly likely to say that, perhaps to save face. The reasons for the whole scenario have yet to be explained. What appears to be an argument over money (the Gaza element being unrelated) may have had political elements to it, we just don’t know.
Things are looking hopeful for Kieran and the convoy. Over the past two days I have been supremely impressed by the camaraderie of people affected by the events. Out of love for Kieran and the others, people have used the tools available to them – principally Twitter, Facebook and MarineTraffic – to spread the word, spread support and rally people behind them. It has been truly inspiring.
Update: Kieran and the other hostages have finally been released and the captain of the Strofades IV arrested. It is uncertain how the convoy will now proceed split over two continents and lorries and personnel in different countries, with passports not necessarily in the same place. But the hostages are free and well, and that's the best news.