Volunteers risk lives for humanity, solidarity

Welcome back: President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (right) receives five of the 12 Indonesian volunteers who were deported by the Israeli government after boarding the “Freedom Flotilla” en route for Gaza, at the Presidential Office. Courtesy of the Presidential Palace/Abror Rizki
Welcome back: President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (right) receives five of the 12 Indonesian volunteers who were deported by the Israeli government after boarding the “Freedom Flotilla” en route for Gaza, at the Presidential Office. Courtesy of the Presidential Palace/Abror Rizki

In the house of Muhendri Muchtar, one of the Indonesian volunteers aboard the Turkish “Freedom Flotilla” bound with humanitarian supplies for Gaza, Palestine, which was intercepted by Israeli soldiers, a handmade poster festooned with flower petals decorated the otherwise bare wall.

“Buya, a Gaza fighter” was written across the poster. Buya, a Minang word, translates as father in English.

Muhendri, the vice chairman of KISPA, (the Indonesian Solidarity Committee for Palestine), received a warm homecoming upon returning to Indonesia on Monday after being deported by the Israeli government. He was one the first five Indonesians — out of 12 — on board the Mavi Marmara ship that was raided by Israeli commando forces in international waters, to return home. Nine of the 700 peace activists and journalists were killed during the Israeli raid of the flotilla that was bringing medical equipment and humanitarian aid to a blockaded Gaza.

In his second day back in Jakarta, Muhendri arrived at his house at Cipayung, East Jakarta, around 9 p.m. after meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and members of parliament. A couple of friends had been waiting for a while at his house to welcome him back.

“I had an hour’s rest yesterday,” he said in his house last Tuesday. After a homecoming ceremony at the Foreign Ministry affairs, him and his wife Farita returned home close to midnight. Farita explained the neighbors had put the poster up.

“There were a lot of friends and neighbors already waiting for him. And so he chatted for a while,” she said.

The next day, before sunrise, Muhendri was already on his way to a television news station to give a live interview. Quite a stark contrast to his life a little over a week ago, where he was onboard Mavi Marmara, the main ship in the Freedom Flotill”.

He animatedly recounted the events that unfurled during the raid. Muhendri said that a night before the raid, the captain of the Mavi Marmara had divided the passengers into several groups to guard the ship in case Israeli force decided to launch an attack on the flotilla. The group of Indonesians and Malaysians Muhendri belonged to was in charge of the port (left) side of the ship’s fourth floor, he went on.

Around the time of dawn prayer on May 31, Muhendri said he heard someone shouting, “They’re here! They’re here!”
“Not long after, we heard gun shots and explosions. There were tear-gas bombs and shots that sounded like real bullets,” he said.
“The sound of shots ricocheting on metal was terrifying. We could hear gun shot sounds ‘doog dug doog dug’ and bullets hitting metal ‘tang tang, tang tang’,” he said.

His group then caught a glimpse of a boat filled with Israeli soldiers next to the ship. “We shouted ‘God is great’ and sprayed them with water. The soldiers on the boats looked hesitant, advancing and then retreating after we sprayed them,” Muhendri said.

He saw a helicopter flying really close to boat and not long after, his colleague from KISPA, Okvianto Emil Baharudin, was injured. “I think he was a bit shocked after seeing the blood run on his arms. He said ‘I’m bleeding. I’m bleeding’.” Okvianto was taken to the medics onboard, and Muhendri did not see him again until a week later in Indonesia.

Muhendri and others’ presence onboard the Mavi Marmara showed that a number of Indonesian volunteers were willing to risk their lives to go to a conflict stricken area.

The Medical Emergency Rescue Committee (MER-C) still has volunteers in the Middle East, who were onboard the Mavi Marmara, and is attempting to reach Gaza again, to build a hospital there.

The MER-C founder has already collected Rp 13 billion (US$1.4 million) to complete the project, which has been approved by the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. The people of Gaza have also donated a piece of land for the hospital, while the organization has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Palestinian Authority’s Health Ministry.

Peaceful movement: Bulent Yildirim, head of Turkey’s Islamic and pro-Palestinian rights group The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), talks to activists on a Turkish ship as they sail into the international waters of the Mediteranean Sea as part of a humanitarian convoy on May 30, 2010. Reuters Peaceful movement: Bulent Yildirim, head of Turkey’s Islamic and pro-Palestinian rights group The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), talks to activists on a Turkish ship as they sail into the international waters of the Mediteranean Sea as part of a humanitarian convoy on May 30, 2010. Reuters

Volunteer endeavors in a conflict-torn area can be motivated by a number of reasons from humanitarian principles to religious solidarity.

Indonesia, with its Muslim-majority population, has for a long time sympathized with the plight of Palestinians in the Middle Eastern conflict. Although the Indonesian government does not have formal diplomatic links with Israel, it is open to meetings focusing on setting up a Palestinian state.

For Muhendri, who visited Gaza after the 2009 Israel offensive to distribute Rp 3 billion worth of donations collected by KISPA, joining the Freedom Flotilla was not only a humanitarian mission. He insisted that he supported the Palestinian cause first and foremost because he was Indonesian, and second because he was Muslim.

“First of all, I’m an Indonesian citizen. In the preamble of our constitution, our founding fathers mandated us with a clear mission: ‘Whereas freedom is the inalienable right of all nations, colonialism must be abolished in this world as it does not confirm with humanity and justice’.”

He quoted a hadith (a prophet saying) about a woman who was punished by God for locking up a cat in a room without feeding it and leaving it to die. “Can you imagine, if God expressed his wrath for one cat? Around 1.7 million people [in Gaza] have lived under a blockade for four years. What can we say in front of Allah? If one says that all Muslims are brothers, where’s the proof?” he said.

A veteran volunteer in the Middle East, chairman of the Aksi Cepat Tanggap (Rapid Relief Action/ACT) foundation, Ahyudin, said people volunteering in conflict zones were perceived differently from those volunteering in natural-disaster areas because of the political nature of a conflict zone.

Labels are easily dispensed on people involved in conflict zones. In the case of the Palestine-Israel conflict, volunteers or aid workers might be dubbed terrorists, anti-Semites or pro-Zionists.

“Volunteers, aid workers, should not be concerned with being stigmatized like that,” he said. “Aid workers should go to conflict areas and help anyone there,” he said.

“The principle behind volunteering is that one should be independent … One must be neutral. One has to be independent,” Ahyudin said, emphasizing his point.

ACT did not join the Freedom Flotilla as it was busy delivering humanitarian aid in some of the country’s disaster-hit areas, including Padang, Karawang and Bandung. ACT said it would send a humanitarian mission to Gaza around August to coincide with the holy months of Ramadan, a program that has been held in the last five years. He added that the Freedom Flotilla incident had provided momentum for people to push for a reassessment of the blockade.

Ahyudin explained some individuals enlisted as volunteers for altruistic reasons. But volunteering could also be a way to deal with frustration arising from governments’ inability to address problems of justice and welfare.

Volunteering can be step toward a better world, Ahyudin said. His organization is currently setting up a volunteer course dubbed Volunteer University, with classes teaching principles of humanity and volunteer skills.

“It’s good to spread the spirit of volunteering. We can create a better civil society with it,” he said.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Feature | Mon, June 14 2010

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