‘Freedom flotilla’: the Australians hoping to set sail and deliver aid to the people of Gaza

<span>For Australian care worker Surya McEwen, after the fear of death comes the fear of being arrested.</span><span>Photograph: Free Gaza Australia</span>
For Australian care worker Surya McEwen, after the fear of death comes the fear of being arrested.Photograph: Free Gaza Australia

“My core worry is dying, being killed,” Surya McEwen says.

The Australian care worker is calling from a hotel room in Istanbul, where he is waiting with doctors, nurses, lawyers and activists to set sail on the Gaza “freedom flotilla”, which hopes to deliver aid to Palestinians under Israeli bombardment.

Two other Australians, Daniel Coward and Helen O’Sullivan, are also waiting to sail with the flotilla.

The mission – challenging Israel’s control over the entry of humanitarian assistance into Gaza – involves a hierarchy of worry. After the fear of death comes the fear of being arrested, McEwen says. “The way that happens, when it happens, is not a happy picture.

“But that is personal worry in the context of millions of people in unimaginably devastating situations,” he says. “Our worry is more for the people in Gaza and the West Bank than it is for ourselves.”

Related: ‘Man-made starvation’: the obstacles to Gaza aid deliveries – visual guide

The plan is for one large cargo ship and two passenger ships to sail from Istanbul, explains James Godfrey, a spokesperson for Free Gaza Australia which is a branch of the Freedom Flotilla Coalition.

But the ships haven’t been able to leave.

Ships must be registered in a country and fly that country’s flag to sail, and only one of the flotilla’s vessels is registered – under the flag of Palau. Guinea-Bissau withdrew its flag from the other two ships a day before they were due to depart.

“[But] we are not giving up, the same way Palestinians don’t have the luxury to give up,” Godfrey says.

“As we take our passport privileges and our bodies towards Gaza to break the blockade, we momentarily – as a Palestinian once told me – become part of the struggle.”

‘I could not not go’

In 2010, nine flotilla activists en route to Gaza on board the Mavi Marmara flagship vessel were shot a total of 30 times by Israeli soldiers. Five were killed by close-range gunshot wounds to the head.

That was how McEwen first learned of the FFC – a broad coalition of organisations from around the world that works to, as Godfrey puts it, “raise awareness of Israel’s illegal blockade, expose it and physically challenge it”.

“It was terrible, people were killed out at sea,” McEwen says of the Mavi Marmara mission. “But in that moment, it was amazing to see this huge group of people from all over the world doing this thing, to try to get to the people of Gaza, to break the blockade. I was in awe from afar.”

Fourteen years on, McEwen decided to join the current emergency fleet after seeing the images coming out of Gaza. “Children having limbs amputated without anaesthetic … Fifty thousand pregnant women, most of whom are now stuck in a tent city,” he says.

The three ships in Istanbul plan to carry 5,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Gaza as well as hundreds of people from 20 countries who would assist in distributing the aid.

Related: UN’s top court orders Israel to immediately halt Rafah offensive

All Godfrey will say about the plan to offload the supplies is: “We have a range of logistics in place to ensure we will be able to unload our cargo to Palestinian people when we get there.”

Separately, a refurbished fishing boat called Handala is travelling to Gaza on another mission from Malmö in Sweden, to potentially deliver items including water purification tablets, brushes, anaesthetics, maternity kits, sleeping bags, nail clippers, solar panels, tent poles, surgical tools, ventilators and wheelchairs.

Joining the flotilla was a “frantic” decision for McEwen after he connected with the FFC’s Australian group at a protest outside the office of the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, in Sydney at the end of January.

It was “a big shock” for his family and friends, he says.

“Ships have gone before, but not in a moment like this,” he says. That realisation left McEwen’s circle “really worried”.

In the days before leaving Australia, McEwen set up Surya Sails For Gaza on Instagram to document the journey after “serious fears for my safety and the safety of everyone on board”, he says. The account has 13,000 followers.

“The most important thing was getting eyes on the mission, making sure that as many people as possible were following along with the flotilla’s journey and putting pressure on political elites to ensure safe passage.”

McEwen says his “feeling of fear” was overtaken by a feeling that “I could not not go”.

“There are 2.3 million people being deliberately starved as a tactic of genocide, and it just felt so overwhelming, and like such a mark on humanity,” he says. “Being a part of something, even if it is a little thing relatively, is an important thing to do, just for my own humanity.”

Israel has rejected allegations that it is using starvation as a tool of war. It has also pushed back against genocide claims.

Hope despite limbo

McEwen is a dual-diagnosis support worker in the northern rivers region of New South Wales. He coordinated care teams for people with high-demand needs.

“That has been one of the hardest things to try to navigate,” he says.

“I can try to be a part of that coordination from afar but emergencies happen and need to be dealt with, responded to, in real time.”

The flotilla has been stuck in Istanbul for almost a month after the Guinea-Bissau International Ships Registry requested to inspect the lead ship the day before the flotilla was set to sail – a “highly unusual request” given the fleet had previously passed all inspections, FFC organisers told media.

Guinea-Bissau withdrew its flag from the two ships, including the cargo ship holding 5,000 tonnes of aid, shortly afterwards, organisers said.

Some of the human rights observers have had to return home as a result. But McEwen – along with the other Australian representatives Coward and O’Sullivan – is remaining in Istanbul. He’s hoping a flag will be reinstated by another willing country.

“Every day that is delayed, thousands of tonnes of desperately needed aid is just sitting there in the port, when they should be in Gaza,” McEwen says.

The flotilla’s mission “feels more urgent and more meaningful than ever,” he says, pointing to Israel’s restrictions on humanitarian aid into Gaza.

US forces have built a temporary dock to support the delivery of humanitarian aid. Delivering aid by air is not possible as Israel destroyed the strip’s international airport 20 years ago.

The closure of two land border crossings into southern Gaza – Rafah and the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom – has virtually cut off the territory from outside aid, the UN and other international aid agencies have said.

“We hope to open up a humanitarian corridor,” McEwen says. “Compared to what is needed, it is a drop in the ocean … but we hope to deliver aid, and for the world to realise that [it] is possible … and the amount that is actually needed arrives.”