Singaporean doctor recounts harrowing boat mission to break Gaza blockade

Low-resolution photo transmitted from the Al Awda during its final hours of navigation (left) and Dr Ang Swee Chai (in black). (PHOTOS: Freedom Flotilla Coalition website & courtesy of Dr Ang)
Low-resolution photo transmitted from the Al Awda during its final hours of navigation (left) and Dr Ang Swee Chai (in black). (PHOTOS: Freedom Flotilla Coalition website & courtesy of Dr Ang)

CLARIFICATION: Dr Ang Swee Chai holds both Singapore and British citizenships, not passports. Her Singapore passport has expired.

It was on the last leg of sailing in the afternoon of 29 July, about 49 nautical miles from Gaza, when the small boat that Dr Ang Swee Chai was on entered troubled waters.

The Singaporean doctor was among 22 people on board the Freedom Flotilla Coalition’s Al Awda (The Return) that was aiming to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

The boat’s radio rang out once urgently while it was in international waters. Left unanswered, it rang again. This time, it was answered by Dr Ang who relayed it to the captain.

A commanding male voice crackled repeatedly over the intercom: Where are you heading and what is your final destination?

Within less than two hours, the Al Awda, a former fishing boat sailing under a Norwegian flag, would be surrounded by three big warships ferrying dozens of Israeli soldiers masked and armed with machine guns.

Dr Ang – a self-imposed exile who holds both Singapore and British citizenships – and her companions were setting sail with over 110 boxes of dressings and intravenous antibiotics worth €13,000 (S$20,721) on the boat’s lower deck, hoping to attend to the medical needs of the beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza.

“We knew our chances of making into Gaza is very slim. I was quite worried they would kill us and was prepared for the worst,” said Dr Ang, whose late husband Francis Khoo was an activist who fled Singapore in 1977 to evade arrest by the Internal Security Department. She also left Singapore and joined Khoo in exile in England.

She had decided to join the Al Awda as part of her “70th birthday present to the people of Gaza and Palestine”. The long-time Palestinian rights advocate and author of “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, who turns 70 in October, has made multiple trips to Gaza, with the most recent one in 2013.

The attempt to sail to Gaza, however, was a first-time experience for the plucky orthopaedic surgeon. A self-professed non-swimmer, Dr Ang described to Yahoo News Singapore that going on a boat was “the last thing she wants in her life”.

The other Singaporean onboard the Al Awda was 42-year-old independent filmmaker Jason Soo, who joined the boat to document Dr Ang’s efforts. When contacted by this reporter, Soo declined to speak about his experience.

Israelis ‘tasered’ a few men

Apart from the two Singaporeans, the participants comprised human rights supporters, journalists and crew members from 16 countries including Malaysia, Sweden, Norway, Spain, and the USA, according to the group’s website.

Prior to the encounter with the Israelis, the activist group had spent two days in “nonviolent training” – tactics to keep themselves calm and polite during emergencies – on the Italian island of Sicily before setting sail on 20 July towards Gaza.

The training came in handy somewhat. A few in the group huddled together, packed some food and water, and readied themselves for the inevitable takeover.

Others formed a “non-violent” barrier – in two rows of threes and one row of twos – to protect the wheelhouse door for as long as possible.

After the Israeli forces came aboard in Zodiac inflatable boats – in what Dr Ang observed as a “high-level navy operation” – they tasered a few of the men. “One was tasered in the neck and face,” she added.

In the midst of the ensuing “nasty kerfuffle” and “pushing around”, she sustained a fall while running around to nurse the injured. A CT scan conducted later on 9 August at the hospital she works at showed that she had fractured two ribs on her right side.

“By Israeli standards, it is not exceptionally bad because they had treated a lot of people worse,” said Dr Ang.

The group of 22 were later ushered uncuffed to the back of the boat’s upper deck where they were body-searched and ordered to surrender their mobile phones and other valuables.

“They took our phones away, so we had no way to know the time,” she added.

Locked up in Israeli prisons

By the time the group was brought to a closed military zone in Ashdod, Israel, the sun had already set. Dr Ang recounted that they were x-rayed, strip-searched “several times”, photographed and confiscated of all possessions including even their shoelaces. The activists were left with only the clothes that they wore.

They were then brought to Givon Prison in Ramle at about 8am in the morning, where Dr Ang and the others were to spend the next two nights in separate cells.

She and five other female activists shared a cell – the size of a double room – that was furnished with three “rusty and dusty” double-decker bunk beds and a common shower area.

The women begged the guards for toilet paper, clean water and medications that were withheld from those with ailments. At one point, Dr Ang and another female activist were isolated in another cell as punishment for banging the cell gate with metal spoons to get the guards’ attention.

“The guards were constantly shouting over little things; they took it out by banging or slamming the prison iron door. The whole floor shook,” said Dr Ang. “They were instructed not to hurt us. But within what they could do, they really made their presence felt.”

While in detention, the activists made do with simple meals. Breakfast was white bread and jam while lunch was sausages, mashed potatoes, and a single green pepper – “not delicious but healthy”.

“I am not fussy about food. I thought it was edible but some people couldn’t eat it,” said Dr Ang. “The treatment got a lot better on the second day (after representatives from the British, Norwegian and Swedish embassies came for the respective activists) and we were allowed to help ourselves to water from the drinking fountain outside and the coffee outside.”

Involvement of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs

When Dr Ang was brought out to see the deportation judge on the second day, she chanced upon a representative from Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) who was visiting Soo.

While she was not personally visited by the representative, she noted that the MFA had appealed to the Israeli authorities for the Singaporeans on board the boat, after her friends requested for help from the Singapore authorities about her situation.

The MFA issued a press statement a day after the boat’s capture, calling on the Israeli authorities to accord the Singaporeans involved due legal rights. It did not reveal the number of Singaporeans involved or their identities.

“So I know where the government is concerned, I am definitely a Singapore citizen,” said an emotional Dr Ang, who was born in Penang, Malaysia, and raised in Singapore.

In response to queries from Yahoo News Singapore about the boat incident, the Israeli embassy in Singapore said in a statement on 2 August, “The maritime blockade, which prevents the entry of goods through the sea, is a consequence of Hamas seizure of the Gaza strip and turning it into a terror centre, launching attacks on Israeli civilians in the south of the country.”

Contrary to the coalition’s stated intent of bringing humanitarian aid to the Gazans, the embassy said its organisers had “admitted openly in an interview of (Palestinian activist) Zaher Birawi by Felesteen, Hamas’ daily newspaper, that the flotillas’ main goal is propaganda aimed at keeping the Palestinians, the Gaza Strip and the ‘siege’ as ‘live’ topics in international public discourse”.

Pining for return to Singapore

After spending a third night at Ramle Prison where she was transferred to, Dr Ang was deported back to England, where she’s been living for the past four decades.

Although the English city of Luton is where she calls home currently, she yearns for the day when she can return to Singapore, where “her family and roots are”. Under Singapore law, citizens are not allowed to hold dual citizenship. The Singapore authorities have stated that Dr Ang has to give up her British citizenship before she is allowed to return to Singapore.

She said, “I hope to be able to come back alive…and (to) spend the rest of my life in Singapore, rather than in an urn in a niche in one of the churches.”

As an indication that Dr Ang still has her heart in Singapore, following an interview with her on Russian TV, she recalled how one person commented, “This woman has been away from Singapore for 41 years and she still has not lost her Singaporean accent. Isn’t it great?” Dr Ang said, “I take it as a compliment.”

As for the Al Awada, the boat was last seen anchored at Ashdod Harbour on 3 August by the group onboard Freedom, another boat under the Freedom Flotilla Coalition. Likewise, Freedom was intercepted by Israeli forces before it could reach Gaza.

Even weeks after the detention, several personal items – including credit cards and cash totalling US$1,800 (S$2,457) – belonging to the group were still detained by the Israeli forces, according to Dr Ang.

For her, that meant two mobile handphones – the Samsung Galaxy A3 and J3 -, an Olympus camera, her Bible, swimsuit, dirty and clean clothes, and a book that was a gift from her sister. When she retrieved her luggage and examined it, she noticed that the Israelis had left a t-shirt bearing the logo of the flotilla untouched.

“I can keep it as a memento now,” Dr Ang quipped.

Related story:

Intercepted Gaza-bound boat: MFA asks Israel to accord Singaporeans involved due legal rights