Trevor Hogan's mission to Gaza
'About 20 commandos in balaclavas came on board. They had assault rifles, knives, tasers, some of them had shotguns and they were out to intimidate us, breaking windows, shouting at us, telling us if we didn't go with them people would get hurt'
THE MV Saoirse was surrounded. It was an intimidating show of force by the Israeli navy.
Giant, grey warships, with smaller gunships riding shotgun and then there were the Zodiacs -- inflatable boats, designed for speed and mobility -- which were buzzing around the Irish boat, packed with Israeli, balaclava-wearing commandos.
When the sun rose that morning, Trevor Hogan had been optimistic that the Saoirse's mission to bring aid (including rugby gear donated by Leinster and Munster) to the people of Gaza could succeed. On board were 14 Irish citizens including Hogan and, a mere 40 miles out from the port, they were hopeful of breaking the blockade.
That hope was extinguished when the warships appeared on the horizon and it quickly became apparent that the Israelis were in no mood for compromise.
"It was pretty tense," recalls Hogan. "They were shouting at us through megaphones and they started using water cannons to disable the boat. It was pretty scary, we went below but the water was streaming in on top of us, which was especially unsettling for me because I'm a poor swimmer.
"They took out the electrics in the wheelhouse with the cannons and a fire started. The captain came down, normally a calm guy and he was shouting: 'They are trying to sink us! They are trying to sink us!'"
Trevor Hogan won four caps for Ireland and enjoyed a distinguished career for Munster and Leinster before being forced to retire due to injury last season. It is just over a year since Hogan's last game and while he misses the day-to-day camaraderie of the dressing-room, there were never any fears of the Nenagh man finding ways to fill his time post-rugby.
Holding an honours degree in journalism, Hogan was always interested in life beyond the track-suited, cloistered existence of the professional rugby player and his passion for the Palestinian cause dates back to his adolescence.
"When I was a teenager I started really getting into history and Palestine always struck me as a tragedy. It seems that with every passing decade, every passing year they are more and more isolated. Being Irish is probably a key aspect of it, there are parallels with Ireland, given our colonial past and for Palestine it is even more of a challenge than the one this country faced.
"There are a million and half people under siege. The majority of the population rely on aid to survive. There is widespread unemployment. They can't import and export.
"They can't fish or farm their own territories and if they break the limits, they are shot at and taken to Israel. They can't leave, only certain people can leave if they have the right documents and it might take months. I was hoping to set up a rugby exchange but it is impossible. The quality of life is dire, it's been described by the Red Cross as a crisis of dignity."
Hogan's motivation in joining the Freedom Flotilla was a humanitarian one but he accepts politics is the only way to find a proper solution.
"It is a humanitarian issue but politicians can find an answer in the morning -- end the siege in Gaza. No-one here is anti-Israel, we are pro the Israeli people and the idea of Israel, it's just the policies of their government."
THE LOCK DOWN
The stated aim was to bring aid to Gaza but the ultimate purpose was to raise awareness -- the Freedom Flotilla always accepted the probability of being stopped by the Israelis. However, though they had steeled themselves mentally, the Irish were taken aback by the extent of the Israeli intimidation.
"About 20 commandos in balaclavas came on board, all you see is their eyes. They had assault rifles, knives, hand-guns, tasers, some of them had shotguns and they were out to intimidate us, breaking windows, shouting at us, telling us if we didn't go with them people would get hurt.
"We sat in a circle and kept saying we are staying together. You try and stay calm, but the adrenalin is going, like before a match only here was no outlet for it, and because I was a bigger guy they were squaring up to me, staring me down.
"This went on for hours. We had water but no food and when we had to go to the toilet there were two commandos pointing their rifles at you. Eventually, they realised we weren't going to move and brought the boat into the port of Ashdod.
"The Canadian boat with us went through the same process but unfortunately some of them were tasered and beaten to get them off the boat. A couple of our guys were put into shackles, one of them because he had a shaved head and they didn't like the look of him."
Intervention by the Irish consul helped calm the situation but there was no way of preventing incarceration.
"First, we were put through a series of searches, all our stuff was taken off us. Then it was individual interrogations and it was unsettling to see the hatred in their eyes. They didn't understand. 'What are you doing?' they kept asking. 'People in Gaza don't play rugby.' I tried to explain the people in Gaza are entitled to move around and play rugby if they want but I didn't want to come back too much -- it felt like it could spill over.
"We got to jail about 4.0am, exhausted, at that point looking forward to a cell. It was two to a cell, very basic, bunk beds, toilet, shower. The lights were on the whole time, you had no concept of time and they would try and wake you up through the night. You get meals through a slot in the door, one morning for breakfast it was two cucumbers, but we stored bread to get us through.
"There was an exercise yard, we were allowed out for half an hour twice a day the first day and we were out of contact from the Thursday to the Sunday afternoon, when we were allowed one three-minute phone call.
"It almost made it harder because it was back to the cell then. You try and keep the spirits up (we were slagging Chris Andrews that it was about time someone from Fianna Fail was locked up) but what really kept us going was knowing that what we were going through was only a fraction what the people in Gaza were going through.
"We were locked up for about six days, five there and another in a different detention centre before we went home."
Pressure from Ireland eventually told, but the release was disrupted and delayed before the Irish started arriving home.
"They kept trying to break us down right to the end but when we got into the airport and saw our families and the support that was there, it lifted us straight away. We had a tricolour that the commandos had tried to steal from the boat but we had got it back and that was a symbol to show we hadn't been defeated and were continuing to show solidarity with the people of Palestine."
A week and a half on, Hogan is back into his routine -- studying English and History in the first year of an Arts degree and coaching his home club of Nenagh in the All-Ireland League, where emigration is proving a huge challenge to building a squad.
Life has returned to normal but this only heightens his feelings for the people in Gaza.
"I am not trying to claim that we achieved huge success but it was a small show of solidarity and hopefully it will help highlight the issue now.
"I would be first in line for the next flotilla but hopefully there won't be a need for one. It's not about the flotilla, it's not about us, any of us. It is about the people of Gaza and the siege being lifted. I was lucky enough to have played for Ireland but I look back on this as one of the most important things I have done in my life. I feel so proud and privileged to have been involved, there are no negatives for me. It is about ordinary people standing up for ordinary people."