Picture the following: Military interrogations, speaking in the native tongue to confuse undercover police and a hellishly bumpy taxi ride by night through the Sinai desert. One would be mistaken for considering it the plot of a Robert Ludlum novel.
But for Eoghan Quinn, brother Gearóid and Ronan Sheehan, the ‘Pathways for Palestine’ trio who cycled from Ireland to the Middle East, all of the above were realities recorded during a fascinating journey.
Indeed, so fascinating was the tale Eoghan and Ronan shared with this column that we’ll be returning to it in next week’s edition.
Their aim was to cycle from Ireland to Gaza, a 4,000-mile cycle through 14 countries which was conducted over 40 days.
The cycle specifically raised money in support of an emergency appeal to provide neo-natal care and medical resources for burn victims in Gaza following the Israeli bombardments.
“As a (Type 1) diabetic I am completely dependant on constant access to medicine,” said Eoghan, aged 21. “I wanted to use my fortunate circumstance to help those cut off from the outside world in Gaza.”
Getting into Gaza was never going to be easy. Sadly, it proved impossible for the lads with red tape at not one but two border crossings winning out – at Erez to the north of Gaza bordering Israel and Rafah to the south bordering Egypt.
“When we got to Erez, we were told that our application was still in process and that it could take up to five weeks,” said Eoghan. “We didn’t have enough money to stay that long.”
Ronan, who lost a stone and half during the cycle, added: “Basically, the authorities were going to drag it out until we had to go home.”
Nevertheless, the team proceeded to the border crossing into Gaza where they were to spend seven long hours in searing Mediterranean heat.
The support van, which they’d hoped to donate to Gazans once entering Palestinian controlled lands, was stripped apart, scanned and x-rayed for good measure.
“They interrogated all of us and that went on for quite a while”, Eoghan added.
“But once the van was dealt with, they were going to keep us there for another while longer. I left my insulin in with the interrogation officer, in his fridge.
“We used that to our advantage, saying that I needed it every half hour – they’d taken all our food away as well. They knew it would look bad if I went hypo, so they signed off our forms and we went down to Elat, which is at the southern point of Israel on the Gulf of Aquaba, which was amazing.”
Having reached Elat, the group were asked to produce a ‘TripDic’ form by Israeli soldiers manning the border crossing.
Not having such a form, not knowing what it actually was and with the soldiers themselves unwilling and unable to explain what it was, the lads had no option but to return from whence they’d come.
Cue another seven-hour wait; cue another stripping of the van and further questioning.
Sadly, there was no hope whatsoever of getting the van/ambulance through to Gaza, which left the group with no option but to sell it, before embarking on an overnight trip to the border at Rafah.
But this wasn’t just any overnight trip. This was a 500 mile trip through the Sinai desert in a Hiace taxi! But they were not alone during this bumpy spin along what was essentially a desert boreen.
“We got through on the Egyptian side, stopped at the first border crossing and this guy hopped in the van and he was an undercover police officer,” Eoghan explained. “He was trying to listen to us so we decided to speak in Irish to each other.”
The ‘fun’ didn’t end there. “We were about a hundred miles up the road and when the Hiace went over 80 miles an hour, it started beeping. It didn’t stop beeping for four hundred miles – it was ridiculous!”
Once at Rafah, the boys got back on their bikes with their passports at the ready. “The Egyptians knew we were coming. They told us there and then that we weren’t getting in.
“Yet there were all those people in there, waiting for us, knowing we were coming. The stories there were horrific. We met a doctor from California, whose family went in to visit their relations and they’ve been stuck there now for six months.”
Ronan continued: “His kids were in school and he said not to take them out of school until it was finished, but by the time school was finished, they weren’t allowed out. And they’ve got American passports…to think that he’s been waiting there in a tent every day for the last six months.”
Women and children hold vigil there every day, waiting to be re-united with their loved ones. It’s a dreadful reality one can’t really come to terms with unless you’ve actually witnessed it at first hand.
“It’s terrible,” said Eoghan. “We were all in shock after it.”
The beauty of Serbia, fighting off hounds in Turkey, a rock star reception in Syria and what lies ahead for Eoghan, Ronan and Gearóid.