The man stood up and started chanting the morning call to prayer. “Shut up!” shouted the Israeli commando, aiming a handgun at the Muslim’s head from three meters away. Kevin Neish, sitting nearby, knew if he didn’t divert the soldier’s attention, the Muslim would be shot dead. The Israelis had already shot and killed nine men. Plastic cuffs binding his wrists behind his back, knees swaying, Kevin Neish stood up. The soldier pivoted and swung his body to the left, pointing the gun at Neish.
For two long minutes, Neish stood there facing death, a lone white man among three hundred subdued Muslim passengers. As the Arabic chant cut through the salty sea air, three men tensed—stone-still—caught in a triangular standoff. Neish stood in solidarity, willing to take a bullet to save the life of a man he did not know.
Neish was not supposed to be on the Mavi Marmara that day in May, 2010. The ship he’d been on, part of the five-ship Free Gaza Flotilla, broke down in the middle of the Mediterranean, and the Mavi had picked up all its passengers. The Turkish ship had left Istanbul with over 500 human rights activists, journalists, and several European parliamentarians on board, carrying 10,000 tons of international aid supplies to the blockaded Palestinians in the Gaza strip. With the Mavi 100 miles off the coast of Gaza, Israeli commandos boarded the ship at 4:00 o’clock in the morning. Their mission: prevent the running of the blockade. The five other ships in the flotilla had already been taken over without incident. The Mavi was different. Some of the unarmed Turkish volunteers resisted. They had even managed to capture three Israeli commandos who had rappelled down to the deck from a Navy helicopter.
While all this was going on, Neish was taking pictures with his SLR. Some of his photos, posted on his blog, show the Turks carrying injured Israeli soldiers into the passenger lounge to receive medical attention. Others show dead Turkish men lying on stretchers.
In a film of the incident, Neish holds up a stack of laminated sheets taken from one of the captured Israeli soldiers. Some of the pages show head shots of Free Gaza flotilla passengers, next to personal information. In the Mavi passenger lounge, there are mostly men. But there are also women. Young and old. Some sit, some walk. Some pray. Several wield long pieces of metal handrails in their hands. A few of these wear gas masks. They line up in a stairwell leading to the outer deck, ready to repel Israeli soldiers who might try to break through the door. Everyone wears a bright-orange flotation device.
Neish takes photos. He would later recognize one of the head shots on the Israeli hit list as a match for the dead Turkish man with the blood-red hole between his eyes.
Kevin Neish is a volunteer human rights activist. His specialty is international accompaniment. NGOSs such as Peace Brigades International, War Resistors International, and the International Solidarity Movement, arrange volunteer accompaniers to protect people fighting for human rights. These volunteers serve as a witness, a foreign presence, a shield from violence.
Neish first went to Palestine in 2002 as a volunteer with the Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement. For Neish, solidarity is more than just a word; it’s a way of life.
Neish remembers being in Grade five while his teachers were on strike, and his dad—a commercial fisher—walked the picket line with the striking teachers. This was an act of solidarity, an act revered in the labour movement. Neish recalls being outraged by the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. So he signed up as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank.
Arriving in Ramallah on a sun-filled spring day in 2002 (while the second intifada was in full swing), Neish was billeted with a Muslim family. Then he spent two days in an ISM volunteer orientation. Here Neish learned nonviolent resistance tactics and participated in sessions about team decision making, meeting facilitation, and living and working in Palestinian culture.
A few days after the training session, Neish was in an apartment in Bethlehem with two Palestinian boys while Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers were poised in convoy in a nearby street. He could see Israeli snipers perched on rooftops, and Neish urged the boys to stay down and out of sight. But when the tanks started rumbling forward, one of the boys couldn’t resist sneaking a peek and went out to the balcony. Bullets whistled in the air and Neish grabbed the boy and they all went inside.
By the time Neish was on the Mavi Marmara, he’d had twenty years of experience as an international human rights activist. His first assignment was in 1989, when he accompanied Marta Torres, a Guatemalan labour lawyer and civil rights leader in exile in Canada, on a journey back to her homeland. At the time, Neish, a trained diesel mechanic, had been working as a marine engineer at the Victoria dockyards, and while he’d had experience as a union activist, he’d never been an international volunteer before.
As with all important decisions, before he took it on, Neish and wife Georgina and teenage daughter Jennifer held a family meeting in the kitchen. And they had all agreed that it was important to do their part to help the workers of Guatemala in their struggle against an oppressive regime. It was all about solidarity.
According to Christine Schweitzer of the London-Based charitable organization War Resistors International, “accompaniment has certainly saved the lives of many activists. But as with all nonviolent action, it must not be seen as all-powerful. It can fail.”
Less than a year after Neish’s first Palestine trip, 23-year-old Rachel Corrie from Olympia, Washington—an ISM volunteer in the Gaza Strip—was intentionally run over and killed by an Israeli military bulldozer as she was trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian pharmacist’s house.
Before leaving for Guatemala, Neish had been warned in advance of the potential danger. There had been whispers of a planned coup attempt. Sure enough, as they were landing in Guatemala, the expected coup had just begun, and Torres and Neish were whisked away to a safe house.
Those two weeks in Guatemala gave Neish his first intriguing taste of international accompaniment work. A typewritten death threat had been tacked to their door one morning. And the next day, they discovered a bomb attached to their car’s undercarriage. It was removed and detonated without harm.
Neish remembers being shocked by the tactics of the death squads in Guatemala. And the violence continues. In March, 2013, Amnesty International reported that human rights activist and trade unionist Carlos Hernández had been shot dead in Eastern Guatemala, two weeks after receiving a telephone death threat. It’s not known if international accompaniers had been with Hernández at the time.
Neish lives in the house that has been his family’s home for thirty years. He and Georgina built the modest two-story in a working-class neighbourhood of Victoria in the 1980’s. They did much of the work themselves. The lower level is devoted to storage, a place for tools and equipment and spare parts for all kinds of machinery. And half a dozen bicycles. The narrow driveway barely accommodates Neish’s white 1973 VW Eurovan. And there’s a separate entrance to the suite where the boarder lives.
Neish lives upstairs in an apartment-size space. A poster of bereted Che Guevara greets visitors. Hundreds of books fill shelves and bookcases. Neish is casually dressed in short sleeves and denims. His deep-furrowed face suggests wisdom and stress. Or years working outdoors. In many of his blog photos he’s wearing a baseball cap. And a genuine affable smile. I remember a sentence from his blog: “In a nutshell, I just don’t like bullies, regardless of their colour, religion, size, nationality or race.” Here at home, he seemed more gentle bear than fighter of bullies. But as I will soon learn, Neish is not one to back away from a fight.
I couldn’t help but notice his grotesquely deformed left arm, with two long surgical scars running in opposite directions from his left shoulder. He showed me how his left wrist and fingers couldn’t move the way they were supposed to move. Neish said he’d been shot by a crazed man in Port Renfrew twenty years earlier.
In the early 1990’s, Kevin and Georgina bought a small farm just outside the village of Port Renfrew, on the very western edge of Canada’s West Coast. They enjoyed the serenity. And they loved to walk in the mossy woods on sunny days, and take the occasional trek to have a look at the diversity of life in the nearby tide pools.
Early on, they’d been warned about Bruce, the local terror who intimidated people with brazen intimidation and not-so-random acts of vandalism. But Kevin and Georgina decided not to let Bruce scare them off or harm their neighbours, so they organized an RCMP-supported block watch.
One night in 1994, Neish was doing the rounds, flashlight in hand. Bruce and his sidekick came at him with a powerful searchlight and shotguns, shouting at Neish that he was trespassing. Neish stood up to the bullies, shouting back and refusing to back off. Suddenly, Bruce’s friend fired a shotgun blast. The bullet passed through Neish’s upper arm, leaving a hole the size of a quarter in his humerus. Clutching his disabled left arm with his right—and in great pain—Neish ran-hobbled back to the house. Georgina called for an ambulance.
“When I got to the hospital,” says Neish with a sardonic smile, “a hospital union activist I know saw me and said he could have understood it had I been shot in Guatemala, but not in British Columbia.”
Georgina died in 2007 after a long fight with cancer. Neish had promised he’d help her die with dignity. When she could no longer function, and after she’d said her goodbyes to friends and family, doctors allowed Neish to gradually increase her dosage of morphine. Georgina wanted nothing to do with hospitals, and so in their bedroom, in that house they’d built together in Victoria, Georgina died one dreary March night. The next morning, Neish says, he knew she was gone. “I never felt so alone in my life. I couldn’t hear her anymore.”
Neish’s journey in life and in activism veered onto a different path that day. “Trundling around looking for kindred spirits is probably what I’m doing,” he says. “I find them here and there. I found a couple in Palestine. Fellow activists, from the United States, and El Salvador.” He tells me about an American woman named Leslie Shulte; how she’s committed her life to improving the lives of ordinary people in El Salvador. “Amazing stuff she’s done. Really making a difference. Different people can do different things. I could never do what she does. I can’t work with other people. I don’t function that way. I work alone as much as I can.”
While Neish is a hero to many – a protector of the oppressed, the bullied, and the underdog—some aren’t so sure about the efficacy of what he does. And others have nothing but derision for what they consider a meddlesome and unnecessarily risky activity.
Andrew Vallance, a close friend, says Neish is the bravest human he knows. “I wish I had the kind of inner strength he has. But he’s also a compassionate human, and damn good company.” On the flip side, Andrew also wishes Neish were a bit more bourgeois in his activism and chose less dangerous options when carrying on The Struggle.
Mark Forsythe of CBC radio interviewed Neish after his deportation from Israel in June, 2010. Forsythe asked if he had any worries that he’d been co-opted by a group with ulterior motives (referring to the mainly Muslim Turkish international aid NGO IHH, which sponsored the Free Gaza Flotilla). “I’m not an idiot,” Neish answered defiantly. “I’ve done this all my life. I’ve been in Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, and Palestine earlier. Nobody co-opts me.”
To prevent any apprehension of being co-opted, since 2002 Neish has done all his activist work as an independent volunteer. While he’ll often need help to overcome restrictive government regulations—Canada refuses to give Canadian nationals who want to enter Gaza a release of responsibility required by the Egyptian government—or to find a visa sponsor, he’s always made his own travel arrangements. And he’s not affiliated with any organization or movement.
Neish’s Finnish great grandparents helped found the utopian socialist communal society that, in 1901, created the community of Sointula (place of harmony in Finnish) on Malcolm Island, near the northern tip of Vancouver Island. “It was a center of communism, cooperative socialism and unionism on the west coast,” says Neish.
When he was growing up, Neish’s house would sometimes be packed with union people sleeping in spare rooms and on the living room floor. And he remembers one time, after a native family’s house had burned down, two of their kids slept over at the house for a few weeks.
The Neish household was always a loving home. And a very political home. But Neish recalls with a sigh, both his parents were so busy with their peace and justice activism, he rarely saw them just kick back and relax. He doesn’t remember them ever taking a vacation; every trip had a political purpose.
Neish is circumspect about the danger he encounters on his volunteer accompaniment trips. “If I’ve ever put myself at risk,” he says, “it was a calculated action.” He’s always weighed the potential benefits against risks to his personal safety. And he knows his white skin and Canadian passport make him an effective shield.
On the other hand, he’s been physically and verbally assaulted by zealots in his home town of Victoria. And he’s received anonymous threatening phone calls and letters. Even death threat emails. And while he’s been shot at several times, he’s only ever been hit by a bullet once—and that was in Port Renfrew.
He remembers his father telling him more than once that if the enemy is mad at you then you must be doing something right.
On that May day on the Mavi Marmara, Neish placed his confidence in his white face with the white beard. On his blog, he writes “I don’t remember being scared, I only remember being outraged.” He remembers making the kind of calculations he would have made as a mechanic diagnosing a dysfunctional diesel engine. The kind of strategic decision he’d been trained to make as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement. Had he done nothing, the soldier might have shot the man dead. But with three hundred witnesses, and his white skin, Neish felt the odds were in his favour.
One of the major challenges for Neish, as for all international human rights volunteers, is the double culture shock—both outgoing and returning. Pablo Stanfield, a long-term volunteer with Peace Brigades International, says: “No matter how much you love your home, you return changed from any intense overseas living experience. You can’t go home again, not because it is like the river that changes so you never step in the same river twice, but because you will have changed. It is not the same you who returns. The challenge of holding onto one’s identity when going into an unfamiliar culture becomes as great a challenge when returning.”
Since 2007, Neish has been returning to a home missing Georgina.
“Living in Victoria is like living inside a bubble,” says Neish, “insulated from the real world. A person has to work hard to see what’s real, and then it’s bizarre and disorienting to return to being inside that bubble. You can’t just take a blue pill, like in the Matrix movie, and forget what you’ve seen or experienced.”
After five weeks in Gaza, no one would fault Neish if he’d taken some time off and went to Port Renfrew for a few days of relaxation. But Neish is driven and dedicated. What needs attention right away is to reconnect with people he’d met in Gaza. Using five fingers of his right hand and one finger on his left, Neish hammers out emails. To let people know he is safe, and to arrange his next trip to Gaza.
Gaza is not on anyone’s list of favourite tourist destinations. With hundreds of bombed out buildings and scores of moon-like craters—Neish says the Israelis bomb and destroy, and the Gazans rebuild—Gaza is a ghetto-prison to its million-and-a half inhabitants. For Neish, though, it is home to a bullied people doing their best to survive under treacherous conditions. For Neish, reaching out to help the Palestinians is a natural act of solidarity.
He wants to go back to help fix the fire truck (yes, the only ladder truck on the strip) and other machinery and equipment in desperate need of repair. He expects he’ll be limited mainly to an advisory or supervisory role, though, because he can only use one arm.
Israel has etched out a series of off-limit buffer zones along its land and sea borders with the narrow strip (40 kilometers long and 12 kilometers wide). Fishers can only go out three miles from the coast. On land, anyone setting foot in the mile-wide buffer zone risks being shot.
In Gaza, Neish gave talks at schools and showed the film shot on the Mavi. He also worked side-by-side with local farmers, harvesting peas and strawberries in fields no more than a kilometer from an Israeli military border post.
While he enjoyed meeting other local activists and volunteers from all over the world, one of the most interesting moments for Neish was meeting the only woman fisher in Gaza. One day walking on the beach, Neish noticed the modestly dressed 18-year-old mending her net. Through an interpreter he told her that as a kid in Canada, he’d often watch his dad mending the fishing net with a netting needle just like the one she was using. The young woman, Madeleine Kulab, explained that her father wasn’t able to fish anymore, and that she and her brothers now do the fishing for the family. She invited him to come out fishing with her. Neish is looking forward to his next visit so that he can accept her invitation.
Looking back, Neish reflects on his most rewarding activist moments. He remembers accompanying the indigenous Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu in Guatemala. Without foreign accompaniment, Neish says, Menchu might have become one of the ‘disappeared’. She might not have been around to receive her Nobel Prize for Peace in 1992. And being in the right place at the right time on the Mavi Marmara, standing in solidarity with the Muslim who defied the Israeli commando, is another experience he cherishes.
Neish eschews the accolades, but says “if you do good things there’s always somebody that’s going to praise what you do.”
Kevin Neish, like thousands of human rights activists around the world, walks in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. King said that the believer in nonviolence knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. I doubt if even cosmic companionship could possibly make up for losing Georgina. But I have a feeling that, for Neish, at least for the time being, it might be the next best thing.