Flotilla Detainee’s Harrowing Experience

June 5th, 2010 - by admin

Justin Berton / San Francisco Chronicle – 2010-06-05 00:40:12


OAKLAND (June 3, 2010) — Gene St. Onge, an Oakland structural engineer who boarded a ship for Gaza in hopes of delivering aid but was intercepted by Israeli forces instead, expects to return to his Montclair home today.

He’ll bring home a nasty chest cold that he caught while imprisoned, a cut on his forehead from a scrap with Israeli soldiers, and the memory of his friend and fellow Bay Area activist Paul Larudee, 64, leaping overboard as a form of protest.

It may be a while before St. Onge returns to the Mediterranean. “I’m anxious to get home,” St. Onge said Thursday from his hotel room in Istanbul. “I’ve got a struggling business to tend to.”

St. Onge, 63, was one of five Bay Area residents on the Gaza-bound flotilla that ignited an international controversy after Israeli commandos intercepted the ships loaded with thousands of tons of aid. The Israeli government said nine people were killed and dozens more injured. Activists have said as many as 12 were killed.
Confusion reigned

St. Onge, sounding weary but relieved, gave a firsthand account of the confusion early Monday as soldiers boarded the Sfendoni, a 54-passenger craft that was one of six ships in the flotilla. The ship also carried Larudee, an El Cerrito resident who co-founded the Free Palestine Movement, a main sponsor of the effort.

St. Onge was scheduled to meet with Gazan engineers to develop new ways to build homes with the region’s limited resources. Israel restricts cement and steel deliveries into Gaza, St. Onge said. He said that when the Sfendoni set sail from Greece, passengers expected a confrontation with the Israeli navy and had trained in nonviolent resistance. “We prepared for the worst,” he said.

It was the first time St. Onge had joined Larudee on a Gaza mission. Larudee had overseen eight other voyages since 2008: Four reached land, and Israelis turned away the other four.
Blast, scuffle

St. Onge said a soldier tossed a flash-bomb that exploded next to Larudee as the Israeli commandos stormed the ship, possibly puncturing Larudee’s eardrum. St. Onge said he suffered a gash to his forehead while trying to play peacemaker in a scuffle between soldiers and another passenger.

As soldiers gave orders, St. Onge said, Larudee “resisted at every point. If they told Paul to sit, he’d stand. If they told him to stand, he’d sit.” He said Larudee was not ordinarily defiant, and speculated that “it was all getting to Paul and he was starting to lose it.” The soldiers tied Larudee’s feet and hands with plastic bindings, St. Onge said, and placed him in a chair on the ship’s deck.

After activists complained that Larudee was losing circulation, soldiers cut the ties, St. Onge said. “He just kind of slouched in his chair and seemed to calm down,” St. Onge said. Yet moments later, as soldiers directed their attention to another passenger, Larudee jumped overboard, St. Onge said. “It was the last time I saw him.”

The Larudee family in El Cerrito said it took an hour and half for soldiers to pluck him from the Mediterranean.

Larudee’s injuries have become the subject of scrutiny by his family and supporters of the Free Palestine Movement, who say he was beaten by Israeli soldiers. The Israeli government confirmed Larudee received medical treatment, but did not know the extent of his injuries or how he suffered them. Attempts to reach Larudee, who is staying in Athens, were unsuccessful.

Once on land, St. Onge was interrogated by immigration officers. He surmised they were trying to determine whether he was connected to a terrorist network.

St. Onge spent two nights in a four-man cell, subsisting on portions of bell peppers, yogurt, apricots and hummus, before being deported. He contracted a chest cold.
‘Mixed feelings’

After his deportation, St. Onge learned about Larudee’s condition and the claims that he’d suffered beatings. “I don’t know what it gained,” St. Onge said of Larudee jumping overboard. “If it concentrated more attention on just how the Israeli soldiers acted, maybe it was worthwhile. Otherwise, I questioned it, for his own well-being. I still have mixed feelings about it.”

Three other Bay Area activists detained on the flotilla also are en route home, according to family members: Oakland resident Janet Kobren, 67, a co-founder of the Free Palestine Movement; Kathy Sheetz, 63, a retired nurse from Richmond; and Iara Lee, 47, a San Francisco filmmaker.

St. Onge said his luggage was confiscated and he was released with only the clothes on his back, his passport and his wallet. When he landed in Istanbul, he bought new clothing and a razor. He began to consider the work that awaited his engineering firm. “I’m starting to feel closer to my usual self,” he said.

E-mail Justin Berton at jberton@sfchronicle.com.

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