TORONTO — He looked like any other traveller, smiling as he came through the frosted doors of the arrivals hall at Pearson airport, the hooded look in his eyes the only indication of the horrors of the past week.
Kevin Neish, a Canadian aboard an aid ship raided by Israeli forces off the Gaza coast was back on home soil Saturday, but with a heavy heart.
“I’m sad, because I left some people behind that were in Israeli jails,” he said.
Neish, who was detained in Israel for three days, was greeted by an intimate group of supporters in Toronto before he caught a flight to his hometown, Victoria.
The 53-year-old retired marine engineer said he was taken hostage by Israeli forces and watched people being killed aboard his ship.
“The Israelis captured it, international waters, took us all into Israel, kidnapped us, and then we spent three days being brutalized in detention,” he said in a voice heavy with emotion.
“It was ugly.”
Neish said his Israeli captors repeatedly threatened him with death, but added that others experienced far worse.
“There was a fellow that was locked up that didn’t get out with me and he turned up this morning in Istanbul, a split down the middle of his head and blood from head to toe.”
Although official numbers from Monday’s violent confrontation pegged the number of fatalities at nine, Neish said he had a different count.
“Sixteen people were murdered on the boat, my boat.”
Although he refused to go into details, Neish’s voice occasionally caught in his throat as he recalled the past week during which 700 people from his flotilla were detained.
“I left with a 50-pound suitcase, and a 22-pound carry-on, came back with the carry-on,” he said gesturing to the rucksack in his hands. “Fifty pounds of luggage gone, 400 bucks gone, all my information, all my ID gone, all stolen by the Israeli army.”
Neish’s cousin Jacqueline stood by him as he spoke, the first of his family to receive him on home ground.
“I just said, ‘let me be the first to welcome you home,’ and he just said ‘thank you,”’ she said, adding it was clear Neish’s mind was still racing with the experiences of the past week.
“We were worried, all of us were worried,” she said. “We were just keeping our fingers crossed.”
“But he’s home and everything’s alright.”
Neish was one of three Canadians detained in Israel — Rifat Audeh of St. Catharine’s, Ont., and Farooq Burney were also arrested but have since returned to family in the middle east.
Video of the raid at sea released by the Israeli government appears to show some activists moving violently toward the soldiers. This has prompted Israeli officials to say the footage proves their commandos acted in self defence.
But Neish and his shipmates maintain they had no guns, although they do concede some of them were armed with chains, pipes and sticks.
Neish has said he saw Israeli soldiers pepper civilians with gunfire from hovering helicopters as the raid began.
He has accused the Israeli authorities of mistreating him, intimidating him with guns and dogs, preventing him from using the toilet for 15 hours and keeping him from standing up.
For Mary-Jo Nadeau, Neish’s experience is a further example of what she calls a growing list of injustices by Israel.
“He is one person amongst the global civil society movement that is growing and is very aware that these actions are illegal and Israel needs to be held accountable,” she said after she escorted Neish to his next flight.
Nadeau, who is from the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, said while she was angry at what had happened to Neish, the confrontation hadn’t been totally unexpected.
“These things happened to Palestinians on a daily basis,” she said. “That it happens in international waters for international Palestine solidarity activists is not a surprise.”
Earlier Saturday, Israeli forces seized another Gaza-bound aid ship, this time without meeting any resistance from pro-Palestinian activists.
Israel has imposed a naval blockade of Gaza for more than three years in an effort to prevent weapons smuggling to Hamas, which controls the territory.