“We Can’t Be at Peace With Ourselves If We’re Complicit in Saudi’s War”

Collettivo Autonomo Lavoratori Portuali
Bethan Bowett

Weapons of mass destruction shipped from Europe are decisive to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. But in Italy, the dockers who are supposed to load the warships are taking strike action — showing how workers can block the machinery of destruction.

The docks of Genoa, Italy. (Kate Hopkins / Flickr)

Interview by
Fivedabliu

In May 2019 dockworkers in Genoa, Italy refused to load the cargo of the Saudi warship Bahri Yanbu. In a strike echoed by similar actions in Marseilles and Le Havre, workers at the northwest Italian port insisted that they would not be complicit in Saudi war crimes in Yemen.

Yet the petro-monarchy’s “ships of death” continue to ferry weapons of mass destruction from the West to the Gulf. On February 6 the Bahri Yanbu secretly docked in Sheerness, Kent, amid protests by the Campaign Against Arms Trade. Campaigners instructed lawyers to challenge the legality of the ship’s presence in British waters. But the Bahri Yanbu then passed via Cherbourg for Bilbao, where local activists saw explosives being loaded onto the vessel.

The ship is now due to arrive in Genoa on February 17 — and dockworkers are again planning to strike. Workers from Genoa’s Autonomous Collective of Dockworkers (Collettivo Autonomo Lavoratori Portuali) told local broadcaster Fivedabliu about the reasons why they are taking action.


F

How long have you been organizing around the issue of warships docking in Genoa?

CALP

We have been talking about this for four years now. Basically, because almost every day we were at the quay seeing ships being loaded with armored vehicles, containers with explosives, and so on . . . In the last year we have seen weapons firms loading much more, let’s say, serious cargo, things like armored cars with mounted howitzers, armored personnel carriers, helicopters. Then there was the cargo that we blocked them from loading in May: generators that were intended to be used to power the drones that bomb Yemen.

F

Your colleague mentioned howitzers and tanks, but there have also been cases of armaments being loaded in parts, to keep all this under wraps?

CALP

In the case he mentioned back in May, the generators could also be used for civilian purposes, so it’s the context that decides whether this is an instrument of war or not. What started us thinking about the situation in Yemen was that we started seeing lots of pickup trucks being transported to the Middle East, Toyota pickup trucks, dozens and dozens of them. And these pickup trucks are used for military purposes, as they’re mounted with heavy-duty weapons, howitzers, etc.

It’s clear that military logistics need things like this, as well as the other conventional weapons. So, when we realized what they were being used for, and we started to see things like helicopters, then we made a decision. We can’t be at peace with ourselves if we are loading ships that are being used to fuel conflicts across the world. So, at one point, we had to say “enough.”

In so doing we’ve brought the issue into the open. We’ve brought media attention to the issue, and we’ve made many other workers aware of it. Indeed, this isn’t just a battle against the arms trade. It’s also a workers’ struggle, because the workers shouldn’t be kept in the dark about the work they’re doing — they should have control over it.

We’re waging this battle because if the workers can stand up to this then they can also stand up to other things that shouldn’t be going on in the workplace. We’ll pursue this battle as long as it takes, but we don’t know what’s going to happen, because we’re up against a huge industry — one through which more money is flowing than perhaps any other.

F

How many warships stop in Genoa?

CALP

The Bahri [Saudi’s national shipping firm] company has six ships. A Bahri ship stops in Genoa roughly every twenty days, these are ships that go on to service war zones such as Saudi Arabia, the Turkish-Syrian border, and in Kashmir. So, we realized that this company, which transits from North America, stopping in Europe, and then going on to the Middle East, services so-called dirty conflicts, such as Kashmir, a conflict that has lasted over seventy years. India last dropped bombs on Kashmir in July 2019, and on the last ship that went through Genoa, the Bahri Hofuf which docked on January 18, there were some Chinooks, helicopters for carrying troops, with the lettering “Indian Air Force” on the side.

We took some photos of the cargo, though it wasn’t easy. While at the beginning these things were done completely in the open, it was seen as something basically normal, since the blockade we carried out last year they’ve started to cover up the boarding ports so that you can’t see what’s inside the ships. But they can’t always manage to keep these ports covered because of the quantity of things they are carrying, so occasionally things are left uncovered and if you go up close and hide behind something you can take a photo with your cell phone . . .

F

But it’s not only the Bahri ships that come to Genoa. There’s also Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “ghost” ship, the Bana, which seems to have passed through Genoa.

CALP

The case of the Bana has been reported in national media, even in the French media. It was probably going to load cargo here to take to the Turkish militias in Syria, accompanied by Turkish military ships.

We know for sure it went first to Libya accompanied by the Turkish military and offloaded a cargo of arms in Libya, then it headed to Genoa with its GPS switched off. It seems they’ve carried out some checks but haven’t found anything. [The captain of the Bana is currently under investigation in Italy, accused of illegal arms trafficking after one of the shipmates claimed asylum in Genoa and testified to Italian authorities. The shipmate also handed over a video of the inside of the Bana before it arrived in Genoa, showing that it was carrying a cargo of heavy-duty weaponry.]

But what we should remember is that military logistics, the transport of arms, is a huge, complex business. It’s not just Genoa, it’s lots of ports all around the world. The Bana often comes here to load cars or other vehicles, used trucks, and so on.

Often ships come here, pick something off, then move off straight away to another port. Once we saw on the news that one of the pickup trucks [in Syria] had the sticker we put on them here at the port in Genoa, to show where they need to be loaded. So it’s clear that these pickup trucks end up in war zones.

F

What will the port workers’ collective’s next move be?

CALP

We are organizing a day of mobilization for February 17, when the Bahri Yanbu is due to arrive here, to say no to the trafficking of arms from Genoa. We refuse to be part of the arms supply chain. We’ve called on different organizations, antiwar organizations and so on, to join us in this action. We want the citizens of Genoa to participate in this struggle to stop the use of their port for these ends. We’re not doing this because we are trying to rob the city of work. It’s a question of public security as well as an ethical question that necessarily involves us all.

F

It will be difficult to draw sympathy to this cause in a region that produces weapons, in a country that in 2018 exported €2.5 billion worth of arms.

CALP

That’s very true. Today we wrote a letter to the workers at an agency, Delta, which works with Bahri, because we realize that there are a lot of people that, consciously or not, work at some level in the arms industry. In Genoa you have Leonardo, Fincantieri, lots of factories with lots of workers, who are honest and hardworking. But we all need to realize what it really means to be complicit in this. But we think that if we focus on the port, we can make up for the lack of room for action elsewhere.

We need to realize we have a common destiny, not only with the workers where we are, but also of the people who suffer from the arms trade, from war. For certain, it’s difficult to find solutions, but as port workers it is our duty to pose this problem. As the port is concerned, we will do everything we can to stop these ships from being loaded.

F

We mentioned that there are deaths caused by all this. What happened after the Bahri Hofuf unloaded in Iskenderun?

CALP

What happened there is emblematic of what we were saying before — that these ships play a decisive role in these conflicts. It happened in Yemen last year, and it happened again in the case of the Hofuf last week. Just after the ship arrived in Iskenderun, just a hundred kilometers from the Syrian border, Turkey began its pushback in Northern Syria against the recent Syrian Idlib offensive.

We’re hearing about the results of this now — there was this huge Turkish convoy waiting along the border, which was probably waiting for the Hofuf’s cargo to arrive before starting the pushback. We don’t have concrete proof of this, but it seems more than likely, given the timings and from videos we’ve seen, people we’ve talked to. These ships bring transport, equipment, and arms vital for a war effort, so they are decisive in conflict.

F

How are your relations with the trade unions? Will they stand with you?

CALP

In our collective about half of us are also union reps for FILT CGIL. We’ve been meeting with the local confederate body of the CGIL [Italy’s largest union confederation] which is very open to working on this and very concerned about the issue. We are going to try and organize a demonstration for when the boat arrives. We are asking the unions to call a citywide strike. Genoa has become a symbol of antiwar sentiment on the basis of the previous actions against the Bahri ship, and now we want a citywide strike against war, not against this boat in particular, but against war in general.