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Turkish journalist recounts flotilla attack

Ayşe Sarıoğlu

Following is my (rough) translation of excerpts from the first part of Taraf newspaper’s two-part interview with Ayşe Sarıoğlu, a 27-year-old graduate student at Istanbul University, who was on board the Mavi Marmara. Sarıoğlu begins the interview by explaining that although she is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, she participated in the expedition to Gaza as a journalist.

Readers will note Sarıoğlu’s description of fellow journalist Cevdet Kılıçlar, who was fatally shot during the raid and whose funeral Jasmin Ramsey and I attended this past Friday at Beyazıt Mosque in Istanbul. The fact that Kılıçlar is said to be holding a camera at the start of the attack provides yet more evidence of Israel’s all-inclusive application of the term “weapon.”

Excerpts from the second part of the Taraf interview, in which Sarıoğlu recounts her experience in Israeli custody, will be translated and posted shortly.

[The interviewer’s questions are in bold; Sarıoğlu’s responses follow]

» Was there much solidarity among the journalists on the ship? Did you know the murdered journalist Cevdet Kılıçlar?

Yes, Mr. Kılıçlar never left the press room on the ship. He was always working. I would even say to him: “We’re in such a nice place, we’re on a cruise ship. You should go outside a bit and get some sun.” But he hardly set foot on deck. He told me: “This isn’t a sightseeing trip, this is a work trip… We’ll do sightseeing another time.”…

» I will get to the raid [in a minute], but first I’m curious as to what you all on the ship were expecting [from the Israelis] and whether you realized you were in danger.

At the most we were expecting something along the lines of Taksim [square in Istanbul where protests are often held]… with tear gas, clubs, and commotion, nothing more. Actually we were even thinking [the Israelis] might use rubber bullets, and I thought to myself: “God protect us, a rubber bullet in the eye can blind you.”

» There were no weapons [on the Mavi Marmara]?

There were definitely no weapons. There were 30 gas masks which were distributed to journalists doing live broadcasts.

» As I understand it, the convoy’s goal was not only to bring aid materials [to Gaza] but also to break the siege, is that right?

The goal was to bring aid. We even had packaged toys and accompanying letters from Turkish children to the children of Gaza, addressed: “Dear brother.” It was very symbolic and meaningful and, looking back on it, it was so innocent…

» The ship’s Turkish flag was taken down during the raid, right?

Yes, but there were also the flags of Palestine, Syria, Kuwait, and all of the other countries. The Israeli soldiers tore down the flags first thing and threw them in the sea, starting with the Palestinian flag…

» Did the [soldiers] descend from helicopters?

Everything happened so fast. At the same time, they boarded us from boats and descended from helicopters by rope. And as they were descending they starting firing.

» As they were descending? [So they were firing] haphazardly?

Yes, haphazardly. Mr. Kılıçlar was at the front [of our group] with his camera in hand. And I remember him saying: “If they get to where the captain is our ship is gone. Friends, we must form a barricade.” But he wasn’t inciting anyone to fight, he was just trying to get them to form a wall with their bodies…

» Did the Israeli soldiers initially use rubber bullets?

That’s what we thought, but we were wrong. No rubber bullets were found anywhere. I actually hid some used bullets in my pocket that I found on the ground, but of course the soldiers took them from me afterwards… When I realized that people were being shot outside I immediately went inside, where an emergency center had been set up. Our doctors and nurses were there. The wounded started to be brought in…

» What did you do at that moment?

At that moment I thought, ‘There is a frightened, wounded person here who is losing blood and I am taking pictures of him. What should I do? Be a journalist? No, I can’t do this. I need to do something else, because there aren’t enough people here.’ And I decided to help. I don’t understand the first thing about first aid but I did whatever the nurses told me to do… There were so many wounded…

» Did [the people resisting the Israeli attack] take weapons from [a certain “captured” attacker]?

They took his weapon… and brought it downstairs but then someone said: “If Israel catches us with weapons it will be terrible”, and they immediately threw the weapon in the sea…

» Was the soldier beaten?

I’m not talking about a systematic beating but of course they hit him.

» What sort of shape was he in?

He was in shock… and shaking. His eyes filled with tears; I saw him crying.

» Were any other soldiers taken captive?

A total of 3 Israeli soldiers were captured, and the weapons belonging to all 3 were thrown in the sea. Nobody kept them.

» So at the same time that you were attending to the wounded, you were also watching what was happening with the soldiers…

Yes, because both the soldiers and the wounded had to come in through the same entrance…

» What sort of injuries were sustained [by those resisting the Israeli attack]? What did you see?

Should I really describe it?… On the ground there were pieces of people’s brains. I saw a skull bone, I saw brain pieces…

» [Following the attack], were the handcuffs [used on you] plastic?

Yes, they were plastic but they were very tight and [my hands were] behind my back… I said [to a soldier]: “I’m a member of the press.” He asked where my press card was. I said it was with all of my other possessions, in the press room. He said: “At this point it doesn’t matter anyway if you’re a journalist or not.”… It seemed as though the entire [Israeli] army was on top of us, and I asked myself how this many soldiers could be necessary for 600 people.

» Were there women among the [Israeli] soldiers?

Yes, I could tell from their voices and their hands. It was impossible to tell otherwise because their faces were masked.

» While waiting on deck what else… did you talk to the soldiers about?

I needed to go to the bathroom. I had waited for several hours. I got up and told a soldier, without asking permission, that I was going to the bathroom. He told me I couldn’t go. I asked why not. “You don’t want to see what is in there right now,” he said. “We are cleaning up inside. There are corpses. You can go after we clean.” I said: “I was already inside and I saw everything.” He told me to sit: “Shut up and sit down.”… As a woman I had the advantage of being able to speak to the soldiers more easily. Their behavior toward the men was much harsher.

» How long did you have to wait [on deck]?

From 7.30 in the morning until 1.20 in the afternoon. I kept looking at my watch. We were sitting under the sun. The [Israeli] helicopters kept pouring water on us, so everyone was going from wet to dry, freezing to burning…

» When you arrived to Ashdod Port what did you think [the Israelis] were going to do with you?

I thought they would probably put us on the first plane home.

» You never thought they were going to put you in jail?

No. We didn’t think they could do that, because we hadn’t done anything. It was the Israeli soldiers who had killed people… While we were waiting, I was watching Kağan [a Turkish baby on board the Mavi Marmara] with admiration. He never cried or got cranky; I can’t begin to tell you how calm he was…

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