July Issue 2010
To Hell and Back
Nothing focuses the mind so completely as a sure prospect of death. That I discovered the moment the Turkish cameraman sitting on his knees, filming the Israeli commandos rope down on the ship from helicopters, suddenly fell on me. His arm was pierced by a bullet. He was bleeding profusely. “Journalist down,” I frantically waved at a volunteer medic nearby. As she took over the injured man’s treatment, I dived across the deck looking for the safety of large iron bars where the rescue boats hung.
This was truly a close call. In those moments that I lay flat on the wooden floor of the ship and bullets flew overhead, the faces of my daughter and son flashed before my eyes. I wondered how they must be fast asleep back home, not knowing what a soup their father had landed in. My wife Tehmina would be awake and worried sick, I knew. Just two hours back I had called her from my satellite phone to break the bad news that Israeli ships had surrounded our ship and that an attack looked imminent.
“What can I do? What will you do?” Tehmina has this incredible capacity to sound calm in a storm, but her voice was quivering as she spoke to me. “I will ask the Israelis not to shoot journalists?” Bad joke. “So you think there is a possibility of shooting taking place on the ship?” she asked. My denials were weak and unconvincing primarily because I myself had deep fears of something awful happening the moment Israelis boarded Mavi Marmara.
And this was not sixth sense or intuition. It was not even just a wild guess. All through the days leading up to the attack, different groups of passengers huddled around their tables and tried to figure out the possible Israeli response to this flotilla of six ships, including three cargo carriers and two boats, bringing 600 people from 38 countries and 15,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid to the shores of the Gaza Strip.
“They would not dare to touch us,” said a Tunisian journalist, who was visibly overconfident about the moral strength of the flotilla and, in his own way, made the case for the possibility of smooth sailing. “You will see. We will all be in Gaza soon and will get a grand welcome.”
“Insha Allah” averred his colleague approvingly, and then everyone around me broke into boisterous Arabic chatter that I could not make head nor tail of.
Mr Mubarak, a Kuwaiti representative who had the status of a minister back home, was not convinced. “They will block us and make us stay on the high seas for days. And when our supplies and fuel run out, they will force the captain to either go back or agree to offload the aid goods at an Israeli port or in Egypt.”
“What about us?” asked a young Yemeni, who was rolling his eyes over the inability of the elders to make up their minds about what the Israelis were going to do to the ship.
“They will take us in and then deport us. I would not like to go back through Egypt and would prefer to be sent back to Turkey or even to Jordan. I am not too sure where my Pakistani colleagues would go. They have a special relationship with the Israelis,” said Mubarak in jest and we all smiled.
The talk of a compromise filled the air a day before the attack on the morning of May 31. “We can have some sort of an understanding but we will not compromise on our right to deliver these goods to our Gazan brothers and sisters ourselves,” declared Buland, a pudgy man, who is revered as a legend by members of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, the Turkish organisation he heads, and which was the moving spirit behind the flotilla effort.
Despite the seeming absurdity of the apprehension that Israelis would launch military action against a humanitarian mission, something just did not feel right. The previous night I had searched the Internet in the press room of the ship and had discovered that the Israeli naval commandos had been rehearsing how to take over the ship. “We will make sure that there are no terrorists or guns on board,” defence sources were quoted in another report in the Khaleej Times. Earlier, the Israeli cabinet had agreed to extend the zone of occupation around the Gaza shore to 68 nautical miles from the usual 20 nautical miles.
“This can’t just be a bluff. They have a plan and they will implement it,” I murmured to myself looking at these disturbing reports. Israelis live in a permanent state of fear and insecurity, and through the announced measures they were, in effect, saying that the flotilla was basically a declaration of war against them and that it would be dealt with as such.
And so they did. We first spotted the ships around 2:30 in the morning — dim lights in the distance, constantly in chase. Then night-flying helicopters came and went. Everyone on the ship rushed to pull out life-jackets from beneath the seats.
“How the hell do you tie them?” I asked the guy standing next to me. Without answering, he swiveled me around and tied up the long strings of the jacket, forming two crosses on my back and front. He gestured at me to roll the remaining length of the straps around my waist and give it a tight knot. It was almost as if the orange sheets around our torsos were supposed to fly us out of trouble or block bullets. But somehow wearing them made us both feel safe.
Except for the first 20 minutes, when the Israeli soldiers tried to board the ship from their boats and were hosed down, the attack was swift and deadly. Stationed at the rear of the ship, where most of the camera crew were, I could see the dark shadows slither down a rope. I counted 15 from one helicopter as three hovered overhead. Gun fire, initially intermittent, rang out more regularly. Suddenly the corridors leading to the front part of the upper deck, that were jammed by people watching the spectacle, thinned out in no time. Everyone was running for cover. “Allah o Akbar, Allah o Akbar,” shouted a crew member. Someone had fallen 10 yards in front of me. He had a bullet in the head. A melee ensued. Another one fell down. Later on, I saw him in a coffin. He had a bullet in his chest. Raza, my producer, wanted me to come down and I thought it was wise to move out of the firing range but I was halted in my stride by an old man who was rolling out his prayer mat ready to bow before the Almighty. A sight to behold and film. Raza jumped up for a quick shoot.
By 5:30 a.m, the attack was over. In 20 minutes since landing their commandos on the ship, the Israelis had killed nine people, and badly injured 51 — most had suffered bullet wounds. Three persons were hit every minute — a high ratio showing the kind of force that was used to take over the ship.
The ensuing hours did not bring any relief. Men were hand-tied and, along with the women, herded out on the deck where we sat for almost eight hours in stressful positions. More soldiers landed on the ship and I saw streams of critically wounded being flown away. This included at least one who had died for lack of proper medical attention in the initial hours. The day melted away into the evening and after disembarking all of us from the ship, the so-called immigration took up the whole night. Strip search, grilling queries and constant harassment at the hands of the staff was the order of the day. It took the whole night for the buses to arrive to cart us all to a large prison cell where we were jailed in different cells that opened only when the guards so wished. Three days without sleep and two without food had taken its toll on everyone. We all looked like zombies but, even as the hum of discussions about what the Israelis might do to us subsided, there were very few who drifted into dreamland. All of us were living a nightmare.
But, even then, I’d say we were lucky. The tragic circumstances changed the following day when massive international embarrassment forced Israelis to open up the prison cells and deport all the passengers within the next 48 hours. This cannot be said of the Palestinians, who have faced monstrous oppression for decades and without any let-up. Seen against this tragic fact, the ordeal of the passengers does not look exceptional. For those of us who survived, it was picnic time.
Here is what the Israel Defence Forces PR wing says happened: Israeli PR Machine Still Hard at Work
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.