Maryam’s ordeal — from aid ship to Israeli jail

In this interview with Leon Berenger, a young student with Sri Lankan links relates the horror that unfolded on May 31 when Israeli commandos raided a flotilla carrying relief to the besieged Gaza Strip

It was shortly before midnight when the MV Samoud set sail from a Southern Turkish port and joined a flotilla of ships led by MV Marmara with more than 600 passengers on board. The flotilla steamed towards the Mediterranean, its destination: the besieged Palestinian territory of Gaza.

The flotilla of six ships was on a mercy mission carrying some 80 tons of emergency relief including food, medicine, wheelchairs and cement to the people in the war-ravaged Gaza Strip which has remained blockaded for the past three years. The three-year blockade has made the Gaza Strip with 1.5 million people as the world’s biggest open air prison.

To beat the blockade the people of the Gaza Strip depended on a network of underground tunnel systems to bring essential items from neighbouring Egypt. But since 2009, Egypt, under pressure from Israel, has taken measures to crack down on the tunnel network, making life unlivable in the Gaza Strip. The territory now solely relies on food and relief items from the United Nations. And this, too, is subjected to strict Israeli guidelines.

Ahmed Luqman Talib in an Istanbul hospital, flanked by his sister Maryam, left, and wife, Jerry Campbell. The trio were on the MV Marmara during the Israeli attack. Pic courtsy Kate Geraghty and Sydney Morning Herald

The passengers on the flotilla were a mixed bag of activists. They included students, doctors, lawmakers, clergymen, scholars and war veterans from some 50 different countries.

There were Muslims, Christians, Catholics, Jews and people from other faiths. They joined activists from the “Free Gaza Movement”, the group which organized the aid flotilla together with the Turkish human rights group IHH (Insani Yardim Vakfi or the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief).
Among them were a Sri Lankan born youth and his younger sister.

Ahmed Luqman Talib is a student in Australia and his sister, Maryam Luqman Talib, a student in Kuwait. They were anxious and happy to be a part of the mission though they were warned of the risks involved.

They were concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people who live in squalid condition without proper shelter, food or medicine, especially after Israel’s month-long raid in 2008-2009 during which some 1,600 Palestinian people died – nearly one third of them being children.

Then it all happened without a warning three days into the voyage and at the edge of their destination.
“It was around 3.30 am when I spotted the first signs of trouble in the form of Israeli gunboats nearing our ship, MV Marmara, from several different angles. Standing on the upper deck I was able to spot at least five Israeli helicopters hovering over us.

The vessel’s crew immediately sounded off the alarm and the passengers were ordered to put on the life jackets and hit the lower deck. It appeared at that time that the Israeli commandos were planning to either sink the ship or hijack it,” said Maryam recalling the horror that unfolded on May 31 in the international waters in violation of the international maritime laws.

Speaking from a relative’s home at Nedimala in Dehiwala, enroute to Australia, Maryam recounted her ordeal to The Sunday Times.

“The Israeli commandos started to board the ship single file on ropes strapped on to the helicopters. They were armed to the teeth. The first three were disarmed by the passengers the moment they landed on the deck and taken below.

“They were not in any way armed or threatened, but were told that the ship was on a mercy mission aimed at helping the people in the Gaza, but more of them kept coming down the ropes. “I was in the prayer room in the lower deck of the vessel when a Turkish female volunteer rushed to inform us that the Israelis had opened fire on the passengers and that several persons had been killed or wounded and called for the emergency medical unit to be ready at hand.

“Since I am a pharmacist student at the Kuwait University the medical unit was my responsibility. I had by my sister-in-law and several others for help. And then the dead and the wounded were brought in to a cabin which was turned into a make-shift first aid unit.

“It was during this time that I saw my brother Ahmed. He had a gun shot injury in one leg which needed more than just first aid attention. He was among scores of others who were wounded and they were placed alongside the dead. It was a bloodied and ghastly sight.”

Reports said eight Turkish citizens and one US citizen with Turkish origin were killed when the Israeli’s opened fire on the activists, who said they had to defend themselves with clubs and whatever implements available on board.

Continuing her story, Maryam said:

“An hour or so went by and the news that hit us was that the ship was now under the command of the Israelis and that soon we would be heading for the Israeli port of Ashdod, just north of Gaza.
“We were also informed that the Israelis had cut off all communications with the outside world. Media personnel and the passengers were asked to hand over their mobile phones, laptops and related equipment. The Close Circuit TV cameras were also turned off and later destroyed knocking off all evidence of what really took place.

“On reaching Ashdod all the passengers were handcuffed and taken to the upper deck and kept there for some six hours under the scorching summer heat as Israeli sailors and soldiers stood guard. Thereafter the passengers were ordered to disembark single file and taken to a jail some where in the middle of a desert where they were stripped-search and screened.

“We stayed in this jail for nearly two and a half days during which time there were two visits by officials from the Australian Embassy to inquire into our welfare. The visits nonetheless did not last more than 20 minutes.“But what worried me most was the welfare of my brother. The Israelis told us nothing except to say that he was being treated at a hospital in Tel Aviv along with the other injured persons.
“Later the Turkish authorities arranged flights to take us out of Israel to Istanbul, from where I returned to Kuwait where my father was waiting for me after he was refused entry into the Jewish state. “I later learnt that my brother too was put on of one of the flights and later treated at a hospital in Istanbul. He is now being treated in a hospital in Australia.

“When we were under Israeli custody, the authorities there forced us to sign a document which stated that the flotilla of boats and those on board had violated Israeli maritime borders.

“At first I refused to sign the document since our ship was in international waters and some 70 kilometres away from the nearest Israeli port. Later I placed my pen on it purely to get back home as quickly as possible and look into the whereabouts of my brother.”

When asked why motivated her to join the aid flotilla, Maryam said, “I was inspired to join this voyage along with my brother and his Australian-born wife after television footage on the Gaza showed a toddler left to die on the streets after being shot by Israeli guards during a confrontation.

“This image is still strongly embedded in me and I will do anything possible to help the people of Gaza who have been cut-off from the rest of the world by the Zionist state for several years.”
She said if there was another similar voyage, she would definitely be a part of it.

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