They Came From the Villages to Aid the Orphans

Two Turkish-speaking Israelis who helped translate for the passengers on the 'Free Gaza' flotilla reveal their up close and personal encounters.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The detention and deportation orders were already translated into Turkish, to the relief of Medi Nahmyaz, who volunteered to be a go-between for the authorities and the detained Turkish passengers from the flotilla, who were brought to Ashdod. She found the complex legal language hard to understand, she says.

Nahmyaz, 30, and a friend, Nathalie Alyon, 26, responded to an e-mail request for volunteer interpreters that was sent out by the Association of Turkish Jews in Israel. It was sent hours after the Israeli operation on Monday to take control of the flotilla. Nahmyaz and Alyon served as interpreters for 80 to 100 Turks from the flotilla of which six were injured in the clash with soldiers and hospitalized at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, after surgery. Their intensive translation work gave them a sociological picture of some of the participants. As for what happened on the deck of the Marmara, Nahmyaz says frankly: "The more people I heard, the less I understood."

Nahmyaz and Alyon are earning master's degrees in Middle Eastern studies from Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University respectively. Both work at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. Nahmyaz immigrated to Israel about five years ago. Alyon was born in Israel, moved to Turkey with her parents as a child, had a long stay in the United States and returned here three years ago.

An Israel Navy commando at the Ashdod port on June, 3 2010, giving his account of the events at sea.

The two entered a freezing (air-conditioned ) tent in the Ashdod Port on Monday afternoon, an hour and a half after arriving - it took time to persuade the guards to let them enter - another detail those in charge hadn't considered.

The passengers and crew of the five small ships disembarked first. Marmara and its exhausted passengers approached the coast only around 7 P.M. - "just when the setting sun was in front of our eyes," says Alyon. The process of letting the passengers off the ship was long: They disembarked in groups of 10, each group accompanied by three soldiers, two in uniform and a third in a white shirt and army pants. At 3 A.M., when the two friends left the tent where the detainees were held, only about half of the Marmara passengers had disembarked.

The passengers had to pass through four stations, which took about 45 minutes, say the interpreters. They were checked for weapons; then questioned by Interior Ministry border control staff and policemen sitting at computers; had a medical check and from there moved to an interrogation and the detention center in Be'er Sheva. Anyone who asked for water received it.

Some of the detainees were taken off the ship in plastic handcuffs, their hands in front of them. Alyon estimates that about 50 percent of the men were handcuffed, and not a single woman. The handcuffs came off during the medical checkup. Nahmyaz doesn't recall any handcuffed person at the Interior Ministry desk. Those not handcuffed usually carried bags.

The border control questions were laconic. "Your first time in Israel? Did you know that there was a military closure on Gaza? Did you know that you had entered Israel's territorial waters? Why did you set out on the journey? Why did you try to breach the maritime blockade? Where is your baggage? Do you feel well?"

At several stops the passengers were asked how much money they had in their possession. A few people lacked passports. The two interpreters believe the documents were lost in the confusion aboard ship, and not because of an order to get rid of them, as was claimed in some cases. All the detainees with whom they had contact, almost without exception, refused to sign the Israeli detention or expulsion orders. Other interpreters say they met detainees who agreed to sign. Perhaps it's because Alyon and Nahmyaz understood they had to explain to people that they were not obligated to sign.

By the time of the Interior Ministry questioning, the detainees were exhausted. One journalist, particularly nervous, mentioned breathing problems. Nahmyaz saw tears in her eyes. Aside from one student and several crew members, the people whose words she translated seemed to her "religious and having strong humanitarian motives." The translators concluded that the deck of the Marmara held activists from various organization with various objectives. Most of those with whom they spoke were not connected with Isani Yardim Vakfi, or IHH, the Turkish charity credited with organizing the "Free Gaza" flotilla. They came from villages and small towns, not from the big cities, and had responded to calls by various charitable organizations, not necessarily the IHH. Their degree of religious piety varied, say the interpreters. About a quarter of them were women. Only two, including one of the female journalists, were not wearing headscarves.

Many of the activists were in their fifties, others were over 60. "But even someone who is 45-years-old looks 60, that's how it is in Turkey, especially in the villages," says Alyon. One person boarded the ship shortly after a hernia operation. Another was supposed to undergo a hernia operation soon and yet joined the flotilla to do the right thing. Some had never left Turkey. Nahmyaz spoke to an injured man at Tel Hashomer who said he was retired and looked for an adventure.

They thought everything was arranged

Many passengers spoke of coming "to help children in Gaza, orphans, hungry children," or "to bring humanitarian assistance." Alyon and Nahmyaz got the impression that many of them believed before they left Turkey that everything had been arranged and they would reach Gaza. They also did not seem to have broad political knowledge or a distinct ideology.

The medical team was very nice, say the interpreters, and people almost apologized for feeling unwell or saying it was hard to breathe. "That's very Turkish," says Alyon. "The doctor is such a big and important man, who am I to bother him?" The activists from Western Europe were blatantly different. They spoke loudly, demanded their rights and refused to talk until their representatives arrived.

A few Turks refused to answer questions, refused to let the doctors examine them or have their blood pressure checked. One woman, wearing a black head covering that reached to her knees, put her hand on Alyon's hand and said: "Tell them that 16 of my friends were killed today, so how do they expect me to feel?"

The word "friend" turned out to be a translation challenge. "Did you board the ship with friends?" asked the interrogators, and the answer was usually "no," that people didn't know each other. One of the injured who was questioned in hospital mentioned "our friends," and the investigator raised an eyebrow: But he said earlier that he didn't know anyone. Nahmyaz explains. In Turkey people address each other as "friend" - even a stranger, as in Israel we say "my brother," even when not really referring to a brother.

One woman, in jeans but with a black head scarf, boarded the Marmara with her husband. An academician, she works at a university in a small town in southern Turkey, and participates in taekwondo competitions on behalf of the country. Soldiers who saw her hiding a mobile phone in her bra held her and called Nahmyaz to translate. "My husband is dead," the woman said. Puzzled, Nahmyaz repeated: "Your husband is dead?" "Yes," she replied. "This morning he was shot dead by an Israeli soldier." If she was angry, says Nahmyaz, she didn't show it. That was already late Monday night. Nahmyaz couldn't ask any more questions; she understood the woman wanted to keep her husband's cell phone as a memento.

On Tuesday afternoon the translator duo was asked to go to Tel Hashomer. They found a policeman sitting next to the bed of every injured man but didn't notice any other special security measure. A man in civilian clothes who introduced himself as a policeman tape recorded the interrogation with each patient, which began with the standard reading of "your right [is] to remain silent, but that is liable to reinforce the evidence against you" - or something like that. Alyon tried to argue this was not logical. Nahmyaz says she felt like she was in an American film.

'How much did they pay you?'

The injured were told: "You are suspected of participating in attacking soldiers with cold and hot weapons, participation in a flotilla destined for Gaza, disorderly conduct, endangering soldiers, using a knife, disobeying orders, throwing Molotov cocktails and a hand grenade." And they were asked: How much money did they pay you?

Nobody paid us for joining the trip, came the reply. One of the three suspects whose words Alyon helped to translate refused to answer questions. His medical condition was serious and he felt bad. One of the three whom Nahmyaz saw had undergone abdominal surgery and was in pain. When asked why he joined the flotilla, he said he had lost his parents as a child and wanted to help orphans in Gaza and even brought $1,500 for them.

One of the regular questions was: "We have pictures that show you beating soldiers. What do you have to say to that?" The reply in most cases was: "Not me, it's impossible."

The investigator asked whether people had rods and knives. The injured said they had readied sticks but not knives. They heard shots at the start of the takeover, perhaps they were shots from paintball guns - the passengers had no way of knowing what they were and concluded they were being fired on. A helicopter hovering overhead created a tremendous racket, the wind was strong, there was a feeling of chaos, of war on deck.

One of the injured said that before the takeover, someone announced on the loudspeaker that the soldiers must not be allowed to board the ship. But there were also contradictory messages: Passengers were called to "calm down, sit, because the soldiers are stronger." But an instruction was given to throw soldiers into the sea "because they're from the navy and they'll manage in the water" (so Alyon heard from one of the injured ). They understood that people were being called to form a "human wall," perhaps around the deck and perhaps at the various portals.

One of the injured complained that not a single representative from the Turkish Embassy had visited them. Alyon contacted the embassy and was told that staff had visited two injured people in the morning. One of the injured hastened to describe what had happened to him: At the time of the takeover, he heard a shot and hit the floor. At some point, he raised his head to see what was happening. A soldier was lying next to him. The moment he put up his head the soldier shot at his leg, he said. He also noticed six dead bodies. In reply to being told he was seen in the photos beating a soldier, the activist said: "Not true, I actually tried to separate a soldier and someone who was beating him." One injured man said that the bodies were taken elsewhere so people wouldn't be traumatized.

Another injured man, hospitalized in serious condition, said that he was praying when the soldiers appeared on the deck. He didn't see anyone with knives. He held tight to the railing because of the strong wind, he was shot in the face, someone fell on him. Alyon didn't quite understand the order of events. He noticed that a soldier was cutting his clothes, giving him an injection, and then he woke up in the hospital.

Nahmyaz says she has a friend who considered joining the flotilla. But as a secular woman the friend was deterred when the flotilla was adopted by the Islamic IHH. Its leader is Bulent Yildirim. Nahmyaz translates: "Yildirim" means lightning - "barak" in Hebrew.



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