Cigdem Topcuoglu is a survivor of the attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in May 2010, during which her husband was shot in the head and killed by Israeli commandos. Amazingly, she is also the latest activist to join the Women’s Boat to Gaza attempt to break the Israeli-led siege of the coastal enclave. For the 51-year-old Topcuoglu, though, far from being a little nervous before setting out for Gaza again, the non-violent effort is like going on holiday.
“I’m tired,” she told me from her home in Adana, a southern Turkish city by the Mediterranean, “so I’m looking forward to getting some rest on the boat.”
The past six years since the Mavi Marmara affair have been busy for the 23-times national Taekwondo champion. Aside from working as a national judge and trainer, she has been participating in seminars, volunteering her time with orphans and forming a youth association named after her late husband, “Cetin”, where the youth learn about Palestine and Gaza.
Topcuoglu is a petite woman with a soft and cheerful voice, and she isn’t the least bit scared or nervous. For her, she’s simply determined to see an end to the oppression of the Palestinians.
“The situation isn’t going to change by itself. What we need are people who will take action in the name of humanity. It’s important for the whole world to unite when it comes to the oppression that Palestinians face every day.”
There are 30 activists on board the humanitarian Women’s Boat to Gaza, which set sail from Barcelona last week. They’re expecting to arrive in Gaza in the first week of October. Topcuoglu will be joining them after participating in the eleventh hearing of the Mavi Marmara Trial in Istanbul.
Prosecutors are seeking a 32-year sentence for each of the four Israeli commandos charged with “deliberate, sustained and brutal murder”, “plunder and looting” and “wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm” among other charges. Nine Turkish passengers were killed and dozens were injured during the raid on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla by Israeli forces; a tenth person died of his wounds later. A UN investigation found in 2010 that six passengers were killed in an “extra-legal, arbitrary and summary execution” manner.
After the raid, Erdogan set out three conditions for Israel to fulfil before the restoration of full diplomatic links: an apology, compensation for the victims’ families and the lifting of the Gaza blockade. Israel maintained that it acted in “self-defence” but eventually apologised in 2013 for “operational mistakes” during the raid. After six years of a diplomatic rift and months of negotiations, the Israelis agreed last June to pay $20 million in compensation in exchange for exemption from all legal and criminal proceedings.
While the first two conditions had been fulfilled, Erdogan dropped the demand for Israel to lift the blockade as part of the compromise deal. Instead, Turkish aid groups will be allowed to deliver aid through the Israeli port of Ashdod. Israel will also allow Turkey to construct a hospital in Gaza, as well as a power station and a desalination plant to provide drinking water.
However, the families of the victims aren’t satisfied with the deal and say that they won’t drop the charges.
“I don’t accept the deal,” insists Topcuoglu. “Turkey doesn’t think much of the martyrs’ families. A real leader stands behind his words and fulfils what he promises.” She is adamant that the Turkish government should have asked for the families’ opinions about the deal; it was, after all, their blood that was spilled. “Our goal was to break the blockade; that was the reason for our departure with the Mavi Marmara. But there hasn’t been any sort of improvement in that area… we don’t care about the $20 million. Our goal is still to break the blockade.”
Prosecutor Burak Turan represents the victims’ families and explained to Israel’s Channel 10 News in late June that, according to Turkish law, the government doesn’t have the legal authority to end the public lawsuit against the four Israeli commandos.
Gaza, with a population of 1.8 million, has been under an Israeli and Egyptian siege since 2007. According to a World Bank report, it has the world’s highest unemployment rate at 43 per cent; 80 per cent of the population depends on food aid and 95 per cent of its water is unfit for human consumption. During his visit to the Palestinian territory in June, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the blockade “collective punishment”, which is illegal under international law.
While Topcuoglu is at home in sunny Adana, she still imagines at times that she’s on the Mavi Marmara. What happened on the boat in the middle of the night was shocking and something that she’ll never forget. With gas bombs going off there was blood everywhere, as many people were injured, Topcuoglu explained. She saw her husband Cetin carrying an injured passenger to the lower deck and that was the last time she saw him alive.
She later found him lying on the deck, injured in the back of his head. She applied first aid but blood soon started to flow out of his nose and mouth. When it was clear that he had passed away, Topcuoglu covered his body and got up to help the others who had been wounded.
At a Mavi Marmara trial hearing last spring, passenger Erol Citir described the situation as “a matter of life or death in the upper deck, so much so that blood was dripping from the staircases.”
Women of various backgrounds from nine countries across five continents are taking part in the Women’s Boat to Gaza. What is happening in Palestine is not an isolated case; it’s connected to many problems worldwide, Topcuoglu said, stressing the importance of uniting humanity against oppression.
“As voyagers on the humanitarian boat, in the tar-like dark, we’ll be edging closer to Gaza, which is under siege. Our burden is heavy, very much so. Pay attention; listen to what the voice on the boat says,” is her message to the world.
To Israel she says, “History doesn’t change by itself. For it to change, people whose hearts have been ignited are needed. Be afraid of the women’s voyage whose hearts have been ignited in the name of humanity. We, as women, are coming.”