It is very appropriate to me that today, on the second anniversary of the beginning of the three week long murderous military attack by Israel on Gaza I am currently sitting in the IHH offices in Istanbul wıth colleagues, friends and veterans of flotilla and convoys. As we all know the situation in Gaza has not been eased substantially since the flotilla and 2011 will be a major year for the region given the breakdown of talks and Freedom Flotilla II . I am completing some administration after yesterday's huge event where I was reunited with shipmates from Mavi Marmara and the ship itself returned where it will be docked for a week to be opened to the public. It was spectacular and emotional. There were thousands of people in the crowd that assembled to remember the dead and welcome the ship home. Not everyone from the internationals onboard has been able to make it but some wonderful suprises wıth people coming from many countries to be here.
I landed at 4.30am Boxıng Day in Istanbul from London straight from Christmas Day at home with family. I'm carrying a Christmas present from my family - a new holdall to replace the battered and torn one that has travelled on the convoy and the flotilla. I'm going to keep the old one it is a special bag having been through Israeli hands in June. Durıng the Israeli raid they removed a mobile phone from the bag as well as all my paperwork, notebook, receipts to the value of 700 pounds none of which has been returned. The new bag goes straight into action and is loaded with books and reading I need for essays due in early January for Uni.
On arrival ın Istanbul aırport a taxi firm in arrivals calls me over to try to persuade me to hire a cab from them, during the conversation they ask me what I'm doing in Istanbul and I say I'm here to visit the Mavi Marmara and see friends from IHH. Instead of charging 110 lire for a return journey (approx 40-50 pounds) they take me to my hotel free of charge.
I get up at 10am eat at the hotel buffet which reminds me of the summer - best breakfast I can think of: hard boiled egg, cheese, fresh tomato, cucumber, fresh bread, honey hot tea. IHH minibus picks us up at 11am and we head to the event. I am very happy to see friends from previous journeys including Fatima Mohammedi, Kevin, Nabil, Sheza, Sakir, Laura Stuart, Parveen Yaqub, Babu, Ahsan, Ebrahim, Arif Shah. On the way we also collect Audrey Bomse and Mohamed Salwa and his wife.
On the way we get an idea of the scale of the event. A huge column of coaches is lining the route to the event with waves of people walking towards the site on foot in addition. We head through the crowd to an area separated by barrier from the main crowd, next to this area is a platform with seats for the families of the martyrs and VIP speakers. I see Manuel and Laura from Spain, they have been very active in Spain campaigning ceaselessly since the flotilla and the Spanish public have responded, you can see info about their work at http://www.rumboagaza.org/ , as well as raising money for a ship to add to the Freedom Flotilla II they have started a schools activity programme, erected a statue in memory of the Mavi Marmara, have had theır case against Israel opened by Spanish prosecutor in Spain and continue to engage with the media. Incidentally their lawyers in Spain are the same ones that took the case of Jose Couso, Spanish cameraman killed by U.S. forces in Iraq. It turns out that wikileaks documents reveal the Spanish government bowing to U.S. pressure to drop the case against their soldiers while they were asssuring Couso's family they were fighting for his interests, this may re-open the case. It is also wonderful to see Fatima from Belgium, she tells me about the fundraising they have been doing there for a boat to Gaza for Freedom Flotilla II next year. The wonderful familiar faces of our IHH family Nalan and Gulden as well as many more who were all onboard Mavi Marmara and looked after us so carefully. They have all worked hard to prepare for today's event and to restore the ship to working order.
The event unfolds in spectacular fashion with thousands of people arrivıng, flags, fıreworks, speeches, music, whistles, scarves, banners, balloons, tv cameras. The Mavi Marmara arrives with huge banners depicting the names and photographs of those shot dead hanging from the sides. She is accompanied by many other small vessels to the dockside. There are even some champion swimmers who take part in the proceedings by swimming to accompany her for the fınal 5000m. I take part in a brief interview by a TVNET reporter, just as we are about to begin I see Farooq from Al Fakhoora Foundation who has come from Qatar with his wife to take part in the event, I ask him if any of the 60 or so laptops they had purchased for Gaza students had been recovered after the raid. He said in contrast it was some of these laptops that were found beıng re-sold by Israeli soldiers after they looted them from the Mavi Marmara which has led to prosecution in Israel.
We are at the event for several hours, the families of the martyrs and brother Bulent from IHH as well as some passengers manage to get through the crush onto the ship where memorial photographs and plaques have been erected. I decide there are too many people today and I will return at a quieter time to visit.
I head back to the hotel and we make our way to IHH offıces at around 6pm to get to dinner at another location. I have brought some cards and presents for the families which my mother and I have bought - only small things but my mother said she wanted to thank them in some way for keeping me safe on the ship. I need help with writing cards in Turkish and wonderful angel called Zeynep, daughter of a flotilla veteran, helps me do this. We all have dinner together and at the end Brother Bulent addresses us. He says IHH are launchıng '9 projects for 9 martyrs', this is an initiative to develop a project in each of the home towns of each of the men killed on the ship. This includes sports, music, health, student dormitories a different project ın each place to be co-produced with an international partner, to reflect the international nature of our journey. We will be actively seeking partner charities or trusts to take part in the initiative. IHH would like all of our feedback about what we think Mavi Marmara should do now and he offered the chance for the ship to visit our countries for events. He says IHH have not finalised any plans for 2011 with regards to returning to Gaza by sea but that we will be among the first to know.
After dinner a group go to the ship to visit in peace but I head back to the hotel with Parveen, Sheza and others and we stay up for several hours talking, my friend Mehmet comes to hang out as well.
IHH has been assisting the Asia Gaza Convoy on its Turkey leg, they are still waiting to reach Gaza.