It was a night that I will never forget. An experience that reinforced in me the core mission of being a journalist, but also reminded me of what an unjust world we live in. Ten years on, the need for a free press is even greater, and the world’s injustice is even more apparent.
I was on board the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in a flotilla of vessels carrying humanitarian aid to the illegally (according to international law) besieged Gaza Strip. It was a big story, more than 600 humanitarian activists, politicians, and doctors from 40 different nations had put together this fleet to deliver things like baby incubators and medicine to the people of Gaza.
Previous attempts to break the Israeli-imposed siege by sea had failed, but they were done by small boats carrying a handful of passengers. This was different. An internationally coordinated campaign to shed light on the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, which the UN had described as “the world’s largest open-air prison”. The question everyone was asking was, would Israel succumb to international pressure and allow the aid to enter, or would it carry out its threat and stop the ships “at any cost” as its then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman so brazenly announced.
A deadly dawn
At around 4am on the morning of May 31, 2010, we had our answer. Despite the peace activists in charge of the flotilla changing the course of the ships and remaining in international water – Israeli commandos on board helicopters and speed boats and supported in the distance with a huge warship, attacked. While many of the passengers were praying, loud bangs of sound grenades, tear gas canisters and then cracks of live bullets being fired filled the air. In an instant, what was a peaceful night in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, turned into a dawn of death and horror.
Eight Turkish nationals and an American Turkish national were shot and killed during the storming of the boat, and another Turkish national later succumbed to his injuries. Dozens more were wounded.
It was my first big story reporting for Al Jazeera, the first time I saw someone shot and killed in front of me, he was a fellow journalist. Killed by a bullet to the head as he held his camera taking photos of the attack, trying to document what was happening. When he fell to the ground, some of his blood covered my shoes. It was a vividly surreal moment; I am still shocked at how I was able to then turn around and face the camera to report his death. Witnessing his death only registered a couple of days later when I was sitting inside an Israeli cell after being unlawfully detained together with the other journalists.
I wrote a brief account of what happened that night shortly after we were released from jail, which focused on the chronology of what happened. But 10 years on, I find myself recounting some of the more emotional incidents that I witnessed. Like the helplessness on the doctors’ faces as they struggled in vain to save the lives of three passengers who were shot by the Israelis, but knowing full well that they wouldn’t be able to because they didn’t have the equipment needed. Or the selflessness of the flotilla’s organiser as he took off his white shirt and used it as a flag, standing in front of the Israeli commandos urging them to stop killing the passengers. Or the elderly Palestinian man who had been expelled from his home in 1948 as a little boy and was dreaming of returning to his motherland, then watching him cry as he realised that his dream might never become a reality.
Holding power to account
My job at the time was to report on this story honestly and accurately, and it was that I believe, which is what angered the Israeli authorities who ended up treating me worse during my detention compared with the other journalists. The Israeli government at the time tried to justify its attack on the unarmed humanitarian flotilla by claiming the passengers had weapons and even saying the ship had entered Israeli territory. They probably would have been able to convince the world of that narrative, were it not for the fact that journalists like myself were on board and were able to transmit video evidence that not only were there no weapons on board, but also that we were at the time of the attack inside international waters. That is the part that that reinforced in me the importance of journalism – to ensure that the record is always set straight and that those in power do not get to re-write the history books.
The question is though, what good is it setting the record straight if innocent people are still being killed, the murderers are not being punished, and the journalists documenting this are targeted?
I am not sure I have a convincing answer for that, because in the past 10 years Israel’s allies have used their veto power at the UN to protect the occupying power from facing justice, the International Criminal Court has failed to prosecute those who ordered or carried out murder on the high seas, and governments that claim to uphold the ideals of freedom and human rights have done nothing to see that justice is served. Consequently, from a journalist’s point of view, that has led to my colleagues not just being illegally detained by Israel as I was, it has resulted in seven of them being killed since that time.
As I look back at that historic night, and ponder over what has changed since, while I am angered that justice has not been achieved, and in many respects, the world has become even more accustomed to the murder of innocent people, I am convinced to my core that if we stand any chance of making our reality that little bit less unjust, we need to protect journalists and the notion of a free press. Because while the victims may never get their day in a court of law, at least the public is able to make up their minds after seeing factual evidence on their screens and in their news feeds.