Remembering the Mavi Marmara victims

As Turkey-Israel reconciliation deal takes effect, the families of two victims reflect on how their lives have changed.

Mavi Marmara Turkish victims
'They should pay the price,' Cengiz Akyuz's parents say of the Israeli soldiers who killed their son [Courtesy of Cengiz Akyuz's family]

Istanbul, Turkey – Last month, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced a deal to normalise relations between Turkey and Israel.

Relations had been acrimonious since the 2010 raid by the Israeli navy on activists aboard the Mavi Marmara ship, part of a flotilla seeking to deliver aid and humanitarian support in defiance of a blockade of the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel and Egypt since 2007.

The Mavi Marmara was owned and run by the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish NGO. Eight Turkish nationals and an American-Turkish activist were shot dead during the storming of the boat, while another Turkish national later succumbed to his injuries. Dozens were injured.

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Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel in the wake of the incident and expelled the Israeli envoy from Ankara, downgrading diplomatic relations between the two countries. A six-year diplomatic standoff ensued.

Israel claimed its actions were in self-defence, but later apologised for “operational mistakes” in 2013. A United Nations investigation found that at least six of the deaths could be regarded as “summary executions“.

The rapprochement deal will reportedly provide the families of the victims with $20m in compensation from Israel, in exchange for Turkey dropping charges brought in absentia against Israeli naval officers. Turkey also secured concessions to send aid to Gaza through the Israeli port of Ashdod and the rights to build a power station, hospital and desalination plant in the beleaguered Palestinian territory.

But this has not comforted some families of the Mavi Marmara victims.

Ibrahim Bilgen, killed at the age of 61
Ibrahim Bilgen is pictured aboard the Mavi Marmara [Courtesy of Ismail Bilgen]
Ibrahim Bilgen is pictured aboard the Mavi Marmara [Courtesy of Ismail Bilgen]

Ibrahim Bilgen very nearly did not make it on to the Mavi Marmara. He had been desperate to get a place, but was told it was full. It had long been Ibrahim’s dream to go to Gaza and help the people there.

“He never stayed silent against any injustice – in his life, or in others’ lives,” recalled his son, Ismail, 28. “Palestine had a very important role in his life.”

Ibrahim was an electrical engineer in Siirt, in southeastern Turkey. Ismail, the fifth of Ibrahim’s six children, said his father was very energetic and physically strong.

“He didn’t like to stop – he always liked to work,” Ismail said. Ibrahim tried everything to get on the ship, and eventually persuaded them to find him a place. He was very excited: “He was preparing for this journey like he was going on holiday.”

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Ismail, a soft-spoken lecturer and a PhD candidate in computer engineering at Istanbul Technical University, was watching the live TV broadcast from the ship one night when the feed cut out. A few minutes later, it resumed, “but people were nervous and running. There were noises – a helicopter, gunshots. These noises really made us worried.” He could not see his father.

For a long day or two, they had very little information, until someone from the government telephoned and told them Ibrahim had been killed. “I don’t cry often, but this time I couldn’t stop crying,” Ismail said.

Ismail found out that his father had been on the top deck of the vessel, protecting the satellite and the ship’s main electrics. The autopsy report showed that Ibrahim had died of gunshot and baton wounds – several to the body and one at close range to the side of the head.

He never stayed silent against any injustice - in his life, or in others' lives.

by Ismail, Ibrahim Bilgen's son

The family remains proud of Ibrahim. For them, he died as a martyr completing an important duty, and the fact that he was killed by Israeli bullets while standing up for Palestinian rights made it even more honourable.

But Ismail is not happy with the deal that has been proposed to normalise relations with Israel, although he says it is good that Turkish aid and materials will be able to get through. Still, the blockade remains in place.

“The embargo just limits these materials, but the blockade means that people in Gaza can’t leave, and people can’t enter Gaza, and they can’t freely trade,” he said.

Ismail insists his family will not accept any money from Israel under the deal: “Their money can’t even meet our loss because we lost our father. Israel always tries to make money the focus, but we say that this is an issue of lifting the blockade.”

He is also unwilling to drop the criminal charges against the Israeli soldiers involved, insisting that this is not a decision for the Turkish government. Ismail maintains that Turkey was in a position of strength and could have extracted more concessions from Israel in the recent negotiations.

Ismail Bilgen shows a photo of his father, Ibrahim [Courtesy of Ismail Bilgen]
Ismail Bilgen shows a photo of his father, Ibrahim [Courtesy of Ismail Bilgen]

Ismail shows Al Jazeera a photo of his white-bearded father on the Mavi Marmara, a white cloth wrapped around his head to protect it from the sun. The sea is behind him. He gazes steadily at the camera.

“We always remember our father as a hero that lights our way,” Ismail said.

“He did this with his life and he crowned it with his death. He never left us. He is always with us – we can literally feel this. And my biggest inheritance from my father is this fight, this struggle.”

Cengiz Akyuz, killed at the age of 41  
Vasfiye holds a photo of her son, Cengiz Akyuz [Courtesy of Cengiz Akyuz's family]
Vasfiye holds a photo of her son, Cengiz Akyuz [Courtesy of Cengiz Akyuz’s family]

The recent Turkey-Israel deal has reopened wounds for the parents of Cengiz Akyuz – wounds that are still very raw.

“It has caused a crisis,” Cengiz’s mother Vasfiye, 65, told Al Jazeera. His father, 70-year-old Bahattin, added: “We don’t want our case to be used as a matter of politics. We hate this.”

They are especially upset by the mention of money. “No, no, no. We are not looking for any sort of compensation,” Vasfiye said angrily. “I don’t want it. If the blockade is lifted, they can send this money, but we will send it to the people of Palestine.”

When they talk about the kind of person their son was, they choke up. “I don’t know what to say. He was a perfect man,” Vasfiye said, battling to control her voice. 

“If you even spent two minutes with him, you could understand what kind of person he was. He got on with everyone,” added Bahattin, dabbing at his eyes with a tissue.

In the corner of the living room in their small flat in Gungoren, Istanbul, a photograph shows Cengiz’s serious face set against a Palestinian flag. Another photo shows Cengiz smiling, with his youngest daughter’s arms wrapped around his neck. He was married with two daughters and a son.

Cengiz Akyuz is pictured with his youngest daughter [Courtesy of Cengiz Akyuz's family]
Cengiz Akyuz is pictured with his youngest daughter [Courtesy of Cengiz Akyuz’s family]

Cengiz, who worked as a plasterer in Iskenderun, close to Hatay, was deeply involved with the local branch of Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist Saadet Party. His mother said he was very devout: “I have four children. They are all religious. But Cengiz was a very different case. He did it with so much heart.”

Cengiz’s nephew, Selim Mete, 26, said Cengiz was “the king” among his four uncles.

“He could fit in with everyone. He was childish with a child, old with old people. He used to love people,” Selim recalled.

Cengiz played chess and football; he supported Fenerbahce. He loved to tell jokes, and he prized education. His son recently graduated from university.

Selim says he has a beautiful memory of being 10 or 11 and diving off a huge cliff into the sea with his uncle. They reached the bottom of the sea together. “It was an unforgettable memory for me.”

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Vasfiye says she spoke to Cengiz the day before he set off on the Mavi Marmara. He knew he could be arrested or harmed, but was still determined to go. His parents both weep when they recall what happened next. Bahattin sits with his head bowed, kneading the sofa in grief.

When the names of the dead were first released, Cengiz was not on the list. 


Eventually, Vasfiye was told she could see her son in the hospital: “I kissed the ground in the street. I was very happy.” Later, however, she learned he had died. “I felt like it was Armageddon day. It was hell.”

Cengiz’s parents do not know exactly what happened to him aboard the Mavi Marmara, and they do not want to know. They took his body from the morgue and buried him in Iskenderun. They visit his grave every Bayram, and hold a commemoration event each year on the anniversary of his death to share memories of Cengiz’s life and read poems.

They feel a huge sense of solidarity with the families of the other victims. “Our son is their son, and their sons are also our sons. We are a large family now,” Bahattin said.

Both Vasfiye and Bahattin said that justice for them would mean the prosecution of the soldiers who killed their son.

“We are trying to make peace,” Vasfiye said. “But there can’t be peace without justice. They should pay the price.”

Source: Al Jazeera