This afternoon I visited the family of Cengiz Songur. Cengiz died, age 47, when he was shot in the chest from point blank range by an Israeli soldier on board the Mavi Marmara. Cengiz was unarmed. he had never been armed in his life.
Cengiz lived in a small but clean apartment, occupying the middle floor of a three floor tenement, in the suburbs of Izmir, Turkey. He is still a tangible presence in his small living room, as I drink the tea and nibble the cake his daughters have prepared. His books still line the bookshelves. There is a Koran and some collections of the Hadith, and a few books on Islamic culture. But there are also encyclopaedias, atlases and – most of all – scores of well-thumbed novels. Cengiz loved to read.
He also loved to help people. He had been involved in a number of charitable enterprises his whole adult life. I should make plain that I came into his world not entirely as a stranger – my Turkish friends were friends of his, and I know that as a group they have been involved in charitable work in places as disparate as London and Somalia, Haiti and Sierra Leone, to name but a few.
Cengiz had a little textiles shop. He had six daughters and just one son. The ladies of his household wear a colourful headscarf, covering the hair but none of the face, and are not segregated. A religious family, but not in any way that is unusual in Izmir. Cengiz’ brother and cousin have also come to meet me, and they are very friendly. They know who I am and thank me for my work in Uzbekistan.
Life now is something of a struggle; Cengiz’ business did alright, in a small way. But now he is gone, and although the extended family are rallying around, six is a large number of daughters. I am astonished to learn that, despite the governmental show of nationalistic outrage at the Israeli killings, the family have not received a penny by way of compensation, award or pension. Attempts to start a legal case have been buried in the legal system. They tell me that twice the courts have “Lost the papers”. From their point of view, the Turkish government is desperate to forget the matter and get relations with Israel back to normal. There is, they tell me, a “small Israel” in Turkey which is able to control the key organs of the state.
In this regard, they told me something which seems to shed light on a loose end which had been bothering me. The attack on the Mavi Marmara occurred in international waters. In that case, the jurisdiction over any crimes committed on board is held by the flag state, ie the state in which the ship is registered. Shortly before sailing, the registration was switched from Turkey to the Comoros Islands. This exempted Turkey from the responsibility of jurisdiction. It also made discussion at NATO much easier for the US; if the Israelis had attacked in international waters a ship flying the flag of a NATO state, that would have been a much more difficult thing for the alliance to ignore.
It turns out that the change was made at the insistence of the Turkish Ministry of Transport. They carried out a number of inspections of the Mavi Marmara prior to the Gaza trip and made repeated demands for changes: mattresses and cushions had to have more modern, fire resistant foam. Internal walls had to be upgraded for fire resistance. Whatever changes were then made, the Ministry found new faults. In the end, the Ministry had said that the Mavi Marmara would be impounded unless it changed its registration, as it could not meet the safety requirements for a Turkish flagged ship.
The strange thing is that the Mavi Marmara had been Turkish flagged for years, and hade been running tourist cruises out of Istanbul. None of the faults the Ministry found resulted from any changes, yet none had apparently been a problem on past inspections. The family told me that, before the Mavi Marmara sailed, they had been in no doubt the Turkish government had been deliberately obstructive and had forced the change of flag. But they had no idea of its significance. Indeed they still did not understand why it could be important, something I tried to explain to them. Of course, set beside their personal loss, it did not seem that interesting.
None of the family had even the slightest thought that Cengiz was risking his life in going. He had told his son that he thought they would not get in to Gaza. He had expected the ship to be impounded. He also thought that he himself would be imprisoned. But the thinking was that, after a month or so, international pressure on Israel would build until the prisoners were released, and Israel would be shamed into sending the cargo on to Gaza.
Cengiz was a kind family man, trying to do some good in the world. He did not deserve to be murdered. I do hope those readers who follow a religion will pray for him.