When the Hamburg resident Nader El Sakka, 58, tried to board the Challenger I in the port of Agios Nikolaos on Crete, he was told he had to sign a four-page document pledging that he would not engage in violence and that he possessed no weapons. He also had to provide the name and telephone number of a family member in case of an emergency. If he didn't sign, he was told, he wouldn't be allowed on board the Gaza-bound convoy.
El Sakka embarked on board the Challenger I, one of eight boats and freighters headed for Gaza with a load of cement, structural steel, medicine and children's toys. Two days later, off the coast of Cyprus, El Sakka disembarked and went on board the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger ship. The flagship of the small fleet, it had Gaza activists on board from a dozen countries, the majority of whom -- around 400 people -- hailed from Turkey.
Like a Pleasant Cruise
El Sakka describes the atmosphere on board as "euphoric," almost as if "we were on a pleasant cruise," he says. The ship was linked via satellite with the Internet and a number of TV stations and continuously sent out images and interviews to the world. A reporter from the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera filed a report on Sunday afternoon that made headlines a number of days later. A group of Arab activists could be seen chanting: "Remember Khaibar, Khaibar, oh Jews! Muhammad's army is returning!"
This is an intifada battle cry, a fighting slogan that recalls a victorious battle fought by the Prophet Muhammad's army against the Jews. El Sakka, a veteran of many pro-Palestinian demonstrations, knows the words well -- and he disapproves of them. "We avoid such slogans at our rallies," he says. "I didn't personally see this group on the ship. But I recognize the reporter. He was definitely there." The other footage in the report also stems from the Mavi Marmara, he says -- including a woman standing on deck and saying in Arabic: "Right now we face one of two happy endings: either martyrdom or reaching Gaza."
That evening at 6:00 they ate köfte (grilled meatballs) and cucumber salad. Four-and-a-half hours later, Captain Mahmut Tural spotted Israeli ships on his radar. In response to their demand that he change course, he responded: "Negative. Our destination is Gaza." Then he ordered an exercise to prepare the passengers for an emergency.
'I Was Well Prepared'
The activists suspected that an attack was imminent. They began to assign watches on deck. One of the men on watch was the Turkish doctor Mahmut Coskun, 40. "They chose well-built doctors for the job, because in a crisis we would have to bring the injured below deck," he recalls. "I'm an emergency doctor with a motorcycle unit. I was well prepared."
He saw men preparing for a showdown by reciting poems and songs, but there were no real extremists on board, he says: "Between 5,000 and 6,000 people had applied for the mission. Radicals were not taken along."
(To be continued)