PAUL MCGEOUGH IN ISTANBUL
June 7, 2010
THE challenge for 20-year-old Ahmed Luqman Talib was to follow the trail of blood.
Blacking out several times as his captors forced him to drag his broken body up a flight of stairs, pushing and kicking him, the 20-year-old Gold Coast student finally fell through a door. It led to the top deck of the Mavi Marmara, the protest ship on which Israeli commandos killed nine activists during a dawn attack last week.
The trail of blood continued to a ladder, up which Talib (pictured below with his wife Jerry Campbell) hauled himself, to where helicopters were evacuating the injured. But he was given no assistance – despite two gaping gunshot wounds in his right leg.
“I felt it slice through my leg” … Ahmed Luqman Talib in an Istanbul hospital, flanked by his sister Miryam, left, and wife, Jerry Campbell. The trio were on the Mavi Marmara during the Israeli attack. Photo: Kate Geraghty
Talib had found himself at the sharp end of his deferred course at Bond University – international relations.
With demands around the world for an inquiry into the attack on a flotilla that was attempting to break the Israeli siege of Gaza, it seems likely that claims such as these and Israeli counter-claims alleging violence by the protesters, will be tested forensically.
The first draft of Talib’s testimony – and that of his young Australian wife and his sister, who were also on the boat – accuses the Israeli forces and elements of the country’s security apparatus which handled the deportation of almost 700 arrested activists, of cruel and callous conduct.
With his gangly frame spread on the pink linen of his bed in an Istanbul hospital, the young man told the Herald of the moment when he thought he might not the survive wounds he sustained in the opening minutes of the Israeli assault.
“I looked down and my legs were drowning in blood. I was getting weaker; it was difficult to breathe,” he said of a realisation that he was willing himself into a sleep from which he believed he might not wake.
A devout Muslim whose family migrated from Sri Lanka to Australia in 1995, Talib recalled reciting the prayer for those facing death. “I said it quietly – to myself. Then I worried maybe that was not enough, so I said it again – this time out loud.”
There is something disconcerting about this trio of young Australians who found themselves at the centre of what they simply call ”the massacre”. Still in their teens or barely out of them, they would be forgiven for being out of their depth when the shooting started.
After what they have been through, Talib and his 21-year-old wife could reasonably opt to cloister themselves in the mundane certainty of life on the Gold Coast; and in the case of Talib’s 18-year-old sister Miryam, if she were to lock herself down in the family home in Kuwait.
The family moved on from Australia in 2000. But in 2007 Talib returned to Queensland where he married Campbell, who is almost three months pregnant with their first child.
Instead, all three have emerged from their baptism in international crisis and their tutelage by experienced activists, both on the Free Gaza Flotilla and in Israeli detention, with a steely “bring it on!” attitude.
Despite setting out in the last days of May with an expectation that the flotilla was almost a conventional Mediterranean cruise, they have emerged from “this totally new experience” seemingly fearless in the face of Israeli guns and death.
“It was beautiful,” Miryam recalled. “The atmosphere before the massacre was wonderful … There was a great sense of spiritual connection. I had never felt this kind of emotion before.”
Miryam, a second-year pharmacy student, and Campbell, in her second year of nursing studies, were assigned to first-aid duties two days before Monday’s commando raid. But all three were oblivious to Israeli warnings which put the flotilla on full alert late on Sunday.
Recounting how he was retreating back into the ship after venturing on deck, Talib said: “I saw a man who nearly got shot – I could see the red dot of the laser weapon sights on his knee, but he moved in time.
“I felt it slice through my leg – blood was squirting from my right leg and then a second bullet sliced across, just above my knee. I was still standing, but my leg jerked up in the air and froze like that – for a time it was paralysed. With my weight on the good leg I tried to put it down – but it wouldn’t move.
“I couldn’t believe I had been hit, but that’s how it looked – bullets, holes and blood.”
Talib tried to find his way down bloodied stairs to the first-aid post. But he collapsed and when others carried him in for treatment, first his sister and then his wife observed that “he seemed to be OK,” before they returned to helping those they thought were in greater need.
At this stage two of the dead had already been brought in and Campbell was helping to stabilise a man who had been shot five times – “he had a lot of holes in him, but none of his main arteries had been hit”.
Reconstructing the chaos of the first-aid post, the women told of the screaming; of slipping on blood-soaked floors; of the difficulty identifying colleagues who were yelling for a share of their meagre medical stocks.
Said Campbell: “We had no pain-killers, no instruments to extract bullets. But we had heaps of gauze so we were able to apply pressure bandages to stop or slow the bleeding. The heat was intense – we were sweating as first we had 10 people to treat and then 20.”
After the Israelis had taken control, they assembled their hundreds of prisoners first on an open deck and, later in one of the big cabin areas on a lower deck.
Campbell and her sister-in-law accused their captors of failing to feed them and of not allowing the women to give water to male prisoners whose hands were bound with plastic ties. And of seeking to destroy any evidence of their conduct on the ship by removing memory cards from cameras – and by threatening anyone who had concealed data discs. Talib said that he was put into a carry-frame in which some Israeli commandos set about dragging him, feet first, up the stairs to the next deck. He was in great pain and still bleeding, but half-way up he had been tipped from the frame and told by one of the Israelis: “You have one healthy leg – walk up.”
Other charges levelled against their captors include:
Failing to provide early medical care for the injured.
Handcuffing Talib to his hospital bed but removing the cuffs just before he was visited by Australian diplomats.
For a time denying him access to a lawyer as they attempted to interrogate him.
Destroying the CCTV cameras on the ship to prevent any of their activities being recorded.
Parading their prisoners before cameras and a big ”audience” of security and other workers who laughed as they took ”happy snaps” of them.
Withholding information from Campbell about her husband’s whereabouts and condition.
Treating the prisoners in ways intended to weaken them emotionally, physically and psychologically.
Humiliating the Islamic women prisoners by strip-searching them and mocking their undergarments and bodies. And, in the case of Campbell, calling to their colleagues after her clothes had been removed, to joke at her European features and to mock her as a convert to Islam.
Talib and his wife expect to return to Australia and Miryam to Kuwait in the coming days – but already all three are looking to the future.
Yes, they told the Herald with surprising enthusiasm, all were determined to be on the next slow boat to Gaza.