UK Gaza activist Sarah Colborne - ship raid 'surreal'

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

Image caption, Sarah Colborne described the raid as a crime against humanity

As the Britons who were held in Israel after its raid on the Gaza aid flotilla begin to travel home, one activist has told of their "horrific" experience on board the ship on which nine activists were killed.

British campaigner Sarah Colborne's account of stunned surprise, flying bullets and death on board the Mavi Marmara is graphic and disturbing.

The weary activist - campaign and operations director for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) - was visibly shaken as she recalled her ordeal, just hours after flying home from Turkey.

As she spoke, she was still wearing her grey prison uniform.

The 43-year-old, who came straight from Heathrow airport to a press briefing about the incident, told the BBC she had not slept for three days.

Nine activists are said to have died when Israeli commandos boarded a six-ship convoy carrying aid to the Gaza Strip on Monday. Campaigners, including Ms Colborne, say they believe more than nine perished. Israel disputes activists' account of what happened, and vice versa.

However the raid has prompted widespread condemnation and increased international pressure on Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza.

Ms Colborne said prior to the raid, those on board were told to put life jackets on while an emergency medical room was set up as a precaution - but that nothing could have prepared her for what happened next.

She said she was woken early in the morning by the sound of the Israeli military speeding towards the ship, followed by gunfire.

"It felt surreal, I couldn't quite believe they were doing what they were doing - none of us anticipated it," she told a room of about 50 journalists in London.

Image caption, Israel seized 682 people with the convoy of six ships

"I could hear the sounds of bullets flying, that's the thing I remember, and the whirr of helicopter blades as people dropped down on to the roof."

Speaking to the BBC, she said: "I couldn't even count the amount of ships that were in the water. It was literally bristling with ships, helicopters and gunfire. It was horrific, absolutely horrific."

She told the press conference: "The first passenger to be fatally injured was brought to the back of the deck, he had been shot in the head. I saw him, he was in a bad way and subsequently died."

She said her fellow activists broadcast a plea to the Israeli soldiers to stop the attack and help the injured, but instead they targeted individuals by pointing red lasers from their guns over their heads.

Two hours passed before the first critically injured passengers were allowed off the boat, she said.

And she claimed pleas to allow medics to go with them to hospital were denied. She said she saw a total of four dead bodies.

Passengers, who ranged in age from one to 89, were cuffed with cable ties and made to sit or kneel on the ship's deck in the blazing sun, she added.

Israel maintains its commandos were attacked first. Officials say soldiers were confronted with "knives, clubs and other weapons" when they landed on the Mavi Marmara and they opened fire in self-defence.

But the Briton, from Hackney, east London, said she was not aware of any clubs being used, and only saw people shouting.

She also denied any arms were on board, saying there were some kitchen knives, but she had not seen any being used as weapons.

Ms Colborne was applauded by her supporters as she arrived to speak to reporters, and she appeared emotional yet defiant.

She said Israel's tally of nine dead was "not accurate", and claimed more were still missing and the figure would rise.

'Wake-up call'

She also said the act of taking her to prison without proper consular access amounted to "kidnap".

"People had tried to retain some evidence of Israel's crimes by keeping their camera cards and things like that," she said.

"I personally put my memory card from my camera in my shoe - that was taken. I still haven't received that back."

She told the BBC: "The worst thing was not being able to tell my partner and loved ones I was alive."

She described the raid as "a crime against humanity" and said she hoped the deaths of her fellow activists would serve as a wake-up call for UK and international governments to pressure Israel to end its blockade of Gaza.

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