By Moign Khawaja
Following is the script of the interview with Fehmi Bulent Yildirim, the President of Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH). He was born in 1967, in Erzurum, Turkey. He graduated from the Faculty of Law, Istanbul University. Mr. Yildirim has years of working experience with many NGOs. He performed humanitarian relief activities in regions and countries hit by wars, occupations and natural disasters. Mr. Yildirim and his friends established IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation in 1992. Currently, he is the president of the Foundation and also works as a self-employed lawyer. He is married, with 4 children.
Q) First of all, please tell us about IHH. When was it formed and how? What was the idea and force behind its inception?
Mr. Yildirim: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation was established during the Bosnian War in 1992. It was a voluntary organization in the beginning. Bosnian population was in a real situation of difficulty and sensitive people came together to support their brothers and sisters in the Balkan republic. The idea was to be there completely and to support the people in need.
Q) What was it like for a newly formed organization involving in a massive humanitarian operation?
Mr. Yildirim: The first country where we worked was Bosnia Herzegovina. Serious crimes against humanity and war crimes were perpetrated in Bosnia during the war that started in 1992 and ended in 1995. We could not be indifferent while seeing that Bosnian women, children and men were massacred. We went to Bosnia and opened an office in Sarajevo. At that time some 4,000 explosions took place in an hour when Serb forces shelled the city day and night. We supported families including women and children. Sarajevo was under an embargo and humanitarian aid was its only lifeline.
Q) What was IHH’s motivation and message behind the Gaza Freedom Flotilla? Why was the organization so keen to go forward despite the obvious political challenges?
Mr. Yildirim: The political challenges do not explain the reason to cut the lifeline of Gazan people. We cannot accept the collective punishment of a nation. Gazan population is explicitly put in a prison and the people of conscience should not be silent over the situation. As an NGO that stands for human rights and humanitarian relief work, we did what was necessary. Gazan people have the right to breathe, communicate, treatment, food, medicine, so to say everything that is necessary for human beings.
Q) How was it like among the IHH team on Gaza Freedom Flotilla and its headquarters in Istanbul when the Mavi Marmara set sail for Gaza? Was there more hope among the organizers or fears?
Mr. Yildirim: People were very hopeful both on the ships and in the headquarters. None of us expected such violence. We were sailing to reach Gaza and to support our brothers and sisters there. Israeli government violated all the principles of international law; it used firearms and killed innocent people. Such violence was not expected since we were on a totally humanitarian mission. Israel’s attack was against the whole humanity, not just us.
Q) Extremely sad events happened in the Mediterranean Sea where unarmed humanitarian workers were martyred in cold blood. What ways do you think could have saved precious human lives?
Mr. Yildirim: This question should be directed at the Israeli government. They killed humanitarian aid workers. What was their business in international waters? Why the fully equipped Israeli soldiers boarded a humanitarian ship and opened fire? Had they not attacked, no one would have died.
Q) Given a chance, would you organize a similar ‘Gaza Freedom Flotilla’ again? If yes, in what ways would it be different?
Mr. Yildirim: For the time being, we do not plan to organize a flotilla. However, we are supporting other organizations that are organizing aid convoys through different routes. For example, a land convoy from the UK is on its course to Gaza. Another convoy will reach Gaza from Asia in December. We will support the people of Gaza, and support everyone who is doing something for them.
Q) Four months have passed since the brutal assault took place on international peace activists, do you think justice has been done so far?
Mr. Yildirim: The legal struggle has started. The lawyers from various countries are following the cases in national and international courts. As you may know, ‘The Fact Finding Mission of UN Human Rights Commission’ declared in its report on Mavi Marmara recently that Israel has violated the humanitarian laws as well as international laws. It also stated that the embargo on Gaza is illegal. These are some very important steps. We expect that this report will be a reference for the legal procedures that are underway at the moment. In addition, for the first time in its history, Israel is being investigated and questioned by the UN Commission. I’d say 31st May is just the beginning and Israel will be questioned for its crimes from now on.
Q) Do you believe Turkish government’s response got cold as the time passed? Why hasn’t your government taken strong retaliation efforts to secure the honor of fallen lives on 31st May?
Mr. Yildirim: No, we do not believe this. The Turkish government reacted strongly from the very first moment of the crisis and maintains its position to date.
Q) What is the position of the IHH regarding controversies that link one of the largest Islamic humanitarian organizations with terrorism? Do you think it is the propaganda of the Zionist lobby to bring IHH into disrepute and sabotage the humanitarian network that works worldwide?
Mr. Yildirim: It is exactly a propaganda campaign. We are completely transparent and open. We are carrying out humanitarian operations in nearly 120 countries and regions. You can ask the people from Nigeria to Philippines, who are benefiting from our projects, about who we are and what we are doing.
Q) A few months after the Gaza tragedy, IHH confronted the worst floods in Pakistan. How did IHH manage its relief operations in Pakistan and in what capacity is it working there?
Mr. Yildirim: IHH was already in the region when the floods came. We are working on the disaster management programmes in cooperation with our partner in Pakistan, the Khubaib Foundation.
IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation has been distributing clean water, canned and hot food in the affected areas. More than 150 tons of food items and over five tons of medications have been delivered to the country so far. The total amount of supplies delivered to the region is around 640 tons.
Food along with cleaning and health services are provided daily to more than 1,000 families in three tent camp cities. Blankets and clothes manufactured at the IHH textile workshop in the country are delivered to the affected areas. One hundred houses are being built as part of a project to construct permanent shelters for the people who lost their homes in the floods. The houses will be handed to the families in November. Preparations are underway to construct water treatment plants, provide livestock to families who lost their sources of income, and donate rickshaws, seeds and fertilizers to the affected people.
Q) IHH got an overwhelming response in Turkey as well as other countries in the Muslim world when it appealed for Pakistan floods aid. How much money has it raised so far? What are the goals of IHH for the flood relief in Pakistan?
Mr. Yildirim: Yes, the volunteers are very sensitive to the needs of their brothers and sisters in Pakistan. The total amount of supplies delivered to the region by IHH is around 640 tons. Around 17 million Turkish lira (US$12 million) was donated for disaster relief. With the donations in kind, the amount of donations is around 30 million Turkish lira (US$21 million) in total. As of IHH, we are willing to follow long run projects in Pakistan to support disaster victims in their recovery.
Q) The floods in Pakistan affected at least 20 million people with massive destruction taking place in all four provinces of the country. What is your assessment of the situation?
Mr. Yildirim: More than two months have passed but still vast swathes of land are under floodwater. This means nearly 30 million people are away from their homes, farms, schools etc. In short from away their lives. The extent of the disaster is huge. We should carry out comprehensive support programs to rehabilitate millions of flood victims.
Q) Apart from the flood relief operation in Pakistan, what other projects is IHH running in the country? Give us a brief description of the nature of the projects as well as their locations.
Mr. Yildirim: IHH has been in Pakistan for years. We carried out emergency relief operations during natural disasters e.g. the recent floods or the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan. In addition to emergency operations, we are following some crucial social projects in Pakistan that include orphan support programmes, vocational education, and health activities. We are working mainly in 4 regions of the country: Muzaffarabad – Azad Kashmir; Haripur – Khyber Pakhtunkhwah; Skardu – Gilgit Baltistan and Chakwal – Punjab. Our colleges in Pakistan are giving free education to orphans and needy children. One of our colleges is also giving education to 700 children in an Afghan refugee camp.
Q) Our readers might want to get involved with IHH by volunteering for relief operations or donate money and items for the noble cause. In what ways can they help?
Mr. Yildirim: IHH is glad to meet new volunteers from different countries that come from different age groups, cultures and professions. Everyone can contribute to our humanitarian works while making use of their personal skills. The volunteers can contact us through our website, Facebook and Twitter pages. By doing so, they can get exact information about our campaigns. Anyone willing to donate can make an online donation or get our account numbers from the website and make a bank transfer. They may support an orphan, open a well, school, dispensary or donate for the flood victims in Pakistan. There are plenty of causes to donate and take part in.
Q) What is the future vision of IHH?
Mr. Yildirim: IHH’s future mission is to promote human rights and the humanitarian situation in areas hit by natural calamities or conflicts. We will continue to work and struggle for peace and justice for humanity.