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Parents who lost 2 children in boat tragedy recount horror at sea

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The parents of two children who died in a boat accident in the Aegean Sea while trying to flee Turkey to avoid an ongoing government crackdown on the Gülen movement have talked about the horror they suffered for 10 hours at sea waiting to be rescued and without knowing the fate of their children, the Kronos news website reported.

Ebubekir and Gonca Kara, both teachers, spoke to Kronos for an exclusive interview in Athens. They were among the 18 Turks including academics, teachers, judges and their family members who got on a boat to make their way to Europe because they were facing trial and prison due to Gülen links. Seven of them — two women and five children — drowned when the boat carrying them capsized on Sept. 27 in the eastern Aegean Sea.

The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement of masterminding a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016 and labels it a “terrorist organization,” although the movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.

The couple’s 6-year-old son Mustafa and 8-year-old daughter Gülsüm were among the victims, while their baby boy, Ali İhsan, survived the tragedy.

Mr. Kara said the boat turned upside down when they were in Greek waters due to a sudden maneuver the captain made.

“We were inundated with water all of a sudden and I told myself, ‘It is over, we are drowning.’ There was total chaos and screams everywhere. The sound of crying filled the air. I think it was 12:30 a.m. People were scattered here and there. We had life vests, but our little son did not,” said Mr. Kara.

He said no one in his family knew how to swim and that his wife was only able to raise their little son over the water thanks to her life vest, while their other children went missing. Kara said a person in the boat later took their little son, saying he would take care of him.

“From midnight until daylight we stayed in the water, for 10 hours. We couldn’t hear the others who were on the boat. I took my wife’s arm, and we recited prayers, thinking that we would soon die and be reunited with our children. We thought nobody would come to save us in the darkness of the night,” said Kara.

However, the survivors of the tragedy were spotted at 10:20 a.m. the next day by a vessel belonging to the European Union’s border monitoring agency, Frontex, which rescued the 12 survivors.

“It was such a moment that we could not even feel happy for being rescued. We did not know whether our children were alive or what would happen to us,” Mr. Kara said.

When they got on the vessel, he said everyone was devastated and crying because three other children and two women were also missing.

Their bodies were soon found.

“The coastal security guards behaved warmly toward us. They took us to a hospital immediately along with the bodies of our children. We were at least happy that the bodies of our children were found and we did not leave them at sea. Otherwise, we would feel more pain,” said the father, adding that the Greek people they met, the hospital staff and ordinary citizens, were very sympathetic to them and tried to console them over the loss of their loved ones.

“The government officials in Greece, the people we met at government agencies, they did not know where we came from or who we were. They behaved humanely toward us just because we are human beings. They took us somewhere and did not let us to speak to anybody. They said that area is close to Turkey and that if something were to happen to us, they would be responsible.”

Mrs. Kara said she thought it was impossible for her to attend the funeral ceremony of her children, which took place on the Greek island of Chios last Wednesday, but she went there with the other survivors to pay her final respects.

She said they were told to conclude the ceremony quickly out of security concerns.

“We buried them with our own hands. We used our hands to throw soil on the graves. We were exhausted from what we had gone through and lacked the energy to even do this,” she said, adding that a female official from the UN Refugee Agency as well as a man working at the cemetery and a Greek lawyer helped them cover the graves with soil.

Mrs. Kara said she now says she has three children but that two of them are in heaven.

The couple, who used to work Gülen-linked schools that were closed down by the government in the aftermath of the coup attempt, said they had to take the risky journey because they had no chance of continuing to live in Turkey and faced the risk of prison and torture.

The Turkish government has been conducting a large-scale purge targeting real and alleged followers of the Gülen movement inside and outside the country since the coup attempt, as nearly 600,000 people have been the subject of investigation on terrorism allegations, 30,000 jailed and more than 150,000 public servants have been fired on the pretext of an anti-coup fight.

“Investigations were launched into us following July 15 coup. Our schools were closed down and we were labeled as ‘criminals’ for working at those schools. We were subjected to various types of pressure. So, we had to leave our country, which we love so much. There was no chance of living there for either for us or our children. My wife was given a jail sentence [of six years], while my trial is still going on,” added the father.

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