03/02/2013

What does one make of all this senseless killing?

 Yesterday the body of Sarai Sierra was found hidden in the rubble outside the old walls of the city. Sarai was a tourist from New York city, on her first trip outside the States, taking photographs and enjoying a tour around Europe which ended tragically in Istanbul, hours before she was due to leave on a plane home.

I'm one of those people who usually scrolls past crime stories on news websites. I like my daily dosage of tragedy to come with a map, an analysis from the BBC Middle East correspondent – and a statement from the White House I can wryly deplore over a cup of tea.

Being affected by the death of a missing woman is all a bit new for me.

First of all, I had invested genuine hope in Sarai being found alive and well somewhere, praying she had done something grossly irresponsible to 'get away from it all' as many fantasise about between the hum-drum and clicking away of modern life.

I perhaps would not have given it much thought, if news hadn't reached me before the media broke the story. A colleague at the university was extremely distressed one day over lunch. He had been contacted by Sarai's husband in the states. The two were put in touch with each other via a mutual friend. My colleague was at his wit's end and had obviously spent a great deal of time researching his worst fears. Istanbul's organized crime, sex trafficking, abductions and the like all featured heavily in his hypothesizing. Istanbul is a far cry from the favellas of Rio, but you do here stories. Harassment abounds. As for rape stories and abuse, they are unfortunately banal, whether in news stories, TV shows or cinema.

But the media is the message; I was affected by my colleague's emotive conjectures into the macabre more so than any TV report, and I corresponded to it with what now appears to have been a product of denial, concealed as a vain hope.

Sarai's husband had sent him an e-mail detailing what had happened; “My name is Steven Sierra, husband of Sarai Sierra. My wife left for a trip to Istanbul, Turkey on January 7, 2013 and was scheduled to arrive back in Newark airport Newark, NJ on United Airlines at 4:50pm on January 22,2013.” The e-mail contained several pictures, a description of the woman and an impassioned plea to get in touch with any relevant information before Sarai's brother arrived to help with the search.

The Search

Her brother appeared on the news within days, obviously distraught. It must have been incredibly difficult for him to come to a country he had never visited, in a city with such a vast scale, on such a depressing mission.

You have to appreciate the effort the Americans put into the search. The FBI were on the case early on, possibly operating in Istanbul as well as back in the States, where they lead a huge effort trawling through the woman's social media contacts, tracing IP addresses and identifying individuals she was thought to have contact with not long before she went missing. According to the Turkish press, ten individuals are being questioned, some identified through internet usage.

A while after the investigation was launched, I was contacted through yabangee.com, by a journalist in New York trying to piece together what had happened, and asking me what the foreign community was doing to help. I couldn't say much. We hadn't even put out an article at that point. To do so, did not come to my mind, but when faced with the chance to do something I realised, on a positive note, that we should put her picture up and inform everybody we can. This is something we should have done sooner. On another note however, I realised that my hopes were overblown. Among other facts related to the case, simply the fact that Sarai had a Turkish complexion, and would not have stood out in a crowd, and at the same time, did not know any expats living in the city, made what little we could do unfortunately minute.

People were talking, but they were all pointing to the same grim conclusions. That she shouldn't have been staying in Tarlabasi in the first place, was a regular comment. One guy from the site lives two streets away from where she was staying in that neighbourhood, a run-down slum which I have written about previously on Beyhude.

Media Coverage

Other criticism was directed at the media. One colleague at the university quite rightly questioned whether the same amount of coverage would be given, let alone police effort spent searching for a Senegalese girl who had gone missing in the city. It is a hard point to argue, given the Municipal Police put together a special task force to deal with the case.

Generally though, the media got it right on this one. Even The Daily Mail, not exactly the most politically sensitive newspaper in Britain, was forth-right about how rare it was for such an attack to occur in Istanbul, which, considering its size, is one of the safest metropolises in the world. Mention of the Kayiplar Dernegi's (Foundation for the Lost) involvement was also good to see covered, with the duel purpose of displaying how much Turks cared about the case whilst highlighting the good work of the group, which holds regular activities and demonstrations around the country.

http://www.ktvz.com/image/view/-/15334238/medRes/2/-/maxh/360/maxw/640/-/cfnm69z/-/Map-of-Turkey--Syria--Iraq--Iran-jpg.jpg
Above: Choice use of emotive geographical placement on the part of CNN.    

On the other hand, CNN's choice of image at the head of the story (pictured), highlighting the kind of neighbourhood Turkey inhabits, almost had me in titters when the story first become international. Luckily, it seems to have been a one-off in coverage of the case, although I did raise an eye-brow when the end of AP's report contained the line 'Sierra's death was unlikely to have a significant impact on tourism, a large component of the Turkish economy.' Not tactful, to say the least.

Increasing Violence before my Eyes

I'm drifting into the safety of reporting the details. However, the news of the murder (of which I just noticed, I clinically began referring to as 'the case' – denial as coping mechanism, much?) has affected the way I read other tragic articles. And they are not hard to find recently.

The AP concluded their last article on Sierra with a note that murders of foreigners in Turkey are rare, but that in 2008, a story I barely remembered, “an Italian artist, Pippa Bacca, was raped and killed while hitchhiking to Israel wearing a wedding dress to plead for peace. Her naked body was found in a forest in northwest Turkey. A Turkish man was sentenced to life in prison for the attack.”

Flicking through the online postings of a pro-government Syrian activist the other day, brought to my attention the news of an Orthodox priest, Rev. Fadi Jamil Haddad, who had been captured whilst handing over a ransom to an armed gang the activist accused of being anti-government Jihadist rebels. Apparently, the original hostages had been killed, the money taken, and a higher random given out for the priest, which could not be met by the local community. The priest was tortured in ways I don't wish to go into detail about before being killed.

Then, to top it all off, there was the Huffington Post's article numbering the amount of gun deaths recorded in America since last month's atrocity in Sandy Hook. The number totalled 1,280.

I will ask the question again, what does one make of such senseless violence?

It is a well-held belief in Islam, that unlike animals and other-worldly beings, whose roles and actions are limited by changes in nature outside their own 'programming', the human faculty of choice and free will enables humans to be the highest and lowest of life-forms inhabiting this planet (Qur'an 5:32 95:4). Inevitably, I have been exposed this week, to too much of the latter form.

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