by Jenny White
At precisely 9:03 am on Friday, May 24, 1996, the attractive blonde woman on track thirteen at the Zurich station slipped into the gap between the platform and the moving train. Şafak Pavey was a nineteen-year-old Turkish art student. She had recently arrived in Zurich to study and to live with her new husband, a British musician. When she entered their apartment, instead of her husband, she found a note explaining that he was leaving her. A few days later, a musician friend of her husband appeared at the door. In an advanced stage of leukemia, Mira was on his way to Geneva to try a last-ditch treatment they had found for him. He had traveled a long way in fragile health, and he was broke. Şafak took time off from her morning job at a cafe and accompanied the frail man to the train station to arrange his ticket. A dancer friend would meet him in Geneva and take him to the treatment center.
When they got to the station, Şafak left Mira on a bench and went to buy his ticket. When she returned, she found Mira trying to board the train. She ran to him, taking him in her arms to help him up the stairs and into the coach. Şafak was reaching the ticket up to him when suddenly the train began to move, its doors still open. Mira leaned forward to grab the ticket and Şafak, afraid he would fall out, pushed him inside. When she tried to step back onto the platform, a baby carriage blocked her way and she fell into the gap between the platform and the moving train.
In those early photos, Şafak is charismatic, insouciant, her eyes a brilliant blue, hair bouncing about her face in blonde curls. In the accident, she lost her left arm and leg, a particularly serious amputation because with both limbs missing on the same side, as she once pointed out to me, you have no stability at all. Her mother, Ayşe Önal, a journalist famous for her courageous reporting of taboo topics like corruption and government violence, took her young son Mehmet to live first in Switzerland and then to England to care for Şafak through a series of grueling operations and experiments with ill-fitting prostheses. Turkey was out of the question – it does not have a basic prosthetic sector at all, except in military hospitals. Handicapped people are considered a source of shame for the family and kept out of sight. Marriage within the extended family is a common cause of genetic disability, and people fear being stigmatized. No accommodations are made for the disabled, and government policies are a work in progress. A young woman like Şafak would have had no independent life at all in Turkey. She tried for a time to resume her studies in Istanbul, but found the city entirely inaccessible. Instead, she pursued her education in England. It is all the more remarkable that last Sunday, after fifteen years of living abroad, she was elected to the Turkish parliament and returned to her country as Istanbul representative for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).