'I was dreaming for my family, the dream is gone'
I have buried my soul in the grave with my drowned sons, Abdullah Kurdi tells Magdy Samaan and Nick Squires as he's forced to return to Bodrum
Published 06/09/2015 | 02:30
Surrounded by the ruins of the Syrian town that he had hoped his children could escape, Abdullah Kurdi was in mourning this weekend after burying his sons Aylan, three, and Galip, five.
Kobane has already seen its fair share of funerals in the past year, after its savage six-month siege by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) fanatics.
Yet such is the sense of pity over the drowning of his two boys en route to a new life in Europe, that huge crowds of mourners came to pay their respects.
Despite the condolences, and a flood of offers to give him a new home in the West, Mr Kurdi is no longer interested. In a heartfelt interview with The Sunday Telegraph yesterday, he said that when he had buried his two children and their mother, he had buried "his own soul" with them.
"Nothing can compensate me," he said tearfully. "If you gave me the entire world, it isn't worth a bit compared to the loss of my children. All I seek is that God gives me patience.
"I was dreaming for my family and they have gone, so the dream has gone as well. I have buried my soul, feelings and mind in the grave."
Mr Kurdi was speaking by phone after returning to Kobane from the Turkish resort of Bodrum, on the Aegean Sea, from where he and his family made their fateful journey in a people smugglers' skiff on Wednesday.
The boat soon capsized in the open sea, his two young sons drowning with their mother, Rehan. A few hours later, it also proved a turning point in Europe's migrant debate, when Aylan's lifeless body was photographed washed up on a beach in Bodrum.
Recounting the incident, Mr Kurdi told how the smuggler who agreed to take them promised the journey would only take five minutes and that the boat's engine was not of the unreliable sort used by others in the trade.
As it turned out, the engine spluttered to a halt almost as soon as the vessel reached choppier waters. Shortly afterwards, the smuggler piloting the vessel deserted them on a boat manned by an accomplice, leaving Mr Kurdi to try to take the wheel himself.
Minutes later, a large wave capsized the vessel. He struggled to stay afloat as he tried to save his sons. His memories of their final words are tortured ones.
"Their mother was asking me to save the children, not her," he said. "Aylan was saying, 'Baba, Baba' [daddy], which is the only word he knows.
"Meanwhile, Galip was saying, 'Baba, the water is drowning me. Did you bring us here so we could die?'
"Can you imagine? I took my own children for death."
Between sobs, he added: "The first one to die was Galip. I could see he was already dead, so I let his body go to save the other. After five more minutes Aylan died as well. Then I looked behind to their mother, and found her dead, too, floating on the water. I stayed about three hours in the water, swimming to reach the coast. When I got tired I tried to keep my strength up, hoping someone will save me."
Eventually, a coastguard vessel alerted by another survivor came to Mr Kurdi's rescue. As far as he was concerned, though, it might as well have not bothered.
"Aylan and Galip used to wake me up every day to play with them," he said.
"This was the joy of my life and the pain will live with me whenever I remember them. I will blame myself until I die."
Born in Damascus, Mr Kurdi moved to the Kurdish town of Kobane after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011. He says he has suffered at the hands of every side in Syria's brutal civil war.
At the beginning of the anti-Assad revolution, he was tortured by Syrian state security services, while during the Isil takeover of Kobane last year, he was arrested by the group's fanatics and beaten again, this time losing eight of his teeth. Relations say that 11 members of the extended family have been killed by Isil.
Mr Kurdi also claimed to have applied for asylum in Canada, where his sister Fatima lives, but had his case rejected. It was then that he decided to take the family to Europe.
His attempt last week was his third, the first two having ended with the family being turned back by coastguard vessels. "I was just trying to make my children and my wife happy," Mr Kurdi added. "They were the most precious things to me in my life and now they are gone."
Now, he says, he is too heartbroken to try again to start a new life in the West. Yet a glance around Kobane shows why many other residents continue to gamble with the people-smugglers. Most of the town is in ruins and without power after the six-month Isil siege that began last September, and was eventually broken by Kurdish militia fighters backed by US warplanes.
Mr Kurdi's house was destroyed in the fight, and this weekend he received mourners in commercial premises run by a neighbour who had a generator that could provide electricity.
The flood of Syrians prepared to risk their lives on the same journey as Mr Kurdi and his family continues. In Bodrum, The Sunday Telegraph met a family waiting anxiously on a beach for a rendezvous with a people-smugglers' boat, hoping to be taken just four miles across to the Greek island of Kos.
Rasha and her husband Qusay, who declined to give their full names, were well aware of the tragedy that had taken place just days before - all the more so since they themselves had a young child, a five-month-old girl called Bana.
Yet they were pressing ahead regardless, waiting for the smugglers to arrive in a van at 2am. Anything, they said, was better than life in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour, where fighting has been raging since the dawn of the Syrian uprising four years ago.
"The boat is going to be very small and they put 40 people in it," said Rasha, 28, as she sat under a palm tree with a tiny life vest she had bought for her baby. "We know it is very dangerous."
Speaking of how she and her husband sold all their possessions to pay the $3,000 smugglers' fees, her eyes filled with tears. "We were happy before the war," she said. "We had no reason to leave. Now we are here, doing this."