Tuesday 25 July 2017

Icons of Syria's suffering, Aylan's father told me how he lost his family to the sea

The world is united in outrage over the death of three-year-old Aylan, but his father, Abdullah, will soon discover how fleeting this outrage is as Syria continues to burn

Top: Abdullah shares his story of heartbreak with Fergal Keane
Top: Abdullah shares his story of heartbreak with Fergal Keane
Grieving father: Abdullah Kurdi with his two sons, Aylan and Galib, who drowned with their mother and other refugees as they tried to reach Greece

Fergal Keane

I am bleary eyed. It is three in the morning at Bodrum airport and there is bad Turkish pop playing in the background. A few hours ago I was interviewing Abdullah Kurdi, the father of three-year-old Aylan and five-year-old Galib Kurdi, and husband of their drowned mother, Reyhan.

Now I am in a departure lounge with tourists heading to Istanbul. On the same day that the boys drowned I saw people swimming in the exact spot their bodies had been washed ashore. These are days of constant dissonance on the Aegean coast, constantly shuttling between two worlds. It is not a good place for peace of mind if you live in the privileged world of the day but spend hours recording stories from the world of the night.

Driving to the airport we stopped at some traffic lights. Through the window I saw one of the Pakistani men I remembered from the beach where Aylan died.

They act as guides for the refugees trying to get to Greece. In this case 'guides' mean they get paid a pittance by the smugglers for showing the refugees how to get to where the boats are waiting. They are at the lowest rung of the human trafficking network. In the shadows, hiding from the police, there was a group of young Syrians. You can spot them easily these days. They are everywhere in Bodrum and Izmir, carrying their lives in rucksacks and emerging at night to risk the crossing to Greece.

Abdullah Kurdi was broken in the night. In his world children are born to war. Hope can vanish as quickly as the crack of a sniper's bullet. Or it can depart incrementally, on the long refugee trail from Kobane and Damascus and Aleppo and countless other towns and villages in the Syria the world long ago abandoned to its fate.

Abdullah gave up on life in Syria and knew there was no future as a refugee in Turkey.

Grieving father: Abdullah Kurdi with his two sons, Aylan and Galib, who drowned with their mother and other refugees as they tried to reach Greece
Grieving father: Abdullah Kurdi with his two sons, Aylan and Galib, who drowned with their mother and other refugees as they tried to reach Greece

By the end, after you have seen your children scream with fear too many times, or they have watched your pride die living on handouts in a refugee camp, you lose hope that your country, or any in the Middle East, can offer them a future.

Abdullah's life, the one where he was a father and a husband and a provider and the only world that meant anything to him, slipped away beneath the waves of the Aegean last week. Here is exactly how he described to me the moment his family vanished.

"I remember the smuggler took us and introduced us to a Turkish guy and we went into the boat. We were 13 people including the driver of the boat. Then we went about four or five minutes and the driver saw the waves were very high and he jumped into the water and escaped.

"I tried to steer the boat but another high wave pushed the boat over. That is when it happened. I tried to catch my children and my wife but there was no hope. One by one they died." This was the stark, unconscious poetry of grief.

The man I met realised that he and his lost family had become icons of Syria's suffering. But I did not ask him about the politics of these turbulent hours in Europe and the Middle East. Why would I? Here was a father not a spokesman. I listened to him as a father.

"My children were the most beautiful children in the world. Is there anybody in the world for whom their child is not the most precious thing? My kids were amazing. They woke me every day to play with me. What is more beautiful than that? Everything is gone." The dead children have been given the status of martyrs.

Social media is aflame with outrage and the demand that 'something must be done.'

Forgive me if I appear cynical here. But 25 years of war and listening to the heartbreaking stories of refugees has done me in. 'Something' will be done. It will look like more than it is and it will quiet public anguish over the crisis for a while.

But Syria will continue to burn. The war will go on and on because the UN Security Council, riven by mutual mistrust and competing ambitions, is broken.

Nobody in Washington can see a way to end it that doesn't involve a risky commitment of US power. Moscow and Tehran will not allow Assad to fall. The barrel bombs and torture chambers of the regime, the horror of the so-called Islamic State . . . none of these has been enough to force the conditions for international unity in the face of barbarism.

Abdullah Kurdi has lived through the Syrian war and will know how fleetingly the world's outrage comes and goes. Another outrage will displace the story of his dead family. The war which caused his family's tragedy will go on.

The refugees will keep coming. I saw the first of them four years ago in Lebanon and Jordan. I have not seen the last. The broken father has taken his wife and sons back to Kobane to bury them.

"I want to sit by their grave," he told me, "and release the pain that is in my heart."

Sunday Independent

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