Friday 23 March 2018

A year on, Alan's father is a broken man

The photograph of Alan Kurdi's tiny lifeless body lying in the waves last year sparked a worldwide campaign to stop the Syrian war. The outrage was short-lived

Crisis: One year ago the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi was taken from the sea Photo: AP Photo/DHA
Crisis: One year ago the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi was taken from the sea Photo: AP Photo/DHA

Fergal Keane

The man is broken. He moves slowly. Abdullah Kurdi has learned that the heaviest weights we carry do not belong to the physical present. They lie in the memories that live with him as a daily penance. He has survived but he is haunted. "Every day I think of them but today I felt as if they had come to me and slept with me and this makes me sad again," he says.

When I first met him a year ago there was so much to deal with. It was a day after the drownings. We were standing together outside the mortuary near Bodrum. The sun pounded and pushed us all towards the shade. These were the almost merciful hours. The immensity of the shock and the accumulation of demands meant Abdullah Kurdi had little time to ruminate. He was fighting to get his boy's bodies released from the mortuary, appealing to whoever could help get them back to Kobani, the family's ancestral home in Syria. He already knew that his three-year-old, Alan, was becoming a posthumous icon of the refugee crisis. The toddler's body on the shore a rebuke to the world, the dead symbol of a nation butchered and betrayed.

His heartbroken father last week lamented that nothing has changed
His heartbroken father last week lamented that nothing has changed

Alan Kurdi was the face and name that brought Syria's tragedy home. His father told me he hoped it would make world leaders act to stop the war. For a week or so the pressure was intense. Something must be done. Something would be done. And then? Well we all moved on. The Twittersphere, the media, the politicians. The Kurdi boys and their mother were buried and Alan's name drifted away. Like the girls of Chibok abducted by Boko Haram and so many other social media cause celebres Alan was overtaken by events. But something was done. Oh yes. By the end of 2015 the European Union had cooked up a deal with Turkey to keep the Syrian masses from getting to Europe. Out of sight out of the headlines. Out of mind.

I meet Abdullah Kurdi in Erbil, the Kurdish capital of northern Iraq where he now lives. He is setting up a foundation in his son's name. There will be many more Syrians fleeing and he wishes to help. "At first the world was anxious to help the refugees," he says "but this did not even last a month. In fact the situation got worse. The war has escalated and more people are leaving."

His year has been a bitter one. At first he was falsely accused of being one of the smugglers who operated the boat which overturned, drowning his children and several other refugees. The arrest and conviction of the real smugglers didn't stop the abuse. To the anti-immigrant hard right, Syrian parents who bring their children across the seas to escape war are the real criminals, not Assad and his allies, or the so-called Islamic State, or the numerous other bands of butchers roaming Syria. Backed by the warplanes of Putin, the new darling of the hard left in the West, Assad has been bombing civilians and displacing thousands more of his own people.

Where now are those who damned American bombing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan? Where are the demonstrations on European streets against Putin's military intervention in Syria? Do those who condemn the actions of the Pentagon really believe Russia's claim to be fighting a clean war in Syria? Of course not. But either they rationalise their own self-deception - all those flattened homes and bodies broken by Assad's barrel bombs are really the fault of the west - or they stay silent for fear of giving comfort to the enemy.

Abdullah Kurdi, and many thousands like him, are the living victims of a war unbounded in its ruthlessness. He tells me he wishes the leaders of world would get together and bring the Syrian conflict to an end. But he knows it will not happen. I read occasional articles which suggest we are in fact living in a less violent age. War is declining. This analysis misses the point. What matters is the temper of the times. And our times are cynical and ugly, dismissive of fact and reason, gorging on hatred. Every so often there comes a defining moment which turns out not to be defining at all. Alan Kurdi's death was one. A brief season of outrage and then back to the same old lies and evasions.

On the eve of the anniversary Abdullah Kurdi kept thinking of what it would be like if the boys were alive. He had a picture in his head. Three-year-old Alan and five-year-old Gilab. He had his arms wrapped around them. It was the most wonderful picture. And it was the saddest.


From northern Iraq to the Laois town of Stradbally in 24 hours. I have just arrived at the Electric Picnic. My car is packed with happy kids: my son Daniel, his cousin Rachel from Canada and the Keating's lad Stephen from Whiting Bay. They have all known each other since they were toddlers and have been blessed to grow up in peace. I tell a garda I am appearing at the festival - to host a debate. He is under the impression I am an ageing rocker and replies: "Are you any good?" I offer a verse of a song which is politely declined.

The atmosphere could not be warmer. A happy army of young people, and a few codgers like myself, are pouring across the fields. Rain is forecast, but who cares? In Erbil I had driven past huge security gates and concrete blast walls into a hotel protected by a small private army. The killers of the so-called Islamic State were about an hour up the road. I met a man whose life was destroyed by war. In Stradbally I have the urge to tell everybody I meet to be grateful that they live in Ireland in this time. It is the luckiest of breaks.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News