Today three pictures have been circulating on Facebook and Twitter. One shows a tiny child who we do not know, whose family we do not know, and whose short life-story we do not know; this toddler had been neatly and carefully dressed by somebody – a mother, a father, a sibling, a friend – but the first thing we know about this little child is that this child is dead. Drowned. Washed up on a beach. Dead.
The picture is not so different from another I’ve seen recently – the way the child is lying, the way the child’s t-shirt is hitched up, and the child’s legs are arranged – but that other picture was of a friend’s little girl, who had fallen asleep on the carpet of her family’s sitting room, after a busy day playing with her grandparents. That little girl was tired out after doing what a child should be doing, playing happily surrounded by her loving family. That there are these similarities, however fleetingly impressionistic, makes the photo of the small, drowned child who has come to rest on the cold wet sand, and who will never wake up, never play with grandparents and friends, never have a life, more agonising. I cannot bring myself to think of the circumstances in which this child ended up on the beach, the terror, and the panic, and the end.
A few hours later there are more pictures, another showing the little boy lying on the sand at the water’s edge. This time there’s no mistaking sleep for death. There’s a Turkish police officer looking down at the child. In the next picture, he has picked the child up, and is carrying him. The officer’s face is tense – you can see the tension in his jaw, and his lips are tightly pressed together – and his arms are tense. But the dangling limbs of the child could, again, be those of an exhausted toddler being moved to somewhere more suitable for sleep. As with the first image, these are confusing contradictions. One’s own experience of toddlers is clashing horribly with the reality of this picture. I work with children, little ones, several times a week. I’ve lifted them up, steered them about, picked them up when they’ve fallen over. I know what the weight of a child is, and I know their funny floppy limbs, but I only know them warm and flailing. I can’t imagine them pale, cold, wet, dead. Not for anything would I be that Turkish police officer: the more I look at the picture, the more my own jaws become tense and my teeth clench, but this is only to stop inevitable tears.
From the Guardian we now know that this little boy is Aylan Kurdi, three years old, possibly from Kobani, a northern Syrian city. His five year old brother has also died. They were two of the 23 people who had set of in two boats from the Bodrum peninsular (Turkey). They were heading for the Greek Island of Kos. But they capsized, and twelve died, including Aylan Kurdi and his brother, along with three other children. Several people were rescued, some made it to shore alive, some are still missing. Even worse than contemplating the death of Aylan and his brother is the thought of the survivors, and how they feel.
On Friday, one of my compatriots, Nina Hall, swam Kaş, in Turkey to the Greek island of Kastellorizo. She did this in solidarity with the refugees who are risking their lives trying to cross similar water. Nina, with whom I used to swim at a club in Wellington when we 12-15 years old, is a strong swimmer. In the newspaper photo, she glides through water that looks typically Mediterranean. In fact, it’s idyllic. The sky is blue, the water is blue, and all is calm. ‘Nobody could die here!’ you think. But they do, and they are. In these Mediterranean waters, a three year old child would drown in 2-4 minutes, an adult in a similar amount of time. A relatively quick death, but if one takes into account struggling, panicking, swallowing water, weighed down by clothes, and disorientated in the dark, it’s a horrible death. Nobody should have to die in these conditions. However, 2,500 refugees have died in the waters of the Mediterranean, twelve of those last night, between Bodrum and Kos, and one of them was Aylan Kurdi. If they had come from Kobani, they had escaped an area where there has been fierce fighting between Islamic State insurgents and Kurdish forces. Islamic State have massacred civilians in Kobani, as well as taking hostages, and killing other civilians in car bomb attacks. It is likely that Aylan Kurdi and his brother had already experienced great terror, and had escaped it. That is an achievement. They, and their family, deserved safety, and sanctuary, and lives free from fear. They must have hoped they would find this, whether in Greece or elsewhere in Europe. Instead, all that we know definitely about Aylan Kurdi is that the short life of a little boy wearing a red t-shirt, blue shorts, and neat black shoes ended in panic and fear. He should be alive, being embraced by some adoring relation, not being borne off the beach by a tight-lipped policeman in plastic gloves.
Later this afternoon I noticed a discussion occurring in one of the fora that social media provides for people to hit each other with opinions. DO NOT SHARE THESE IMAGES OF A DROWNED CHILD trumpets one commentator; it is, inhumane to do so, it uses this child as a token, a symbol, a pawn in a greater political game; it shows no respect to the child’s parents; it is cold-hearted, manipulative, obscene. We can, this person says, raise awareness of the realities and horrors of the humanitarian disaster that is occurring in the Mediterranean, in Greece, in Turkey, in Hungary, without sharing pictures of little Aylan Kurdi. It is prurient. It is emotional blackmail. It will be misused. It serves no purpose.
I disagree. In recent weeks, refugees have been compared with swarms (of vermin, presumably), children have been labelled ‘illegal immigrants’, and have died in in the backs of vans and trucks in EU countries. This is what is obscene. It is obscene that any person – no matter what their age, their gender, their profession or education – who has managed to flee the barbaric amorality of Islamic State, should be referred to in this dehumanising way. We hear of vast numbers, hundreds of thousands of refugees (or ‘migrants’, as they are still called, suggesting a group of calculating opportunists with their cynical eyes on European jobs), and these are rhetorical forms which make it harder or even impossible to imagine individuals. I argue that without seeing pictures of these individuals, without knowing their stories, and without grasping the significance of one death, let alone 12 deaths, or 2,500 deaths, we cannot begin to understand the crisis, and we cannot find ways to respond. This should not be the case – plenty of people are acting to help, whether they do so by volunteering to welcome refugees, donating money and clothes, or welcoming refugees to their towns – but it is.
Reading a lot of history as I do, I still cannot comprehend the scale of some slaughter in the recent past. In large numbers, casualties become statistics and cease to be people. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, the British 21st Division alone lost 4,256 casualties. How to comprehend the wounding, suffering and death of these thousands? I know that on an empathetic level, it is impossible to form any connection with these numbers: we need names, and pictures and histories of each person. The scale and iniquity of the deportation of Jewish people from Paris in 1942 is vast; it is not until you find gravestones in the Cimetière de Montmartre, family gravestones in which the family line stops in 1942 with a few names (grandparents, parents, little Claude aged 9) suffixed by ‘assassiné à Auschwitz‘ that the reality really bites. Claude needs to be remembered by more than this inscription, in a quiet corner of the huge cemetery. I shall visit him again. More than 70 years after the event, seeing these gravestones, and particularly that of little Claude, was a jarring reminder of countless small personal tragedies that added together to create the 6 million victims of the Holocaust. Even across 70 years, this was a true ‘reality check’, and the reality hit with a painful jolt.
With the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the reality bites savagely. He, and his little life must not be forgotten. It is a tragedy that all we know of him is encapsulated in the photos of him lying lifeless on a chilly beach. For every person who is motivated by the terrible fate of Aylan Kurdi to take some action to alleviate the confusion and trauma of refugees’ lives, is taking some positive action to honour this memory. To hide these pictures is not sensitive behaviour or respectful. It is complicity.
See also Peter Bouckaert’s ‘Dispatches: Why I Shared a Horrific Photo of a Drowned Syrian Child‘