Before we even learned his name – and that with him drowned his 5-year-old brother Galip and their mother Zahim – little Aylan Kurdi from Kobane had become a symbol of the Syrians’ tragic exodus and their dangerous search for security in Europe. The photograph of the 3-year-old boy immediately took on the weight of images that burn into our memory and can change hearts and policies. Symbols give a face and shape to tragedy. They are born of death, and the more familiar the victims appear, the stranger their relationship with horror, the greater the power that they carry.
Little Aylan Kurdi became everyone’s child, the boy sleeping face down on the couch or carpet, exhausted from playing, still wearing his clothes and shoes. But Aylan’s face was pushed into wet sand, waves poked at his lifeless body. “At that moment, when I saw 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, I was petrified,” photographer Nilufer Demir recalled. “The only thing I could do was to make his outcry heard,” Hurriyet Daily News quoted her saying. Pressing the shutter early Wednesday morning, Demir shared her horror with the rest of the world, marking the space where things distant and “foreign” become our problem and demand solutions.
Aylan became the face of a nation scattering from its burning home, a symbol of the barbarity of Syria’s war and of Europe’s indifference. In the loss of one life we can understand what is happening around us, the drama of refugees and migrants, of those who are defeated.
In his “Hecuba,” Euripides presents the ghost of Polydoros, Priam’s youngest son, who, after Troy’s fall, has been murdered by a supposedly friendly king to whom he had been sent to see out the war in safety. Hecuba, who survived so much, breaks and goes on a rampage of revenge.
A child’s death is witness to the power of violence, of the “unnatural,” of merciless and “inhuman” forces – because we like to believe that “humane” behavior exists, that some form of justice underlies the flow of things.
But unjust death, whether of young or old, soldier or civilian, is our fate. Along with Aylan, another 11 people from the same boat drowned. At least 2,500 people have died so far this year in their effort to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
From Wednesday morning (when Aylan was found on a Bodrum beach) to Thursday morning, the Greek coast guard picked up 751 people in 19 spots between Turkey and the Greek islands. So far this year, more than 230,000 people have crossed into Greece, from a total of 17,500 last year. The deaths will continue.
Whether or not we agree with the publication of the photograph, with the “objectification” of Aylan, his still body distills a nation’s agony. With it, we also measure the criminal paralysis of a humanity which, instead of creating a safe passage for the Syrians, waits to see what it will do with those who survive.