Migrant crisis: The truth about the boy on the beach Aylan Kurdi
His lifeless body cradled in a policeman’s arms, the drowned boy on the beach has become a symbol for the suffering of Syrian refugees.
Three-year-old Alan Kurdi (his first name was initially incorrectly given as Aylan) perished along with his five-year-old brother and mother off the coast of Turkey.
His father survived and gave a heart-rending account of how he watched his family die after the flimsy dinghy that was supposed to carry them to a brighter future was swamped by rough seas.
They are not the first to lose their lives attempting the deceptively short crossing to the Greek island of Kos, but it’s this family’s story that has moved the world. However, it is a story not as straightforward as it immediately seemed.
Many viewing the emotive images of Alan’s body found washed up on the beach assumed the family had fled directly from the hellhole of war-torn Syria.
In fact the saga that would end so tragically had begun a full three years previously, and that final journey – made from Turkey where the family was not in deadly peril – was risked despite the fact that Alan mother’s, Rehan, did not want to go precisely because she feared how it might end
And yesterday the tale took a shocking new turn when a survivor of the boat-sinking alleged that far from being a fellow victim of the money-grabbing people smugglers, Abdullah was a smuggler himself.
Zainab Abbas, who lost two of her three children when the boat overturned, claims Abdullah is wrong to say that he took control of the boat only after the trafficker in charge had jumped overboard in a panic as the vessel was tossed about in choppy seas.
Abdullah, she says, was at the helm from the very beginning of the voyage. “Yes, it was Abdullah Kurdi driving the boat,” Abbas, who is now back in her native Iraq, told Australian TV channel Network Ten through her English-speaking cousin Lara Tahseen.
The way Tima tells it, her brother and his family made contact with people smugglers in Izmir and she gave them the £2,900 required to get them to the coast and then make the two-and-a-half miles to Kos by boat
She added that he begged her not to betray him to the authorities as they struggled to stay afloat while awaiting rescue. The whole sad and increasingly sinister saga began in 2012 when Abdullah, 40, Rehan, 35, and their sons Galip and Alan first crossed the border from their Syrian homeland to Turkey.
Previously, they’d led a nomadic existence in Syria, after fleeing the capital Damascus where Abdullah worked as a barber and had married Rehan in 2010. They ended up in Rehan’s parents’ home in Kobane but that was bombed, leaving several relatives dead and Rehan’s father, Sehosen, injured.
The family of four joined the exodus to Turkey, which has so far accepted 1.7 million Syrians. The Kurdis lived rough in the town of Suruc, about 30 miles from the Syrian border, before travelling to Istanbul.
Here, Abdullah found some work as a labourer but did not earn enough to support his wife and children. But Abdullah had one advantage: he has a sister, Tima, who emigrated to Vancouver, Canada, 20 years ago, where she works as a hairdresser.
Tima was able to send money to help make ends meet and they began plotting their escape to Europe through the back door. The way Tima tells it, her brother and his family made contact with people smugglers in Izmir and she gave them the £2,900 required to get them to the coast and then make the two-and-a-half miles to Kos by boat.
Fatefully, rather than Abdullah making the trip alone with a view to arranging for his wife and children to join him later, they decided to escape together, taking inspiration from Abdullah’s brother Mohammed who took a similar route and eventually reached Germany.
But in a telephone call a few weeks before her death, Rehan spoke to Tima of her misgivings. “I am so scared of the water,” she said. “I don’t know how to swim, if something happens…I don’t want to go.
Just before Abdullah and his family set off, Tima wrote to their father in Syria: “Abdullah is leaving now, pray for his safety.” The old man is said to have pleaded with his son to stay in Turkey.
But explaining his decision to try the boat crossing, Abdullah says: “I wanted my children to be treated like human beings.” Zainab Abbas tells a very different story, however.
She says she paid £6,500 to a people smuggler who assured her: “Don’t worry, the captain of the boat, the driver, is going to bring his two kids and his wife”. The implication was that Abdullah was part of the smuggling ring.
By day the resort of Bodrum bustles with holidaymakers, but at night migrants throng the beach trying to evade coastguards. The lights of Kos are tantalisingly close but on the day the Kurdis and their companions set off the Aegean Sea, so inviting in daylight, was choppy.
The Kurdis’ boat, built to carry a maximum of eight people but loaded with 16 Syrians, got into trouble within half a mile of the shore. It was at this point, Abdullah claims, that the captain jumped overboard.
“I took over and started steering,” he later recalled. “The waves were so high and the boat flipped. I took my wife and kids in my arms.” He tried to hold onto his family but they were swept from his grasp one by one.
He added: “I tried with all my power to save them. I couldn’t.” Abdullah survived in the sea for three hours before being rescued. The bodies of his wife and children were washed back to shore in the morning.
The detritus of failed crossings – including clothes, lifejackets and deflated dinghies – is a common sight on the beach at Bodrum. And among the rubbish on September 2 was the pathetic sight of Alan’s tiny body, dressed in a smart red shirt and blue shorts, lying face down in the sand.
Mehmet Ciplak, a Turkish scenes-of-crime police officer, was among those alerted. Unwittingly, he was photographed as he picked up the body. “I prayed God to find him alive,” he says.
“I am father to a six-yearold boy. I thought of my own son, the moment I saw the body. This is an indescribable pain.” Four men have been charged in connection with the deaths but Abdullah is not one of them.
He was left to identify the bodies of his wife and children. A few days later he made another crossing to Syria to bury them near Kobane. No one can be certain, but it’s estimated that about 1 in 125 refugees who try to escape the turmoil in the Middle East by sea end up drowning.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, some questioned the father’s decision to risk the lives of his family, pointing out that Turkey, where he’d lived for three years, was at least a safe haven. Others insisted he faced a terrible dilemma and that one family’s tragedy must serve as a wake-up call to the world.
Abdullah is ridden with guilt. He says: “Can you imagine? I took my own children to their death. I will blame myself until I die.” At this point he had the sympathy of the entire world.
If the latest allegations against him – which he has denied – turn out to be true, however, he will become the subject of international revulsion