Even now, one night and a day after the disaster, the detritus of their devastation still lines the beach. This was not the place any of them should have died: they had escaped Syria, tried Turkey and, in the form of the Greek isle of Kos, freedom now beckoned from across the sea.
For Abdullah and Rehan Kurdi, and their two small children, Alan and Ghalib, the dream of a life in Canada, far from war and civil strife, had never been nearer. But then came the waves: a sea so fierce it overturned their cramped plastic dingy. “I took over and started steering,” said Abdullah Kurdi on Thursday. “The waves were so high and the boat flipped. I took my wife and kids in my arms and I realised they were all dead.”
The Kurdis’ dingy was not the only one to run into trouble on Wednesday. Another vessel capsized early in the day, leaving 12 dead altogether. The telltale signs still line Ali Hoca beach – nappies, shoes, socks, rope and bits of the lifejackets the children wore. On Thursday, more than 24 hours after the tragedy, photographs, medicines, handwritten scraps of paper – preserved in plastic bags – could be seen in the crevices of rocks beyond which a ripped rubber boat still lay.
Within hours of them being taken, photographs portraying three-year-old Alan lying dead on the beach had sparked renewed and ferocious debate over Europe’s response to its migration crisis and the casualties of war. But Abdullah Kurdi had just one simple wish. “All I want,” he said, “is to be with my children at the moment,” he told AP.
He would try to take his loved ones back for burial in Kobani, he added, the family’s original hometown on Syria’s border with Turkey where Islamic State insurgents engaged in fierce fighting with Kurdish forces earlier this year.
Kurdi said that the boat in which the family had been travelling had started taking on water about 500 metres from the shore and that, despite his best efforts, he had not been able to hold on to his 35-year-old wife and two sons. “I was holding my wife’s hand,” he told the Turkish news agency Dogan. “But my children slipped through my hands. It was dark and everyone was screaming.“I tried to swim to the shore with the help of the lights but couldn’t find my wife and children once I was there. I thought they got scared and ran away. When I couldn’t find them in our meeting point in the city [Bodrum] where we normally meet, I went to the hospital. And got the bad news.”
“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?” Kurdi said. “My kids were amazing. They woke me every day to play with me. What is more beautiful than this? Everything is gone. I would love to sit next to the grave of my family now and relieve the pain I feel.”
Unlike other refugees heading for Europe, the Kurdi family had lived in Turkey for three years before deciding to repatriate to Canada, where Abdullah’s sister had for several years attempted – and failed – to sponsor their asylum claim.
Speaking to the Canadian media, Tima Kurdi, a hairdresser who has lived in Vancouver for the past 20 years, hit out at the failure of western states to provide legalised safe passage for refugees, claiming it was solely to blame for the drownings. She said the family’s application had been rejected in June, a claim contradicted by the Canadian authorities, who said the application “was returned as it was incomplete as it did not meet regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition”.
Kurdi said: “I was trying to sponsor them and I have my friends and my neighbours who helped me with the bank deposits, but we couldn’t get them out, and that is why they went in the boat. I was even paying rent for them in Turkey but it is horrible the way they treat Syrians there.”
She posted a Facebook tribute with pictures of the two small boys, saying: “My deepest condolences to my brother’s family who suffered a tragic death in search of a better life. Where is the humanity in the world? They did not deserve this. My heart is broken. Rest in peace Angels.”
Details of the family’s history emerged on Thursday, as friends and relatives filled in the narrative gaps behind the harrowing images.
Mustefa Ebdi, a friend and journalist, traced their journey back to the capital of war-ravaged Syria and said the family had been forced to move several times within their own country before leaving for good. “They left Damascus in 2012 and headed to Aleppo and, when clashes happened there, they moved to Kobani,” Ebdi told the French news agency Agence France-Presse. “And again, when clashes [with Islamic State] happened there, they moved to Turkey.”
The photographer who took the pictures of Alan strayed upon him and his five-year-old brother almost as dawn was breaking over Bodrum, the resort town 22km further east. Dispatched by Dogan, the Turkish news agency to monitor Europe-bound migrants in the area, Nilufer Demir, 29, hesitated at first. Residents in the area, out taking brisk early morning jogs and walks, had already alerted the local gendarmerie. The shock, she recollected, was palpable.
“I wished there was no problem in their country, that they hadn’t left it and hadn’t tried to leave Turkey and that I hadn’t taken this photograph,” she said, sitting beneath a bamboo pergola in a restaurant above the beach. “But as I found them dead, all I could do was take these pictures to be their voice. Right now, I can’t even remember exactly when it happened. It was around 6am.”
The furore has clearly taken Demir aback. “We are shocked,” said a video cameraman also sent by Dogan to monitor the beach. “I have a son myself,” he spluttered turning his head away from a copy of a British newspaper carrying the image on its front page. “What to say? It’s horrible, absolutely horrible.”
Seated on the beach not far from the broken dingy, a mother and daughter, from Nantes in the south of France, agreed. They had no idea the tragedy had taken place more or less where they were sitting. “It’s terrible” said Veronique, the mother. “The sadness of life.”
Further along the Bodrum peninsula, Sukru Pinarcioglu and Ceyhtin Yildiz, who run a watersports firm, supplying surfboards and catamarans to beachgoers, said the human smuggling had reached record heights.
Every night, they were awoken in their tents by migrants splashing about in the water, desperately trying to board boats for the nearest Greek island of Kos. “It happens almost every night at about 3am,” said Yildiz. “Sometimes they ask us for help, they want lifejackets, that sort of thing. It’s a terrible thing. If they stay in their own country they will die; if they come here they end up on the street. We’ve been here since April and more often than not we have felt upset, right under the sun, in front of all these tourists, on this lovely beach.”
- This article was amended on 24 November 2015, to reflect the Kurdish spelling of Alan Kurdi’s name.