The death of Alan Kurdi: ‘It was like the sea opened its mouth and swallowed them’

 thestar.com  4/17/2018 10:00:00 AM 

I texted [my brother] Abdullah [Kurdi] and told him to meet me downstairs for coffee. We made our way to the hotel’s restaurant, with its big-screen TVs broadcasting the latest horrifying news from Syria. The majority of the hotel guests registered little more than a passing interest in the unfolding events on the news. They seemed entirely removed from all forms of suffering and pain. Even though we were in the Middle East — under those impossibly blue skies, the weather so hot — it felt like a foreign world, a world entirely removed from the humble one we had grown up in, and even more so from the brutal reality of war and poverty. We sat in silence again, overhearing the fashionable tourists and business people ordering their expensive breakfasts, breakfasts that cost more than a refugee makes for an entire week of back-breaking labour.

“What are we doing here?” I asked Abdullah.

“Sister, don’t you think I ask myself that question every minute? We could write a book.”

“You’re right. We should. For Rehanna and the boys. For all the innocent people victimized by war.”

Alan Kurdi, left, and Ghalib Kurdi. They were separated from their father, Abdullah, when their boat overturned and they were thrown into the waves.
Alan Kurdi, left, and Ghalib Kurdi. They were separated from their father, Abdullah, when their boat overturned and they were thrown into the waves.  (Supplied)

His face turned ashen and his eyes filled with tears. I followed his gaze to the TV screen: that photograph of Alan again.

Ibni. My son. Allah yerhamak ya rohi. Rest in peace, my beloved,” Abdullah said. Then he turned to me. “I need to get out of here.”

The midday heat was like a brick wall, but the streets were quiet. We didn’t speak, we just let our tears run. After a while, we sat down on a bench in a square with a splashing fountain. As the sun shone down on us, I tried to help Abdullah open up.

“Abdullah, what exactly happened that night? You need to talk about it.”

Abdullah was silent for a while. Then he spoke. “The waves were too strong. I did everything I could to save them. But it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t save them, Fatima.” Abdullah put his head in his hands and started to sob. “Mitl raffit al’ain. It happened in the blink of an eye. They were gone.”

I knelt down on the ground in front of him and hugged his shins to my chest, his bony knees pressing into my collarbone.

“I can’t breathe,” he said. “No one can understand our pain unless they walk in our shoes.”

I let go and stood up. I took his hand and pulled him up from that bench. We walked back to the hotel and Abdullah went to his room. I wondered if I had gone too far, asked too much. But slowly, over the following days, he shared more details with me, and eventually I was able to see just how traumatic that night had been.

“The boat was too small for all of us,” Abdullah said. “The bow was pointed, so there wasn’t much space on the floor of the boat. Everyone was quiet as we boarded. Alan was still fast asleep, and Ghalib was half asleep.” The Turkish man whom Abdullah had met earlier was at the helm, speaking in gestures as the refugees boarded.

“Rehanna and I sat down at the bow. Ghalib was in my lap, and Alan was in Rehanna’s. Right away, the waves were slamming against the boat. It woke up Ghalib and Alan. The sensation of the spray of water on his face made Alan laugh. It made Ghalib cry.”

“I held Ghalib to my heart, saying, ‘la tkhaf baba habibi. Don’t be scared, sweetheart.’ The waves were so strong and powerful, and the boat was so overloaded that it started to take on water. People started screaming. We were like rag dolls against the thudding waves. In panic, the driver dived off the boat. I was sitting close to the front, but I could reach out with one hand and hold on to the steering wheel. The boat was drifting in the open sea, and I tried to steer it, but I was still holding Ghalib, and Rehanna was holding on to me too.”

Abdullah Kurdi in the piano bar of a hotel in Irbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region, less than a month after losing his wife and two sons in an attempt to reach Greece.
Abdullah Kurdi in the piano bar of a hotel in Irbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region, less than a month after losing his wife and two sons in an attempt to reach Greece.   (BRYAN DENTON/New York Times)

Abdullah told me the waves overwhelmed the overloaded boat. It capsized, throwing everyone into the sea.

“It was pandemonium in the water. I held Ghalib and Alan and tried to corral them with one arm, and Rehanna was still holding my arm; we had our arms hooked at the elbow. I was using my legs too, trying to hold up the boys with one knee and Rehanna with the other. I kept screaming, ‘Breathe!’ But the waves kept pummelling us underwater. Rehanna was the first one gone. She kept yelling, ‘Save the kids!’ Then I couldn’t hear her voice anymore. She was gone, just like that,” Abdullah said, snapping his fingers. “I could only pray that her life jacket would save her. Each time a wave knocked us underwater, I tried to get under the boys and push them up to the surface, minshan yitnafsoo, so they could breathe. But as soon I got them back to the surface, a new wave knocked them back under.

“I don’t know how long it went on like that. There was a lot of yelling and screaming, but I didn’t hear the boys make any sounds. I was yelling to myself, ‘Don’t die. Please don’t die. Ya Allah saidon. Oh God, help them.’”

Abdullah thought about trying to swim to the shore, but the current was strong and the waves were knocking him sideways; the twinkling lights of the Turkish coastline seemed too far away. He could only hope that bystanders would hear the passengers’ desperate cries and send a rescue boat.

During one momentary break in the waves, he got a look at Ghalib’s face.

“Ghalib’s mouth was hanging open, and white froth was coming out. He wasn’t breathing. His eyes were open, but they were like glass. I was frantic, trying to see Alan’s face too.”

Each time Abdullah was able to get Alan’s head above the water, the boy made no sound. His body was limp, his head lolling to the side. And his eyes were blank, staring. Abdullah thought that if he had a chance to do CPR, he might be able to bring Alan back from the dead. But it was impossible to do anything in that water.

“I held on to the boys for as long as I could, trying to keep their heads above the water. I could not bear to let them go. But I was no match for those waves. One after the other, Ghalib and Alan slipped from my grasp. It was like the sea opened its mouth and swallowed them. Rah kilshi. Everything was gone. I went crazy, thinking, ‘I just want to die so that we can be together again.’” Abdullah gave up the fight and let himself sink under the water. He didn’t move his arms or legs. He just wanted to sink to the bottom of the sea and drown. But he kept bobbing back up to the surface.

“I thought, ‘They’re so light. If I float, maybe they’ll float too.’ I swam around in circles, frantically calling their names. But no one came to the surface. I was all alone.” It was still dark, even with the moonlight. At some point, a searchlight found him in the ink-black sea. It was the coast guard. A helicopter also appeared. As it cast its spotlight on Abdullah, he looked around hopefully for his family — for anyone. When the coast guard ship got to Abdullah, the Iraqi man who had been on his boat reached into the water and pulled him out of that sea.

Marti, awladi. My wife, my kids!” Abdullah yelled. He noticed a man holding a searchlight, and so he grabbed it and went to the edge of the boat, hunching down and casting light across the black water. He couldn’t find them, but he couldn’t stop calling out to them. The boat and the helicopter searched the waters until daylight. But then the boat began to turn back to the shore.

“Keep circling!” yelled Abdullah. But the coast guard told him they needed to get back to the shore.

“I said to myself, ‘Inshallah, they’re going to be waiting at the dock.’” The shock and trauma had split his mind in two, and when he saw the ambulances lined up along the street, his hope turned to dread.

“As soon as my feet hit that dock, I lost it. I became hysterical, hitting myself. I tore at my chest and my T-shirt ripped apart. I started running down the dock, crying their names. I got near one of the ambulances and saw an Iraqi couple from the boat. ‘Did you find your family?’ ‘No.’ They said, ‘Come to the hospital.’ But I couldn’t leave the shore. I wanted to look for my family. I went into the coast guard station, but the police said, ‘You need treatment. We’ll take you to the hospital.’

‘I’m not leaving without my family,’ I told them. I was crazy, sobbing. After maybe an hour, I convinced myself that they were alive at the hospital and that I had to get there.”

Canadian Tima Kurdi, aunt of Ghalib and Alan Kurdi, recounts the intimacy of her family’s grief in her new book.
Canadian Tima Kurdi, aunt of Ghalib and Alan Kurdi, recounts the intimacy of her family’s grief in her new book.  (Maxine Bulloch)

A police officer drove Abdullah. En route, the officer stopped to pick someone up. “I think he was a mullah or a sharia lawyer,” Abdullah said, “but he was speaking Turkish to the policeman. I thought I heard him say, ‘Rest in peace.’ I lost all hope. But then I said, ‘No, no, no. They’re still alive.’”

When they got to the hospital, Abdullah didn’t want to go inside. He sat outside on a bench for a while, crying and pulling at his hair. Someone from the hospital eventually came out and took him in. A police officer asked him some questions about the names of the smugglers.

“Where did you leave from?” he asked Abdullah.

“When I told them where we’d left from, he said, ‘That’s right across the street from the police station. Nobody goes from there.’”

Abdullah was asked to identify the bodies, and then later, he was given one more chance to see them after the autopsy.

“That last look at them will scar my heart forever and ever,” Abdullah said.

They lay in front of him, too white and covered in bruises and scratches. They had stitches from being autopsied. By then it was the middle of the night. Afterward, Abdullah was given the bag of his family’s clothes and told to go get some sleep, as if he could ever do such a thing.

“I was walking down the same streets we had walked down together, but now I was alone. I called out, ‘Where are you, Rehanna? Ghalib? Alan?’ I asked God, ‘Is it just a bad dream? Please let me wake up from this nightmare.’”

From THE BOY ON THE BEACH by Tima Kurdi. Copyright © 2018 by Tima Kurdi. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Canada, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Tima Kurdi will be doing events across Canada — visit www.boyonthebeachbook.ca for more details.

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