Georgina Guedes

The boy on the beach

2015-09-08 09:35

Georgina Guedes

Last week the world was horrified by the images of little Aylan al-Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey after drowning while his refugee family attempted the crossing to Greece. This is a hard column for me to write, because I have spent a lot of time trying very hard not to think about the terrible things that Aylan and his family went through.

When the photo of his beautiful, lifeless body started to show up repeatedly on my Facebook timeline, I knew it was going to be a gruelling couple of days on social media. With my heart in my throat, I fought down the desperate anger I felt at being subjected to these images, because at the same time, I believed that the world should see them.

I cried for Aylan.

When life makes you think...

Then I did what I always try to do when faced with a tragedy about which I can do nothing – I tried to lessen the pain of empathy. I told myself that his death was probably quite quick and that he feels nothing now. I told myself that his mother probably perished with him, so she’s not here to mourn the loss of life in those gently curling fingers.

And then I tried to distance myself from his story by reminding myself simultaneously that this is just one child, but also one of many.

As it turns out, his death was not that quick. He died in his father’s arms after their boat capsized, after hours of terror at the end of a lifetime of fear. Yes, his mother died, but his father didn’t, and anyone who has seen the photo of that poor man clutching his head in open-mouthed despair at the loss of his entire family, knows that there is no greater agony than he is going through right now.

And whether Aylan was one child, or one of many, his story is one of a humanitarian tragedy that is being played over and over again, as I write this and you read this.

But at least he feels nothing now.

Why that photo makes us care so much

Then I tried to analyse why that particular photo (and the one of the ashen-faced policeman walking away from the beach with Aylan’s little body) is so much worse than the pictures of other dead children that have emerged from this refugee crisis.

Facebook showed me a number of photos of those other children (thanks), lost on the same crossing, but they haven’t caught the public’s attention in the same way. Why is this the picture and the death that finally got Europe to respond by giving a damn?

I believe it’s partially because Aylan is pale skinned. He doesn’t seem like a foreigner to Europeans in the same way as the many dark-skinned children that washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean are. At a time when foreigners are feared and reviled in many places in Europe, Aylan reminded people of their connectedness and humanity.

The photo doesn’t show his face, so it’s easy to superimpose the idea of every beloved small boy you have ever known on Aylan’s body. I know that I have imagined endless likenesses with my own son and returned numerous times to his bedroom to listen to his breath and feel the warmth in his cheek.  

And finally, Aylan’s body is untouched. His clothes are tidily draped on his body. He still wears his shoes. He could be sleeping in a bed of sand and waves. When the world’s cartoonists responded to the tragedy of his lost life, so many of them recreated his body in a cot or in his parents’ bed in that position.

Aylan did not, in death, become a “dead thing” like so many of the other battered tiny corpses. It seems as if we could reach into the photo, touch his shoulder, speak a gentle word and awaken him to a reality less cruel than the one he’d come from.

Heartbreakingly, this is not the case.

Some, small measure of hope

However, there has been a visible shift in the media coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis and the public response to it in the wake of Aylan’s death. It’s as if the purpose of his short life was to change minds, to become St Aylan of Refugees, although I am sure his father would prefer it if the purpose of his life was to play with building blocks and mud and balls and kites. In fact, his family have asked that the media stop using the photo of his death, and rather use images of him in happier times[G1].

We are removed from this particular humanitarian disaster here in South Africa. But we have been plagued by similar issues of xenophobia in recent years, so we cannot wash our hands of this.

While there is injustice in using Aylan’s death as a teachable moment, at the same time, if something so senseless can result in the emergence of sense, not just in the communities directly affected by what happened, but all around the world, then at least it will have counted for something. He is all our children.

Let us all remember our humanity.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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