[Originally published to my blog on September 2nd 2015, the day that pictures of dead Syrian 3 year-old Alan Kurdie appeared on social media and in the press]
Disclaimer: This is another serious blog, but I make no apologies.
Social media and the news websites have today been carrying one of the most distressing images imaginable; photos of the corpse of a Syrian toddler washed ashore, another casualty of the desperate humanitarian crisis there.
The picture delivers layer after layer of sadness, beyond the initial shock value of seeing the face of a dead child. What we see isn’t a tiny fragment of a swarm or a human cockroach, what we see isn’t even the body of a refugee, what we see when we look at that picture is somebody close to us; a son, a younger brother, a nephew, grandson or friend. We see their frailty exposed, their love of life extinguished, their happiness ended. In that tiny package, small enough to be easily carried away in the arms of one man, we see the crushing of all of the dreams we have for somebody close to us.
But the horror doesn’t end their on that forsaken beach, our imagination easily paints the picture of an overcrowded boat, a child too young to possibly fend for themselves in the open sea falling or slipping into the ocean. We can see a hysterical mother screaming a name that we don’t even know, being held back by others on the boat to prevent her jumping in an losing her own life as well. She’s a faceless Syrian woman, but across a continent and across cultures we feel and fear her pain. We know that she doesn’t feel this terrible loss any less than we would, that in her flight to try to find safety she has sacrificed a portion of her happiness forever.
Even this skates over the true darkness, the image of what we could have given that boy in the waves. He could have had a life here. This morning he could have been dressed in a clean but 2nd hand uniform, nervous and excited by the prospect of a day in school in a strange country, his parents could have been in tears as they nervously took them in, scared by their strange new immigrant status, but happy to be free of fear for their lives. We could have given him that, but instead he’s dead and waves break over him.
The deepest horror is knowing that tiny figure is no longer a person, but is now an irredeemable and unrepairable blemish on our national soul. No matter how we change, and change we must, no matter how many lives we save in the Med, no matter how many refugees we offer succour to we didn’t save this one. He died because we did nothing, we condoned leaders who did nothing, we bought the newspapers that preached hatred, we didn’t condemn those who painted these migrants as less than human. It wasn’t enough and it still isn’t enough, it can never be enough to make that boy smile again. We took the smile. We took the life.
We often talk about our society becoming Orwellian, thinking of surveillance and police-states, but it’s worth remembering the very first entry that Winston Smith makes in his diary in 1984, the image that Orwell uses to paint how terrible Airstrip One is…
April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats
How terrifyingly close to that we seem today, when comments sections talk of a migrant invasion and the need to send in the army, destroy migrant boats or use military force to turn them round and a tiny child, who’s our son, our brother, our nephew, our grandson lies dead where he washed ashore.