That little Alan Kurdi [also known as Aylan Kurdi or Shenu] died tragically from drowning on 2 September 2015 at the age of three is not in doubt. The sad images of his body lying on a beach at the south-west tip of the Bodrum peninsula, Turkey, and its recovery by a Turkish gendarme swiftly spread round the world, igniting international outrage about the human cost of the migrant crisis engulfing the Middle East and Europe. Knee-jerk reactions to the public sentiment and a great clamour for "something to be done" urged politicians in the EU and UK to make rash promises and profoundly change their policies towards migrants. The death of one toddler became the pivot around which Europe's societies, or even European civilization itself, will turn for better or worse with illegal mass immigration from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. But did the circumstances of Alan's death truly constitute a defining moment in human history or were they more apocryphal? Was his dramatic death exploited for propaganda purposes? We have taken a fresh look at the conflicting evidence and tried to assemble the known facts as best we can before drawing conclusions.
The Kurdi family comprised Abdullah, his wife Rehan, and their two sons Galib (5) and Alan (3) [Aylan was a Turkish version of his name]. According to Mustefa Ebdi, a journalist and friend, the Kurdi family had been forced to move several times during the Syrian conflict and left the country in 2012, after moving from Damascus to Aleppo, then to Kobani. He said the correct family name was Shenu, but that Kurdi had been used in Turkey because of their Kurdish ethnic background. The deputy district governor Ekrem Aylanc confirmed that the Kurdi family had been in Turkey for three years (though some reports say they returned to Kobani for a few months in 2015). The Kurdis lived in Turkey in relative safely and Abdullah had employment as a labourer. He has a sister, Tima, who emigrated to Canada over 20 years ago and she had sent money on several occasions to help make ends meet. A lot of the information learned about the Kurdis, maybe around half, has been gleaned from media interviews with Tima, though she backtracked on a few of her statements.
After the tragedy, Abdullah flew back to Kobani (from which he originally fled) with the bodies of his wife and two sons. With the burial there, Abdullah abandoned any plans of leaving his homeland again. An uncle said: "He only wanted to go to Europe for the sake of his children. Now that they're dead, he wants to stay here in Kobani next to them." Abdullah claimed that Canadian officials had since offered him citizenship but he had declined. Canadian authorities said it was not true that Ottawa had offered him citizenship.
The boat was one of the many dinghies which have left with illegal migrants from the beaches at Akyarlar, the closest point on the Bodrum peninsula to the Greek island of Kos. Tima Kurdi received a text message from her brother Abdullah at "0300 or 0400" Turkish time on 2 September 2015, just as the boat was leaving. What happened after that cannot be clearly stated as several conflicting versions of events have been put forward. We have summarized the main versions below, and where possible have quoted the actual words used. Particularly significant passages have emphasis added thus.
Version 1 told by Abdullah (3 September, to the Turkish Dogan News Agency): The family paid for two previous attempts to cross to Kos. "One time, the coast guards stopped us; then we were released. The second time, organizers broke their word and did not bring the boat. Thus, we provided our own boat with our own means. But after 500m off the beach, the boat began to take on water. Our feet were all wet. As the water rose in the boat, a panic sparked. When we tried to stand, bad went to worse. We had lifejackets, but because the people tried to stand up with panic, the boat capsized. I was holding my wife's hands. My children, they slipped through my fingers … We tried to hold on to the boat. But it became to deflate. People were screaming in the darkness of night. That's why I wasn't able to make myself heard to my children, my wife. I tried to swim ashore, by tracing the light. When I managed to go ashore, I couldn't find my wife and children. I thought they vanished with fear. We came to Bodrum, the ones who have survived. When I arrived [at] our [usual] meeting point in the city [and couldn't find them], I went to the hospital and found out they were gone."
Version 2 told by Tima (3 September, to Canadian media): "There were 12 of them; he [Abdullah] was upset with the smuggler; I'm paying the double what the rubber boat will pay for; you can't put the 12 with us, it's too heavy. The smuggler said: 'Don't worry about it - we did it [a] hundred times and it's very safe'."
In an article discussing Tima's statements, Reuters reported: "Abdullah was found semi-conscious and taken to hospital near Bodrum, according to Turkey's Sabah newspaper."
Version 3 told by Abdullah (3 September, to the Associated Press and BBC): "We got onto another boat with a Turkish man. There were 12 of us [13 counting the man who operated the boat] and it was overloaded. We went into sea for 4 minutes then the captain saw that the waves were so high so he steered the boat and we were hit immediately. He panicked and dived into the sea and fled. I took over and started steering. The waves were very high and the boat flipped. I took my wife and my kids in my arms and I realised they were all dead."
Another report added Abdullah saying: "I think we were in the water for three hours trying to survive."
Version 4 told by Abdullah (3 September, in a police statement): The statement Abdullah gave to the Turkish police was leaked to the Dogan News Agency and in it he denied that a smuggler was aboard the boat. Another report about this statement said: "[Abdullah] had twice paid smugglers to take him and his family to Greece but their efforts had failed. They had then decided to find a boat and row themselves but it began to take in water and when people stood up in panic, it capsized."
Version 5 told by Tima (4 September, to the BBC): Both children and Rehan were wearing lifejackets when he texted Tima on departure. After a small wave of cold water splashed them, a big wave flipped the boat and Abdullah held onto both boys, trying to keep them up and out of the water. But then Galib was "finished" so he let him go. He saw Alan's eyes "bleeding", and knew he also was dead so he closed his eyes and let him go too. Then he looked to save his wife and saw Rehan floating in the water "like a balloon". The Turkish coastguard came and rescued the survivors, taking them to shore.
Version 6 told by Ahmed Hadi Jawwad, his wife Zainab Abbas, and Amir Haider (11 September, to Reuters and Channel Ten): These Iraqi survivors of the tragedy disputed Abdullah's accounts and accused him of working directly with people smugglers. Most significantly, they insisted that Abdullah was driving the boat himself, and that he panicked and accelerated when a wave hit the boat. Jawwad and Abbas lost their 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son in the incident. "The story that [Abdullah] told is untrue. I don't know what made him lie, maybe fear," Jawwad said. "He was the driver from the very beginning until the boat sank." He also said Abdullah swam to them and begged them to cover up his true role in the incident. Jawwad said his point of contact with the smugglers was called Abu Hussein. "Abu Hussein told me that he [Abdullah] was the one who organized this trip." Abbas and the third survivor Haider confirmed Jawwad's version of events. Abbas also said the couple met another smuggler to whom they paid US$10,000. He told them: "Don't worry, the captain of the boat, the driver, is going to bring his two kids and his wife." Haider said that he initially thought Abdullah was Turkish because he was not speaking, but later heard him talking to his wife in Syrian Arabic.
In another report of Abbas's television interview, her cousin translated: "Zainab asked Abdullah Kurdi for life jackets. He gave them four but they were five [of them]. She [Abbas] didn't wear a life jacket."
Abdullah later denied the accusations to MailOnline saying that was first time he knew of Abbas's name. He added: "I thought about driving the boat but I didn't do it. That is all lies." In comments to the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw, Abdullah blamed a Turkish smuggler but did not name him.
Version 7 told by Abdullah (17 September, to MailOnline): An "arranger" Abu Hussein in Bodrum was paid £2,900 to get the Kurdi family from Turkey to Greece. Two previous attempts failed before the fateful journey. "When we arrived at the port island, another guy would call him and say they are here. Then they would give money to the owner of the boat. There was another guy called Ahmed. He was from Turkey. These guys were working together. I don't know if that is his first name or surname." Abdullah explained both Hussein, a Syrian, and Ahmed were smugglers but neither were on the boat. "There was another guy on the boat. He was the driver. I do not know his name, but he was from Turkey," he added. "When he saw a big wave, he just swam away from the boat. The Turkish [smugglers] are saying I was driving the boat, just to destroy my name."
Vital aspects of Abdullah's accounts cannot be reconciled, and the nature of the discrepancies are such that they are much more likely to be caused by inconsistent fabrication than by confusion in his recall caused by trauma or grief.
Abdullah's own statements "we provided our own boat with our own means", "I took over and started steering", the curious "I thought about driving the boat but I didn't do it", and the report that they "decided to find a boat and row themselves" certainly undermine his other assertions that he was a passive victim of smugglers and whoever controlled the boat.
Abdullah's version 3 of events and Tima's version 5 make it clear that Abdullah knew his boys and wife were dead in the water. However, this is entirely at odds with his first version where he did not know they were dead until he went to the hospital.
What Abdullah told Tima - the wearing of lifejackets, abandonment by a smuggler, the heroic struggle to survive, and final rescue by the coastguard - seems deliberately sanitised.
Apart from publicizing their own situations, what motives would drive the three other passengers to falsely accuse Abdullah of being involved in organizing the journey and being in control of the boat?
Abdullah claims that his wife and children (and from version 1, possibly himself) were wearing lifejackets, but neither Alan nor Galib were found wearing them - see below. A senior Turkish security official has said that lifejackets in small sizes were probably not available locally.
Other information which is required:
The coastguard would need to confirm if Abdullah was rescued from the sea or was found onshore.
If Abdullah had been "in the water for three hours trying to survive", the hospital would surely confirm his exposed condition on admission.
The gendarmerie or other authority who dealt with Alan's body would need to confirm whether his eyes had been "bleeding".
Tima's version 5 of events said that Abdullah saw his wife Rehan floating in the water "like a balloon". Apart from her clothes billowing - but they must have been saturated with water - what could this mean?
About 0400 a member of the public told the gendarmerie emergency line that a refugee boat had capsized, and by 0500 the authorities were investigating.
Alerted by a friend, a Turkish barman Adil Demirtas said that he had discovered Alan's body, as well as the body of a little girl wearing pink trousers, in shallow water at about 0630. He and his friend pulled the lifeless bodies out of the water onto the sand before calling an ambulance. Demirtas related that the children's eyes were open and that he closed them.
A photo-reporter Nilüfer Demir and a video cameraman working for the Turkish Dogan News Agency (DHA) were "on duty" monitoring the migrant situation and suddenly came across "the lying, lifeless bodies" of Alan and his brother Galip (100m away) in the surf. They had no lifejackets or arm floats on them. Demir said: "I was petrified … The only thing I could do was to make his outcry heard" and took the iconic picture "around 0600". Another report mentioned that: "Residents in the area, out taking brisk early morning jogs and walks, had already alerted the local gendarmerie" when Demir and her colleague found the bodies. "The photographer … strayed upon him and his five-year-old brother almost as dawn was breaking." A third report had Demir telling Le Monde newspaper: "When I arrived about 0600 or 0700 in the morning … we could make out something washed up on the beach. We could see straight away that he was dead and there was nothing we could do."
Sergeant Major Mehmet Çıplak, a Turkish gendarmerie CSI, could not find any signs of life in Alan's body, saying "I craved, searched for a sign of life. However, I couldn't find any signs". He also claimed he was unaware that someone [presumably Demir] was taking his picture. "When I arrived at the scene, I saw a group of inhabitants. I wasn't aware whether they were taking pictures. Within my duty, I launched investigations rapidly." He also said: "My sorrow would ease if this spark could grow to a greater fire which could extinct this fire." Çıplak and a gendarmerie photographer were photographed and videoed - apparently by the above DHA team - as they dealt with Alan's body and removed it from the beach. Çıplak's account was told to Dogan News Agency reporters, "in an interview conducted right where he has found the dead bodies". Another report said Çıplak's team "was sent at around 0500 … after receiving an emergency call about a sunken boat … reports of dead bodies washing up on the Turkish shore were being received."
A BBC foreign correspondent, Fergal Keane, interviewed (at 1:15m into the video report) a local fisherman who "saw the bodies on the shore".
If we compare the above accounts of witnesses with the video footage and photographs taken by the DHA team, we raise the following points:
The timelines of events are sloppy at best and contradictory at worst. The barman's account is particularly hard to reconcile with the others, but his timing relative to sunrise seems more plausible.
How did someone know as early as 0400 - still night-time, but moderately moonlit? - that the boat had capsized, apparently shedding flotsam and lifeless bodies?
There are no footsteps or disturbance in the sand next the body as you would expect if someone had urgently tried to check for life or revive Alan. If the tide had washed away any such signs, the body must have been rather callously put face-down again at the water's edge a while before. Surely he would have been turned over and pulled out of the water and up the beach - as the barman claimed - at the very least to preserve some dignity? Was the DHA team really so sure that the boy was dead without going near him before starting to video the scene? Most people would at least have made the effort, even if it were probably in vain. In any case, the DHA team seem to have taken quite some time over shooting their video footage before the gendarmerie appeared.
Throughout the video and sequence of photographs released to the press, right up to the point where the gendarme lifts away Alan's body, there is no sign that Alan's body was moved or even touched at all. The eyes are indeed closed. The position and appearance of the body and clothing, though striking, are not sufficiently unusual to argue strongly that the body had been tampered with or posed.
The first of the two iconic photographs - with the gendarme standing over Alan - has been cropped, undoubtedly to heighten its impact. The original image also shows a gendarmerie photographer (and fishermen) to the right. The full photograph and the last third of the video certainly project a less emotive situation as the two gendarmerie officers calmly take notes and photographs.
Is it likely that senior gendarmerie CSI officer Çıplak with 18 years' experience would be unaware of being videoed and photographed by a professional news team? Anyway, his photographer colleague did seem aware as he glanced towards the video camera at one point (1:19m into the video).
The barman and friend said they called an ambulance. If an ambulance did attend it is inconceivable that paramedics would have left Alan's body at the water's edge. Did the gendarmerie attend instead of or in addition to an ambulance?
What happened to the body of the little girl in pink trousers reported by the barman? This body was apparently close by, but is not to be seen in the video footage or any photographs, or mentioned in the other witnesses' accounts.
The family were not refugees as such; they had been living safely for 3 years in Turkey (and Abdullah has since chosen to return to Kobani in Syria). Abdullah was employed in Turkey and his sister was sending them supplementary money. Once emigration to Canada became unlikely, the family were attracted by what the EU could offer and they became economic migrants trying to enter an EU country (Greece) illegally.
Both Abdullah and Rehan must bear responsibility for recklessly endangering the lives of their children. They attempted a sea crossing, well-known for its dangers, in an unsuitable vessel, probably without appropriate flotation aids. Whoever was in charge of the boat, and it may well have been Abdullah himself, was unqualified for such a task.
As a non-swimmer, Rehan expressed a fear of water and grave misgivings about the enterprise. However, Abdullah somehow convinced or otherwise coerced her into making the journey, and so he was primarily responsible for endangering the children.
After the tragedy Abdullah lied to a significant extent about what happened. Trauma, grief, and even poor translating, do not excuse the discrepancies in his accounts to family, the media, and the authorities. Some other commentators have suspected that Abdullah was not even aboard when the boat capsized; we cannot exclude this possibility but on balance we think it more unlikely.
From the video and the photographs discussed above, we see no sign that anyone had given hands-on help to Alan as he lay at the water's edge. Certainly, no frantic attempt at resuscitation or closely checking for life was evident. Only the barman's account included compassionate and dignified treatment. Yet, the photo of the gendarme removing Alan's body from the beach has become famous for its apparent portrayal of compassion.
Significant media management and collusion with the Turkish authorities seems likely. The Dogan organization was rather too conveniently involved: having the DHA news team there at just the right time (or tipped off?) to take lengthy and dramatic video and photographic footage; interviewing the prominently featured gendarme (who was supposedly unaware of the news team earlier); interviewing Abdullah Kurdi first; and receiving Abdullah's "leaked" statement from the police via their Hürriyet newspaper. The statements from the photo-reporter Demir saying she wanted "to make his [Alan's] outcry heard" and from the gendarme Çıplak saying "if this spark could grow to a greater fire which could extinct this fire" seem rather coordinated with a definite focus on gaining publicity. Understandably, the Turkish government had been desperate for some time to share more widely the burden of coping with huge numbers of Syrian refugees and other migrants. If Alan's death was exploited for this aim, the propaganda was effective beyond all expectations. Also, did the Turkish authorities know before the media management commenced that a Kurdish child was involved? As Turkey despises Syrian Kurds, this might further explain the hands-off treatment of Alan's body.
Much of the mainstream media and many politicians worldwide became so caught up in the "human interest" story of Alan's death that they suspended their critical thinking and investigative good sense. Programs were broadcast, articles published and government policies changed without those in positions of authority being in full possession of the facts. Indeed, there are around twice as many references to the misnamed "Aylan Kurdi" as there are to "Alan Kurdi".
No doubt the Turkish authorities will have additional information which could still clarify or resolve some of the issues concerning Alan's death.