On that day, 93 years ago this month, frightened, hungry and brutalised refugees massed on the quayside, frantically trying to save themselves from rape or murder by the crazed soldiers and irregulars who would pick them off from the crowd at random, strip them of everything they owned and attempt to satiate an almost insatiable lust for inflicting pain in unimaginable ways.
Some of the refugees, such as my 12-year-old grandfather, had already witnessed similar horrific scenes in their own villages in the interior and had arrived at the sea after a gruelling journey of many days made on foot and in abject terror, as murderous bands remained at their heels, bent on meting out destruction.
My grandfather managed to board a boat and reach safety. Others were not so lucky. As Turkish soldiers and the mob engaged in slaughter and the city of Smyrna burned, the representatives of the western powers, their ships anchored in the harbour, look on dispassionately, and did nothing to intervene. As boats sank under the weight of the multitude of refugees that crammed into them, seeking salvation, the representatives of the western powers looked on and did nothing.
It was only as the refugees, swimming now to purported safety, reached their ships that these representatives of the western powers, were roused from their torpor and sprung into action. They poured boiling oil over the sides of their ships in order to prevent the refugees from climbing onto the decks, and when that failed to hinder the most resolute, in some cases, they shot at them and hacked off their outstretched limbs. This was ironic, because it was the western powers that had promised parts of Asia Minor to Greece in exchange for its involvement in the First World War. The ensuing internal debate as to the wisdom of such an endeavour ripped the country asunder, with two rival governments, both claiming legitimacy, being formed and a national polarisation and schism being created that would have its after-effects felt right up until the present day.
When Greece finally entered the war and acquitted itself admirably therein, it was the western powers that sanctioned the occupation of the Smyrna zone by Greece, and having regard to the Wilsonian principles of self-determination and the fact that the Greeks of Asian Minor needed a save haven in the aftermath of the Ottoman genocide of the Christian population.
Nonetheless, these same western powers did little to enforce these arrangements and indeed, when the Greek people voted for a new government that was not to the western powers’ liking, some of these actively began to aid Kemal Ataturk and his nationalists in their murderous and racist campaigns against the minorities of the former Empire. Instead, they sat back and allowed a vast catastrophe to take place. In the aftermath of this catastrophe, the western powers did little to provide substantial aid to the million and a half destitute refugees that were forced from their homes. The brunt of their re-settlement was borne by an already impoverished and socially disintegrating Greek state. With the ensuing affluxion of time, this is a small but significant detail that tends to elude the popular consciousness.
Between the refugees that drowned or were slaughtered at the quay of Smyrna while trying to flee from war and poor little Aylan Kurdi, who drowned tragically in Turkey while fleeing the carnage of Syria, there is the passage of almost 100 years and the intervening deaths of millions of innocent victims of war. In 1922, during the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the League of Nations, founded in the aftermath of ‘the war to end all wars’ as a mechanism for nations to resolve conflict through diplomacy and negotiation, was still in its optimistic infancy. In 2015, the United Nations is in its venerable dotage, both institutions having failed spectacularly in preventing the wars that have created suffering of an unimaginable magnitude.
In 1946, the League of Nations was dissolved at a time when the movement of refugees across the European continent achieved unprecedented proportions. In 2015, it appears we do not have the courage or are sufficiently disenfranchised so as not to be able to ask why the UN, at a time when again, refugees from numerous western provoked and abetted conflicts swarm across the globe in search of safety, do not do the honourable thing and dissolve themselves. Possibly, this may be because to do so would require us to face up to a terrible realisation: that in the 100 years that have elapsed since the devastation of the First World War, we have become more deadly, more murderous and ever more violent, with the only difference being that in a tragic neo-colonialist twist, we now fight our wars in other countries, where the victims can be both unseen and dehumanised.
My heart bleeds for Aylan Kurdi. It does so because my daughter is of a similar age and it makes his loss ever so more immediate and stark. It does so because my wife, fleeing a previous chapter of the same geo-political conflict twenty years before, was rescued while close to drowning in the same sea where Aylan perished, and yet her ordeal, along with Aylan’s, appears to have been for nothing considering that steps are not being taken to stop the root cause of flight and the destruction of so many lives and families. Ninety-three year earlier, had my grandfather had the misfortune to board the wrong boat, it could have been him that perished. The traumas of living through such fearful times endure, making themselves manifest in the most unsuspecting of moments.
Most of all, my heart bleeds for Aylan because all he is to the western world is a momentary bleep on its radar of conscience. “This one small life has shown us the way to tackle the refugee crisis,” proclaims The Guardian newspaper, as if human history is a tabula rasa, in which previous conflicts and the way they were mismanaged are swept clean from our memories, permitting us the blessing of an amnesia which is so necessary if we are to believe in the moral rectitude of our societies.
Such comments are hurtful, because they efface the memories of the many refugees who, over the years, have died while making perilous attempts to reach safety, in unspeakable conditions. They also efface the comments of a Polish dignitary who recently visited the island of Lampedusa and suggested to her Italian counterparts that they should merely permit Libyan refugees to drown in the sea, rather than rescue them and give them assistance. What exactly have we learnt now, that we did not know already?
My heart bleeds for Aylan because he will be forgotten when the media of the world turn to the next inevitable incidence of human callousness and brutality. The western world will forget him, just as we forgot the photograph of the naked young Vietnamese girl running while burning with napalm, during the Vietnam War, the children with the blown-off limbs, victims of land mines in Laos, the pot-bellied starving children, first of Biafra, then decades later of Ethiopia, the skulls of the slaughtered in Cambodia and later in Rwanda, the haunting eyes of the Afghan refugee girl that became synonymous with National Geographic magazine.
Most sadly, many of us, smug and secure in our own lives, cocooned within our creature comforts and far removed from the existential fears that plague the more disadvantaged nations of the globe, will trivialise, compartmentalise and ultimately dismiss and dehumanise the plight of Aylan and the millions like him. Some of us, will equate the current refugees to an ‘Islamicisation of Europe’, ignoring the fact that their countries have been well and truly destroyed and that many are victims of religious persecution. Few, however, will ask and compel their government to answer why innocent people are permitted to suffer as a result of world-power self-interested intervention and masterly inactivity.
Aylan, your parents brought you into a world they were taught, as we were taught, to believe owed them something: decency, peace, safety. When the world denied them this, they persisted, believing that if they were not entitled to this, then one day, somehow, you will be. That world has denied you, as it’s denied so many other children like you, everything. Your final photograph and all of theirs should be placed on the desks of all world leaders, next to the photographs of their children and grandchildren, because they have failed you and so have we. Rest in peace my poor sweet boy. May the same peace be denied to all of those who have brought about this catastrophe, along with those previous and those that are surely and inevitably, yet to come.
* Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne-based solicitor and freelance journalist.