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A Family's Tragedy, Captured On Camera, Focuses Attention On Crisis

Abdullah Kurdi, 40, father of Syrian boys Aylan and Galip, cries as he waits for the delivery of their bodies outside a morgue.
Mehmet Can Meral
Abdullah Kurdi, 40, father of Syrian boys Aylan and Galip, cries as he waits for the delivery of their bodies outside a morgue.

Some pictures produce thousands — sometimes millions — of words. This week, it was the image of a little boy in a red shirt and little rubber-soled shoes lying in the waves of a Turkish beach.

You may hope the boy is just napping after he's played. His clothes look neat. He looks cared for and loved.

But the little boy — it's difficult even to say this — is dead.

Aylan Kurdi was three. His brother, Galip, was five. They died, as is well-known now, along with their mother as they tried to flee the bloodshed of Syria in a small boat brimming with people who thought plunging into rough seas to reach a foreign shore might be their best chance to live.

The smugglers they paid abandoned them when the sea got harsh. Abdullah Kurdi, the boys' father, says he tried to steer the boat; but it overturned. He lost hold of his family. Abdullah Kurdi lost not only his sons and his wife, but in most ways, his life, too.

"Everything I was dreaming of is gone," he told CNN. "I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die." They were buried yesterday in Syria.

This week the little boy on the beach came to signify thousands who have died trying to escape the everyday of bombs, shooting, and starvation of life in Syria, and other conflicts.

The frail body of a boy shouldn't have to do that. There has been so much fine, vivid reporting about the thousands of lives that have been lost, the millions uprooted, and the many who now camp in foreign train stations or tramp over highways.

But we can grow numb to numbers. One little boy can be a human story.

Nilufer Demir, who shot that photo for a Turkish news agency, said, "There was nothing to do except taking his photograph. I thought this is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body."

I have done those stories in war zones and crime scenes in which you hope that a single human story — with a scream, a cry, an image or phrase — might dart through the static of statistics into people's hearts and minds, and move them beyond just feeling.

But a lot of things grab for our attention. Expert voices warn us of complications. We look, and feel, then look away, to go on with the lives we have right in front of us. Until the sight of a little boy on a beach reminds us that looking away can cost lives, too.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.