In the Aegean Sea, Two Pictures Tell a Grim Tragedy of Similar Form
Only days after Turkey’s Erdogan excoriated a packed U.N. General Assembly over quickly forgetting the tragedy of Aylan Kurdi on the Aegean Coast, a similar disaster this time hit a Turkish family.
Last week, world leaders gathered in the U.N. General Assembly for the annual meeting in New York City. With customary gusto, the Turkish leader offered a scathing criticism of the dysfunctional body, lashing out at other countries for failing millions of refugees, a significant number of whom are stuck in Turkey.
In one memorable moment, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held the picture of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler whose body washed ashore in the Aegean Coast after his family’s bid to reach the Greek islands fatally tumbled on the sea in 2015. It sparked a worldwide reaction, spurring Western leaders into action. After months of diplomatic wrangling, Ankara and Brussels came to a seminal agreement in March 2016 to curb the refugee flow from Turkey to E.U.
“Unfortunately, the world public was only too quick to forget their survival journeys or the lives which were ended either in the dark waters of the Mediterranean Sea or against the security fences stretched to borders,” the Turkish president said. Turkey, he added, will never forget the memories of Aylan babies.
The Turkish leader rose the occasion to embrace a humanitarian cause in New York City, remembering the world that Turkey is the country that hosts most refugees on earth. Part of his plea for collective responsibility and cooperation also entailed a subtle message to the Western world to share the burden of Turkey where a growing anti-immigrant backlash takes a firm hold in the social domain.
Yet, however justified his criticism and his plea may be, nothing could be more self-contradictory than the president’s invocation of the Syrian toddler’s dead body at the floor of U.N. General Assembly. This was all the more so after a group of seven Turkish asylum seekers, including five children and a baby, drowned in the Aegean Sea just days after Erdogan’s passionate address at the U.N. Al Jazeera reported that the accident took place near the small Greek island of Oinousses, five miles from the Turkish coast.
The tragedy became more wrenching as pictures of the incident’s aftermath went viral on social media, evoking a similar Aylan moment in the minds of Turkish people. It would not be an overstretch to see those defining moments in the continuum of grim humanitarian tragedies. And it would not be wrong to feel the same shudder that took the entire world into its grip when Aylan’s innocent body was everywhere in international media four years ago.
Needless to say, the unmistakable similarity between Aylan and the Turkish baby exposes the moral flaws and a blatant contradiction of the Turkish leader’s lecturing at the U.N. The collective failure of international community would have been the chief cause for what beset the Syrian immigrants in their fatal odysseys across land and sea, in the Aegean Sea or the Turkish-Greek border in Western Thrace. But the recent event was of Turkey’s own making, and the authorities in Ankara, not others elsewhere, are the ones who are to blame for what unfolded this week.
The picture of a mother and father sitting dejected and resigned after burying their two children, one of whom was a four-month infant, at an unmarked grave in an unknown place on the island speaks volumes about Turkey’s colossal failure in the post-coup era. The public mood was unanimously disquieted over what they saw. Yet, it was not the first tragedy. As I wrote more than a year ago after a boat sank in Evrosa River, living a mother and her two toddlers dead, the banalizing dynamics of the post-coup purge and crackdown seem to have lulled the country into a resigned submission in the face of an increasing number of similar tragedies.
What is more disturbing than those wrenching incidents is to accept them as the new normals of life in Turkey. It shouldn’t be internalized smoothly and resignedly as the government would want it to be. There must be some “that’s enough” moment, a public outcry over the root causes of such tragedies, which do not occur out of nowhere, but rather are created by the febrile and sinister conditions of the post-coup Turkey where victims of government purge, numbering more than 150,000, are condemned to a wretched living with little prospect of finding a decent job. This and previous incidents could certainly have been prevented in the first place. But they still happened for the reasons mentioned above.
It is still far from clear whether the latest outcry would signify a shift in the public mood regarding the plight of people who go through a punishing ordeal amid ongoing persecution and repression. The KHK people, who became a defining feature of this political era, do still have few friends in their struggle to demand justice. The media is unabashedly silent, politicians unperturbed and indifferent. In this unpromising context, the expectation for a sea change would be too idealistic.
That said, a growing awareness, albeit faintly, seems to be afoot, at least, on social media. People from diverse political background shared the pictures, with a searing indictment of government’s responsibility in the destruction of families and young lives.
As the body count grows, the urgency for action to stop these preventable deaths becomes all the more pressing. And it befalls on our shoulders to mount a pressure on governments on both sides of the Aegean Sea to properly handle with the refugee crisis, while reminding Ankara of its utmost responsibility to heed the calls of purge victims to restore rule of law, correct the wrongs arbitrarily inflicted on people since 2016, and treat its citizens with respect, decency and in accordance with laws.