Atonement for Aylan: In refusing to witness suffering, we dehumanise ourselves

Published: January 6, 2016

More than 70 babies have drowned since Aylan, their numbers swelling daily, each nameless and unknown – their stories we do not record, do not seek. PHOTO: REUTERS

As the old year gives into the new, one image comes to my mind. His shoes had been carefully buckled. The rubber-soled sandals matched. Somehow in all the upheaval, Aylan’s mother had kept them safe in the thousands of miles trek from their Syrian home to these shores. Tonight, they must leave – the people-smugglers who would bring them to Europe now readied the boat to freedom. She coaxed him to sit still as she fastened them tight. The boat would be cold. Her son must be warm. His feet must not slip in the wet. Smoothing his hair into place, he was ready. Four thousand Euros had bought them relief from the dispossession that they now knew as their lives. Security, stability was a 14-mile, salt-aired sea-night away.

Born into a Syria rent asunder, only to die soon after on forsaken shores, Aylan’s image would come to define the Syrian migrant crisis of 2015, and for me, humanity’s singular inaction. Waves lapped upon the curly-haired crown, his cool, unlined brow brought to premature peace through a baptism of deadly currents. Resting gently on his cheek, bottom up, long lashes gemmed shut, heavy not with sleep, but saltwater. He lay much like any child in deep reverie, but for the jarring solitude, and the lethal lullaby of encroaching waves lapping back and forth where once his mother might have rocked him so.

In death, Aylan, as a memento mori, made for both human document and digital metaphor of our paralysis in the face of Syria’s war and worse, our unwillingness to regard the pain of others.

Photo: Reuters

“To catch a death actually happening and to embalm it for all time is something only cameras can do,” Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others two years after September 11, where images of a different nature briefly unified humanity.

Some, I discovered, hadn’t encountered the story. Trapped in a culture where, to paraphrase Chris Hedges, literacy has officially ended and spectacle has well-and-truly triumphed, little that is not Mr Donald Trump penetrates the collective American conscious. But it is the shelter sought in self-censorship that disturbs me most.

“I can’t see that. I am a mother.”

“I can’t see that picture – it will give me nightmares.”

“I really can’t look at that stuff. I have two daughters.”

The refusal to look, the privileged refusal, to witness, does the ultimate violence to Aylan. In refusing to witness suffering, we dehumanise ourselves. Worse, we collaborate in the erasure not only of a people but human memory. We are refusing to witness history.

The moral duty to regard is a shared responsibility, spanning not only the photographer who first captures, then publishes the image, but also our own, as viewers, in choosing to see the image. Through seeing the image we ensure death and carnage is not unseen. In refusing, we ensure they be buried from the annals of history. Witnessing is among the salient responsibility of a democratic citizenry – refusal to witness, the gravest signal of barbarity.

Photo: Reuters

More than 70 babies have drowned since Aylan, their numbers swelling daily, each nameless and unknown – their stories we do not record, do not seek. In our refusal to seek, let alone see images emerging from Syria’s conflict we relegate history to unfold without witness. In our refusal, we deny victims empathy, we deny victims the human kindness of memory, as we deny our own humanity the reflection and introspection vital to our own morality, our morality which could finally ignite the anesthetised, lumbering beast that is political will.

Events without witnesses are sinister in their evocation of the ultimate event without witness – the Holocaust. Throughout the Holocaust, bystanders became willing executioners; victims almost always went to their deaths denied the opportunity even to witness their fate to themselves; and, fearing witness, as it crumbled to defeat, the Nazi regime attempted to erase testament of the macabre reality it so efficiently and horrifically realised. Central to the savagery of mankind’s worst genocide, the Shoah, was contemporary humanity’s refusal to witness.

In Aylan’s death, we have much to atone, and witnessing his fate and that of others like him is the beginning of our atonement. Aylan’s father’s heartfelt plea speaks deeply to this responsibility,

“The things that happened to us here, in the country where we took refuge to escape war in our homeland, we want the whole world to see this…’

The year 2015 offered us a chance to atone, a moment to meet our moral obligation to regard the pain of others. We must be witness to Aylan’s fate. We must also witness the process of witnessing. And we must witness our own response to the process of witnessing. In witnessing the world’s response, whether empathic, or apathetic, we must at last encounter our bestial self-image such that it is. It is time to  admit that when a boy born into a conflict older than his brief childhood can wash afloat in a remote shore, as silent bystanders we must witness our own bloodied hand, look at our own selves in our mirror image eye, and at last meet the flat-eyed gaze of our own executioner-self. Only then can our atonement begin.

Qanta Ahmed

Qanta Ahmed

A British Muslim who is the author of 'In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom' and a physician. She tweets @MissDiagnosis (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Realist

    Agreed that the international community should do more for the Syrian refugees. How many refugees have the rich Arab Gulf states taken in? Zero. I urge the wealthy Muslim brothers to do more for the weak and oppressed.Recommend

  • MrRollsRoyce

    It is important to remember that Aylan was a victim purely of his family’s decision to make a risky journey to greener pastures. EU nations such as Germany and Sweden have already taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees. These nations do not discriminate and provide a fairly good standard of living even to those who are not educated and can’t speak basic English. This generosity has lead to a huge number of “economic refugees” who are using the moment to gain entry to these host nations. Aylan’s family was already safe in Turkey, but they decided that they wanted to avail the better life of Germany and tried to make the journey illegally, which led to his sad death.

    So, at the end, who must take the blame for him and other victims of perilous crossings?

    And as pointed out many times, why is it the kafir West that must help the Muslims, a large proportion of whom hate the Western culture, never integrate, and start calling for shariah law once settled? Why is it not the rich Gulf states who are taking in all these warzone refugees?Recommend

  • Milind A

    You nailed it!!! Its so hypocritical of Muslims to blame West for ‘meddling’ in their countries, while asking them or expecting them to do something about their own infighting (Saudis asking Americans to intervene in Iran or Syria etc). Or Muslims hating the West and running to greener pastures there.Recommend

  • genesys

    This generosity has lead to a huge number of “economic refugees” who are using the moment to gain entry to these host nations….and raping and molesting the local women causing havoc to their societyRecommend

  • genesys

    Agreed that the international community……and who are the international community..not Europe..Why not China for a change which expects so much from other nations to buy its products to keep its economy substantiated.Recommend