Abdullah Kurdi was the only member of his family to survive after the flimsy boat carrying them from the seaside Turkish town of Bodrum toward the Greek island of Kos sank in the waters of the Aegean. "People panicked when water filled the boat and it sank," Kurdi told the Dogan News Agency, which ran photographs of his deceased 3-year-old son, Aylan.
"We had life vests. I was holding my wife’s hands. My children slipped from my hands," he said. "We tried to hold on to the boat, but it deflated rapidly. Everyone was screaming."
Twelve migrants thought to be Syrian refugees were feared drowned in the incident. Were it not for the chilling image of Aylan's lifeless body, which captured global headlines and attention, their deaths would have been yet another statistic in the grim humanitarian disaster that is the Mediterranean's unfolding refugee crisis.
Kurdi, 40, explained to the Turkish news agency that they had attempted the journey on their own, after two earlier attempts had been thwarted by Turkish authorities and duplicitous smugglers, respectively.
"We paid the organizers [human traffickers] twice before to cross over to Kos. In our first attempt, coast guards captured us in the sea and then they released us. In our second attempt, the organizers did not keep their word and did not bring the boat," he said.
Kirk Day, field director for the International Rescue Committee on the Greek island of Lesbos, warned of more migrants opting to take such risks. "The motorized dinghies used for these crossings are not suitable for rough sea journeys and can easily sink if an engine fails," Day wrote in an e-mailed statement. "Worryingly, some people are crossing without life jackets and travelling on dinghies containing just a couple of rubber-rings as floats."
Turkish officials estimate that, every day in August, about 2,000 migrants tried to make the trip from the Turkish coast to one of the eastern Greek islands — the first beachhead of the European Union — nearby. The Turkish coast guard says it has rescued more than 42,000 migrants from the waters of the Aegean this year.
Kurdi and his family, which included Aylan, 5-year-old Galip, and wife Rihana, were not so lucky. Their gamble — one made by tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees this year — turned into calamity.
"I could not hear the voices of my children and my wife," Kurdi said, describing how he made it to shore. "I tried to swim to the beach by following the lights. I looked for my wife and children on the beach but couldn’t find them."
"I thought they had run away out of fear [of being caught], and I went back to Bodrum. When they did not come to our meeting point in the town, I went to the hospital and learned the bitter truth," Kurdi said.
He told reporters that he wants to take the bodies of his family home to Kobane, the war-torn Syrian Kurdish city that they had fled not so long ago.