Alan Shenu and Hamza al-Khatib were two young boys from Syria whose short lives and cruel deaths will forever haunt us. Three-year-old Alan from Kobani in northern Syria died from drowning in the Aegean Sea earlier this week, along with his mother Rehan and 5-year-old brother Galip, when their boat capsized as they fled to a better life in Europe or Canada. (Turkish authorities had written his name as Aylan Kurdi, or “Aylan the Kurd,” which is how the press has commonly misidentified him.) Thirteen-year-old Hamza from Deraa in southern Syria died in May 2011, tortured to death by the Syrian government’s security services.
Their names alone tell us much about their societies, and their country. “Alan” is a Kurdish name for boys that means “flag bearer,” which derives from the person who carries the flag during battle. His name denoted a symbolic assertion of his role in protecting his community, and anchored him down in his ancestral earth in the land of the Kurds. They captured dimensions of who he was, where he came from in this world and how much his parents loved him and expected from him.
“Hamza” in Arabic derives from the word that means strong or steadfast. The uncle of the Prophet Mohammad was named Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib, who reportedly displayed his strength and bravery in battle. The family name “al-Khatib” in Arabic is the name of the person who delivers the sermon (“khuṭbah”) during Friday prayers in the mosque, which must have been a position one of his ancestors held.
The names of these two young boys carried notions, values and traditions that have spanned millennia and continents. Their names alone have passed on from generation to generation identities as Arabs, Kurds and Muslims, clarifying for themselves and others who they are, what they stand for and what their families and societies value.
I have had a drawing of Hamza al-Khatib in my office since his death in May 2011, because it was the only way I could quietly send him a message that his life and death mattered to many people beyond Syria. The way he was tortured and mutilated by his own government defies any possible explanation by reasonable human beings. He became a symbol of the Syrian government’s unbridled use of the most cruel violence against its civilians, even its young children in captivity. Popular outrage in Syria at his death marked a turning point in the peaceful uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime, causing demonstrations to spread to dozens of towns and cities that had not joined the initial peaceful challenge to the regime. That uprising has now transformed into an ugly civil war and a series of regional and global proxy battles that have taken the lives of more than 250,000 Syrians, and displaced some 10 million people.
Among the latest of these deaths were Alan, his mother and brother, and others in his doomed boat. I will carry for years the image of young Alan’s body face down on the shores of southwestern Turkey, his outstretched arms and upturned fingers tucked near his body, almost as if he were sleeping. His new sneakers were still on his feet. He looks almost at peace, like he was taking a nap. But he never had a chance, despite his father Abdullah’s heroic efforts to save the family. Abdullah was also on the capsized boat and tried to keep his loved ones afloat, but lost them in the rough sea.
The agony we all feel at Alan’s death by drowning, like Hamza al-Khatib’s death by torture, captures two sides of a terrible pain that may not subside for years. We grieve for him because he died so young and so cruelly, without being able to complete his life. He left us dressed in his best clothes, with his new sneakers still on his feet, ready to go play a game of soccer or run after some chickens. In the serenity of his death and the neatness of his little body, he seems to send us a message about the beauty and grandeur of life, and the vitality of youth. He reminds us of every child we know around that age, and we weep for his unfinished life. Thankfully, we also have other pictures of him and his brother smiling before they left Syria, so we can also commemorate his moments of happiness.
Also, we grieve for ourselves, our weaknesses and failures, because we never were able to do anything to help him or his family, or all Syrians, to escape the hell they experience and to live a normal life. We failed to allow Alan and his older brother to enjoy the full promise of life, which should be their birthright. Our horror and anger at Alan’s death are matched by frustration at humankind’s collective weakness in the face of war and destruction in Syria, by both Syrians and many others in the Middle East and foreign countries who feed that war.
The deaths of Hamza and Alan, like haunting bookends to the war in Syria to date, certainly will be followed by other cruel and gruesome deaths, in the sea, from the air, in clouds of gas and exploding vans, or starved to death. In modern Syria, among the dozens of patriots and brave fighters for independence from European or Ottoman control a century ago, and for freedom and democracy under Baathist and Assad family rule since 1970, we will remember these two boys, Alan and Hamza, as the symbols of the citizenry’s prolonged agony during the first years of the second decade of the 21st Century — and also of our failures to date to end the war in Syria.
One day there will be a great reckoning, a political or moral accounting of some kind, for all those in Syria and other countries whose actions or inactions killed Hamza and Alan, and hundreds of thousands of other Syrians. All the names of the dead are in the hands of God, or the International Criminal Court, or the conscience of an imperfect humanity. The great reckoning that will come to pass one day will call us all by name.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story attributed to Alan Shenu the incorrect name that Turkish authorities have given to the press. We regret the error.