When he woke up on Wednesday, Turkish Gendarme First Sergeant Mehmet Ciplak had no clue that he would be at the center of a disturbing image that would help push the Western world into rescuing Syrian refugees from further misery.
Ciplak was the officer who picked up the lifeless body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi from a beach in Turkey's southwestern Bodrum coast. Kurdi was found lying face down in a red t-shirt as waves continued to splash his body in a vain effort to revive him back to life.
Pictures of the toddler and the officer, who eventually picked the Aylan in his arms with a shocked blank expression strewn across his face, were beamed across the globe, melting the hearts of millions, who expressed shock and disgust at their world leaders for not doing enough to save refugees.
Ciplak was heading the gendarme crime scene investigation team in the resort district of Bodrum in Mugla province that day, which was sent at around 5 am to Akyarlar Beach on Wednesday after receiving an emergency call about a sunken boat off Fenerburnu; reports of dead bodies washing up the Turkish shore were being received.
The child Aylan Kurdi was not the only one who had drowned that day. His 5-year-old brother and 27-year-old mother also died and their washed up bodies were also found along the Bodrum coast; they were among the 12 Syrian refugees who all drowned after their boat had sunk in the Aegean Sea en route the Greek islands.
In an interview with Anadolu Agency Saturday, officer Ciplak described what he went through when he picked up Aylan. "What matters most for us is human life. When I approached Aylan, I searched for a sign of life as I prayed for him to be alive, but there wasn't any. I felt so sad," he said.
Ciplak said that ''before anything else." and prior to seeing himself as an officer, he saw himself as a human being and a father to his own 6-year-old boy. He added that little Aylan reminded him so much of his own son when he approached the boy's body on the beach.
"Sometimes people can't draw closer to dead bodies. I was not thinking like that but I was experiencing feelings that only a father can feel when he hugs his child," he said.
He said that Aylan's body felt heavy on his arms as he shifted it from the beach even though it was as light as a feather.
About the picture of him holding the child that went viral, the gendarme commander said that it never crossed his mind that this photo of him would make world headlines for days.
He also said that when he saw his picture with Aylan in the papers next day, he felt the same pain as he did when lifting Aylan's body that way.
Ciplak, who has a crime scene investigation experience of over 10 years, is not new to witnessing tragedy, but he said that this particular incident shook his bones.
"Everyone realized the expression on my face. They ask me how I could carry such a heavy burden," he added.