Five year old Omran Daqneesh drew global attention after being pulled from underneath his family’s destroyed home in August 2016. Bloody and dusted, Omran’s silent, dead-eyed look was displayed on every major news channel around the world. Though his fate invoked both horror and grief, Omran’s image was benign enough to be embraced by a world too afraid to stare at those in Syria who had suffered even worse circumstances.
Aylan Kurdi, the three year old refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean and became enshrined as a symbol of the refugee criss, was also the subject of global handwringing. Lying face-down and fully-clothed on the shores of a Turkish beach, the image of Aylan was, like Omran’s, as harrowing as it was riveting.
Ultimately, however, these images paint an incomplete, and in some ways unrealistic, picture of what is actually happening in Syria. In Omran’s case, there was gore without death. In Aylan’s case, there was death without gore. Most Syrians experience both.
In October 2016, Syrian and Russian airstrikes targeted and destroyed a school in Idlib. As a result, countless children died and were injured in one of the most grueling war crimes to occur in the city, since the war began. Among the children who were killed was Bissan Al-Ghareeb, an eight year old girl who received almost no attention.
More recently, on February 16, 2017, an eight year old boy named Abdulbasit Al-Satouf survived an aerial attack by the Syrian regime, although his legs were amputated, as a result of the attack. In a video of the incident, Abdulbasit’s father can be seen carrying his son, dazed and frenzied. As he places him on the ground, he screams in complete anguish at his fate. The legless and bleeding Abdulbasit can be heard screaming “wait daddy don’t leave me, pick me up daddy!”
Abdulbasit and Bissan are the forgotten faces of Syria who truly capture the country’s recurrent tragedies. As I have written before, there is nothing particularly special about either Omran or Aylan. It is only because they offered a sanitized perspective on Syria’s daily realities that their images were embraced, unlike Bissan and Abdulbassit’s. Their circumstances were detached enough from the unspeakable gore of the Syrian crisis to warrant undivided attention.
For a Syrian child’s suffering to be commemorated, it seems then that there must be some kind of cinematic whitewashing to the tragedy. Bissan and Abdulbasit’s fate evidently lacked this quality.
We exploit the victims of war for the ostensible purpose of helping others like them. But, when others suffer even worse calamities, we look the other way.
This is not just hypocrisy. It is shameful cowardice.