Syria’s child victims and the waning power of imagery

Sunday 28/08/2016
Graffiti artists Oguz Sen (L) and Justus Becker posing near their artwork depicting drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, in Frankfurt

Imagery has always been among the most enduring and moving aspects of war. Its effect and importance have only increased in the age of 24-hour news chan­nels, smartphones, the internet, social media and citizen journal­ism. It has never been easier to take photos and video footage and instantly upload them onto a multitude of global platforms.
Imagery of child victims of conflict has always been the most iconic because of its ability to elicit the strongest of emotions. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked on a road after being severely burned in a napalm attack is synonymous with the Vietnam war.
More recently, the same is true of video footage of the killing of 12-year-old Muhammad al- Durrah as he tried to hide behind his father during the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. The photo of 14-year-old Faris Odeh throwing stones at an Israeli tank became representative of the David-versus- Goliath nature of the Palestinian liberation struggle (Odeh was killed by Israeli troops ten days after the photo was taken).
The Syrian conflict is no different, including the photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s corpse washed up on a Turkish shore and the photo of 4-year-old Hudea raising her hands in surrender to a camera that she thought was a gun.
The most recent image to capture the world’s attention is that of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting in an ambulance, dazed and covered in blood and dust, after being rescued from a destroyed building in Aleppo following an air strike.
The tragedy of the conflict, and particularly of its child victims, is compounded by the fact that the more such photos surface, the less effect they have. Compassion fatigue is an awful yet natural by-product of prolonged conflict, particularly in this age of round-the-clock coverage, in which human life is measured in statistics. However, there is no greater sign that a people have become dehumanised than when children’s suffering becomes normalised.
This is what has become of Syrians. The video footage of Omran will pull at heart strings only briefly. Each new child victim captured on film will garner less and less attention, sympathy and outrage. The irony is that the very ubiquity of such imagery has desensitised people rather than moved them to act to stop the tragedy. Omran’s stunned, resigned gaze reflects the international community’s reaction to the footage.
At the government level, his survival (not to mention his brother’s death in the same air strike) has been followed by US and Turkish expressions of desire for greater cooperation with Russia over Syria. This despite the perpetrators being either the Syrian regime or Russia.
Meanwhile, Moscow launched air strikes from Iran, and Russian and Syrian regime bombings of civilians and civilian targets, including hospitals, continue unabated. Just three days after the air strike that hit the Daqneesh brothers, a regime barrel bomb in Aleppo killed six children from the same family.
These governments claim to have the interests of the Syrian people at heart, while ensuring there will be many more child victims. Their killers have long realised that they can act with impunity amid international inaction and complicity.
Child victims are not immune to the public relations wars that inevitably accompany conflict. On the contrary, such is the bad publicity surrounding their harm, especially if there is visual evidence, that imagery of it is fought over particularly furiously.
The photo of Aylan’s corpse, washed up on a Turkish beach after his family attempted to flee to Europe, went from being a symbol of European calls to take in refugees to a poster boy for xenophobic fearmongering about the consequences of doing so. He and others like him became portrayed not as the innocent victims they were but as a growing cultural, economic and security threat. Better to suffer and die from a distance than to live among us.
The reaction on social media to the footage of Omran from supporters of the Syrian regime has been grotesque, including claiming the footage was staged and accusing those expressing sympathy for the boy of manipulative politicking. The irony escapes the regime’s apologists that their whitewashing is the ultimate manipulation.
Denial and deflection are far easier and more comforting to them, even at the expense of dead, wounded and destitute children. To claim that expressions of sympathy for the likes of Omran and condemnation over such atrocities, comes not from a sense of morality but from political agendas is an acknowledgement that the claimants themselves have long lost their own morality.
This electronic army, as much as the pro-regime forces in the air and on the ground, is emboldening the regime and its allies to act with impunity and ensuring that there will be many more Omrans, Hudeas and Aylans. If there are one or two potential culprits behind the air strike that led to the footage of Omran, there are a multitude of accomplices.
The conflict has robbed Syria’s children of their innocence. However, it may be a blessing that they are unaware of just how many unseen enemies they face — people who would rather deny them their humanity and governments that would rather prioritise financial and political gain than face their own conscience.