Monday 26 September 2016

Omran, the little boy from Aleppo whose plight reveals the horror of war in Syria

How only hope for Syria hangs on photograph of stunned little Omran

Raf Sanchez, Beirut

Published 19/08/2016 | 02:30

A photograph of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh has since been seen around the world. Photo: Reuters
A photograph of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh has since been seen around the world. Photo: Reuters
Five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sits with his sister inside an ambulance following an airstrike in the rebel-held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Reuters
The body of little Aylan Kurdi was washed up on a beach on the Greek island of Kos in 2015 after a boat carrying refugees sank offshore. Photo: Getty Images

With his face caked in dust and splattered with his own blood, the Syrian father began to dig through the rubble of what had been - until moments earlier - his family's home.

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He barely paused as he pulled his five-year-old son Omran from the wreckage caused by the Russian airstrike. Somewhere beneath the stones were four more of his children and his wife. Instead, he passed Omran to a man next to him, who passed the boy to another man, until the child had travelled through a human chain of volunteers to the backseat of an ambulance waiting on the street below.

There the boy sat, his bare feet barely reaching the edge of the adult chair and his eyes glassy with shock, as he stared out the ambulance doors and into the chaos beyond.

A photograph of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh at that moment has since been seen around the world, shared thousands of times on social media, and brought home a fragment of the horror the people of Aleppo are enduring under relentless bombing by the Assad regime and its Russian allies.

Much like the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian-Kurdish infant whose body washed up on a Turkish beach less than a year ago, Omran's image temporarily jolted a world which many Syrians fear has gone numb to their suffering after five years of gruelling civil war.

Aylan Kurdi's body washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015 and briefly galvanised the world to respond to the refugee crisis.Offers of help flooded in from across the planet, as parents everywhere saw something of their own children in Omran's little face. "What can we do, there must be something?" asked one Twitter user.

For those living through the reality in Aleppo, the airstrike that destroyed the Daqneesh family home on Wednesday night was unremarkable given that bombs fall almost every hour.

Syria's second-largest city has been a battlefield for years but the rate of airstrikes by Russian jets or regime helicopters has intensified dramatically since a combined force of rebels and jihadists broke a siege by Bashar al-Assad's forces earlier this month.

"They are angry because the siege was broken and are taking revenge," said Muhammad Zain al-Khandakani, a lawyer in Aleppo.

"A father can leave his home to buy bread and never return. A boy can go to work and never return. I don't know how their pilots can drop bombs 24 hours a day."

The block of flats where the Daqneesh family lived and one other building were both hit at around 8pm by a pair of fighter-bombers, according to witnesses who rushed to the Qaterji neighbourhood moments after the bombs fell.

Among the volunteers was Mahmoud Raslan, a photographer who documents the carnage in his city.

When he reached the bomb site he left his camera slung over his arm and instead climbed onto a balcony and into the flat, where Omran's father handed him his injured son.

Mr Raslan took no pictures until Omran was safely in the ambulance.

Then he raised his camera, focused on the doll-like child and his blank expression, and clicked the shutter.

"When I saw the photograph I knew it was very painful and very powerful," he told reporters.

"Normally, the boys are crying. But this boy is different because he wasn't crying.

"He was in a state of shock. That's what makes the picture so striking."

As Mr Raslan was uploading his photograph, Omran, his siblings and his parents were being rushed to M10, a makeshift hospital in Safour where a team of surgeons and nurses do their best to save lives with few medicines and intermittent electricity.

The hospital has been hit repeatedly by Russian airstrikes and staff have lined the walls with barrels filled with soil to try to shield their patients from the blasts.

Incredibly, all seven members of the Daqneesh family survived the explosion that destroyed their apartment.

Only one child, Omran's older brother, was kept in hospital to be treated.

His parents declined to speak to the media about the viral image of their son, saying they were frightened the Assad regime would take revenge on family members who are still living in government-controlled areas.

Omran was still silent when he reached M10 but his eyes widened at the site of the blood and injuries around him.

"He didn't believe what he was seeing, he didn't know what was happening around him," said Muhammed Abu Rajab, an X-ray technician who treated his wounds. "When he finally spoke, his first words were to ask for his father."

After treating Omran's head injury and cleaning the dust from his face, staff at M10 concluded that he had not suffered any brain damage and released him to his parents, who were both lightly injured.

The family is now staying with relatives.

Some Syrian activists embraced Omran's global recognition and tweeted pictures of him as a spectre of conscience, asking why the world was doing nothing to stop the slaughter in Aleppo.

But while others were transfixed by Omran's picture, the doctors in Aleppo had no time to linger on one boy's minor head wound.

Yesterday morning, the killing began again. Bombs struck a group of teenage boys who ran a car repair service on a roundabout in the Salaheen neighbourhood. The young men were less lucky than Omran, and at least 10 people were killed. Several died on the hospital floor as doctors desperately performed CPR.

Dr Zaher Sahloul, a senior adviser with the Syrian-American Medical Society, sounded weary as he discussed the picture of Omran.

"Every day we see dozens of pictures of children who have been mutilated by barrel bombs or burned by chemical weapons or killed in a missile attack. All of them are painful and show suffering on the faces of innocents," he said.

"It's hard to know why one picture captures the imagination of the world while the others pass by unnoticed," Dr Sahloul added.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has suspended its humanitarian task force in Syria amid frustration over intensified fighting in the country's civil war.

The decision was announced yesterday as the haunting photo of Omran provoked outrage around the world.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN's special envoy for Syria, stopped a meeting on humanitarian access after just eight minutes, saying it made "no sense" to plan aid deliveries when they would not be let into besieged areas. Speaking in Geneva, he said convoys had not been able to reach surrounded towns and cities throughout August.

Rockets

"And why? Because of one thing: fighting," he said. "I decided to use my privilege as chair to declare that there was no sense to have a humanitarian meeting today unless we got some action on the humanitarian side in Syria.

"What we are hearing and seeing is only fighting, offensives, counter-offensives, rockets, barrel bombs, mortars, hellfire cannons, napalm, chlorine, snipers, airstrikes, suicide bombers."

Mr de Mistura said the humanitarian task force would be suspended until next week, in the hope of sending a signal to parties in the conflict and their allies, including Russia, the US and Iran.

"I insist, on behalf of the UN Secretary General, to have a 48-hour pause in Aleppo," Mr de Mistura said, calling for a "gesture of humanity from both sides.

"That would require some heavy lifting not only by the two co-chairs (Russia and the US) but also those who have influence on the ground," the UN envoy added.

Aleppo, which is divided between regime and rebel control, has been at the epicentre of continued battles and bombing despite successive attempts at ceasefires.

President Bashar al-Assad's forces and his Russian allies say they are targeting "terrorists" but humanitarian groups have reported hundreds of civilian deaths.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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