Friday 24 January 2020

Amid the propaganda of Syria's war, we know the children's agony is real

A girl who fled from Isil-controlled areas arrives in the northern Syrian rebel-held town of Waqf, near al-Rai town, Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi.
A girl who fled from Isil-controlled areas arrives in the northern Syrian rebel-held town of Waqf, near al-Rai town, Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi.

Tom Galvin

Last week, I began following a girl called Bana Alabed on Twitter.

I don't use Twitter very much. I find it to be, in general, either an echo chamber or a vacuum for the most self-centred and can never decide which.

But there are some whose voices deserve to be heard and whose words need repeating if even to remind us of the world we all had to live in before social media existed.

Bana is only seven. Just a year older than my own daughter, who can force me to pause every now and again with questions you can't answer, or simple observations that you can't or don't want to explain because you'd rather that protective veil remained before the innocence that makes childhood the wondrous thing it is comes down.

For Bana, that innocence is shattered every day as her city of Aleppo is bombed relentlessly.

"Sleeping as you can hear the bombs fall. I will tweet tomorrow if we are still alive." She shares clips of herself cradling her younger brother; of her back garden which has been reduced to craters filled with rubble; of the night sky lit in the distance by a crimson halo from another bomb. And every morning, you hope she has made it through another night.

I am as confused as the next person about the war in Syria. It's a siege. What else can it really be called? And like Leningrad in World War II, sieges are a brutal, calculated but effective instrument of war.

According to the 'rules' of siege warfare drawn up by a 17th Century French military engineer, if the defenders refuse to surrender the city, the attacking army is within its rights to slaughter its inhabitants without mercy. And it looks like Aleppo's fate is for it to be razed, one way or the other, with not a man, woman or child left alive.

You might be inclined to say this is the new Srebrenica. But as Robert Fisk pointed out recently this is not Srebrenica. It's as murky as a barrel of oil over there and unlike the belated intervention in Kosovo in 1998, it looks as if we will not be going to war to save the people of Syria.

Looking at any conflict, the one question on all our minds is: who are the bad guys? We need an answer to give the mayhem some justification.

And the Syrian conflict is not only tremendously complicated, but it has also produced a heartless propaganda war, so it is becoming impossible to tell who the bad guys are, or if there are even any good guys in the whole sorry mess.

I watched the Netflix documentary this week, 'The White Helmets', and was moved close to tears, only to read claims online of how this group of hero volunteers are in fact backed by the CIA, stage photos like the one of 'the boy in the ambulance' Omran Daqneesh (who was the victim of a landmine planted by his own and not a bombing raid apparently) and that the photographer who took the photo, Mahmoud Raslan, is in fact a militant, sympathetic to the terrorist group who beheaded the 12-year-old boy, Abdullah Issa, and took a smiling selfie with the group.

In that one jumbled sentence of fact or fabrication, there's too much to take in. But somewhere, in this whole sorry mess, is the truth of little Abdullah, who was taken from a hospital, tortured and beheaded.

There are photos out there of the poor little boy, still with tubes in his arms, being brought in the back of a truck to his death. But, unlike the photos of Omran, there are many who don't want you to see the ones of Abdullah because those who killed him were among the 'good guys'.

And who can forget the photos of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of Greece?

Or the rescue by the White Helmets of the one-week-old 'miracle baby' who has become something of a mascot for the group.

And now we have, for the first time - though I could be wrong - a child, 'citizen journalist' being followed on social media from a war zone and it leaves me cold.

Social media doesn't have a conscience and it doesn't have a soul. Social media is more likely to give a thumbs-up to someone who bakes a cake or teaches their dog how to perform a trick than to someone who has to survive every day in a war zone.

Social media is all of us. Confused, clueless, lamentably callous and ultimately not terribly concerned about the truth or whoever possesses it.

But most disturbing of all is the creeping fear that one morning I'll log on to Twitter and Bana just won't be there any more.

Her photo will still be out there. Along with those of Omran, Abdullah, Aylan and all the other children. We all hope she makes it.

But in this whole sorry mess, there's something not right about having to pin our hopes on the children.

Irish Independent

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