Each photograph told of heartbreak, of dreams cut short, of a story without an ending or closure. Dreams in multicolour fading to sudden, irreconcilable darkness.
There were Pouneh Gorji and Arash Pourzarabi, a newly-wed couple in their mid-20s, her face resting on his shoulder in one of their pictures, the contented look that says decades of love lie before them.
Or Mojgan Daneshmand and Pedram Mousavi, two professors at the University of Alberta, who were traveling with their two little daughters, Daria and Dorina. I wonder if they held on to their children as the plane spun downwards, what they whispered to them as the end drew near.
Sajedeh Saraiean was by herself, though. She was flying to Canada to begin her first semester as a university graduate student. What dreams of a new life had she harboured when the plane took off?
Pouneh, Arash, Mojgan, Pedram, Daria, Dorina and Sajedeh were just seven out of 176 passengers and crew who were killed after a Ukrainian Airlines plane was shot down accidentally by an Iranian missile minutes after taking off from Tehran last week. Most of them, 138, were headed to Canada – some were citizens, others professors or students, their families. The connecting flight through Kiev was the cheapest they could muster, hemmed in by their country's isolation.
Their deaths, and the fallout that ensued, is an indictment to us all. It shows just how worthless human life can be in the region.
Consider how this all started. The US assassinated Qassem Suleimani, the second-most powerful man in Iran and a general whose legacy includes the death and displacement of tens of thousands of Syrians, as he was leaving Baghdad airport. Tehran responded by firing a salvo of cruise missiles at an Iraqi base housing American troops, and its missile defense system, on heightened alert and trigger-happy, shot down the Ukrainian Airlines plane. Both countries came to blows on tormented Iraqi land, with nary a flicker of concern about innocent civilians caught in between.
Iraqis had been demonstrating for months, suffering more than 500 dead at the hands of security forces and Iranian-backed militias, with Iraqi journalists and activists assassinated almost daily in cold blood.
Or consider the Iranian government's response, and contrast it to Canada's. Many of those who perished on the flight had Canadian citizenship, hoping to build a new life away from the region's strife. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered flags flown at half-mast, sent investigators to Tehran and vowed to pursue accountability for the victims. Vigils were held across the country, in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia, where communities lost friends and teachers, sons and daughters.
In Iran, the government lied for three days about the cause of the plane crash, even bulldozing the site, prompting an outpouring of anger and protest at the injustice of it all. Just weeks before, possibly more than a thousand Iranians had been killed in demonstrations against corruption and abuse across the country.
The victims of Flight PS752 were collateral damage in an exhibit of toxic brinkmanship, one in which human beings are mere pawns in pursuit of ends of domination and power. This is a calculus we are familiar with in the region – half a million Syrians have been killed and half the country has been displaced for the prime objective of keeping a totalitarian leader called Bashar Al Assad in power.
As a journalist I was always tormented by this reality – that we were small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. That not only was justice for the victims of atrocities and war crimes elusive but that, in my heart of hearts, I knew it was impossible.
On a trip to Syria, I was travelling through rebel-held territory to report on a chemical attack by the Assad regime’s forces with a militia escort for protection from extremist militants along the way. While on the road, one of the fighters joked that they should kidnap me and demand a ransom. I responded that, as an Arab, they would not be able to make much money out of the attempt, which set the group laughing. We had internalised the fact that our lives were not worth much, whether a rebel fighter or journalist, civilian or activist, protester or bystander.
In the days and weeks before my wife and I left the Middle East for Canada, I often found myself lost in thought as I contemplated leaving everything I knew behind. Family, friends, heartbreak and joy, love and loss, compassion and hatred, career.
But every time I doubted, there it was. More numbers. Hundreds dead in air strikes. Scores drowned in a sunken ferry. Dozens killed in a train collision. And nobody ever paid for it. Sometimes nobody was even fired.
Perhaps there will be justice one day. For now, though, we cannot make it happen. What we can do is remember that they each had a story, that they loved and were loved, that they made the world a little bit more beautiful by their brief passage through it, that they matter, that they have names, not numbers.
I wish I had the space to write down all their names. But among them were Pouneh, Arash, Mojgan, Pedram, Daria, Dorina and Sajedeh.
Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada