BEIRUT // The war in Syria delivers an overwhelming flood of devastating images every day: dead and dying children, summary executions, the faces of terrified, starving civilians living under siege and entire neighbourhoods destroyed by bombs.
But last week when a Syrian activist in Aleppo captured images of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh moments after an air strike devastated his home, something was different. Rather than being forgotten, the photo was splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the world, including The National.
What was it about this picture that captured global attention in a way that other powerful photos from the conflict have not? Such images are seen and dismissed – or at least readily forgotten – every day.
Many are too graphic to be published, while others are hard to relate to for people who have never lived under bombardment, gone hungry or faced the constant prospect of death.
The pictures of Omran show the young boy sitting dazed in an orange seat, his dust and blood covered body contrasting sharply with the ambulance’s bright, sterile interior. In a video showing his rescue, Omran looks around at his new surroundings, seeming lost, and rubs his bloody face with his left hand. He glances down at his palm, pauses at the sight of his blood and rubs it on the seat. In shock, he doesn’t cry or make any noise. At five years old, Omran’s entire life has been lived in Syria’s war.
“There’s something about the boy that makes you want to go and protect him, makes you want to go hug him and protect him from everything he’s just seen and what he’s been through,” said Bissan Fakih, deputy campaign director at The Syria Campaign, a pro-opposition advocacy group.
The photo resonated not only in the West, where there is significantly less exposure to Syria’s civil war and other conflicts in the region, but also in the Arab world, where images of the conflict are often inescapable.
“The real frightening thing about the Omran photo is not only what it tells us about him and the suffering of innocent children, but the fact that this kind of killing and near killing and suffering is going on at a large scale all over the Arab world and has been going on for the last 30 to 40 years,” said Rami Khouri, senior fellow at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute. To the Arab world, the photo of Omran is a reminder that “this kind of thing can happen to us tomorrow”.
Ms Fakih said she feels photos like that of Omran help simplify a complicated war, allowing broader engagement with viewers.
“It takes all the myriad complications of Syria – which is ISIS, the Kurds and the Russians and who is doing this, which rebel group just switched allegiances – and becomes about this scared little boy.”
Brian Kerrigan, The National’s photo editor, said the simplicity of the picture of Omran forced the viewer to connect with the subject.
“The composition is very simple and direct with the interior of the ambulance offering no distractions to the viewer – you only look directly at Omran,” he said. “I think because we make such direct eye contact with him it really triggers something parental in us all – he’s looking at us like he’d look at his mother or father, wondering what happened and why.”
But iconic photos do not often equate to change.
A year ago, a photo of the body of a three-year-old Syrian-Kurdish boy washed up on the beach near the Turkish city of Bodrum stirred similar emotions. Alan Kurdi drowned as his family tried to reach Greece from Turkey, a journey taken by hundreds of thousands. The photo elicited a passionate response and built global awareness about the refugee crisis. But Europe did not open its borders – instead, it eventually enforced measures that slowed the wave of migrants to a trickle. Merchants on Turkey’s Aegean coast continued to peddle life jackets that did not float and greedy smugglers continued to overcrowd boats they knew were not seaworthy.
“When the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ was coined I don’t think anyone envisaged a time when we’d have thousands and thousands of images delivered to us daily,” said Kerrigan. “Our attention and compassion is being pulled in different directions minute by minute. There are still historically significant images being made, but the time the public has to appreciate, discuss and debate those images by the time something new comes along has gone from weeks or months to minutes.”
While the picture of Omran has resulted in attention and outpourings of sympathy and sadness, many of the child casualties of Syria’s war go completely unnoticed. Omran’s ten-year-old brother died on Saturday, injured in the same air strike. His sister was wounded as well and appears in some photos sitting near him in the ambulance, though not in the most widely circulated photos.
The war in Syria has derailed the lives of an entire generation of Syrian children and very few will see their names recognised. Kids die every day in the conflict and more are wounded. Many – both in and out of the country – have never been to school or have been out of school for years. Those who have made it out of the country might be safe, but their lives are not easy. They beg on the streets of Beirut and in Turkish border towns. Many are forced into low-paying manual labour jobs to help keep their families afloat. Their futures are calculated in days, weeks and months, not years.
Back in Syria, militias recruit and sometimes even force children to join their ranks. ISIL has abducted and recruited children, brainwashing them with a hateful ideology. In an attack blamed on the group in Gaziantep, Turkey, on Saturday, a suicide bomber believed to be as young as 12 killed more than 50 people. While the identity of the bomber has not yet been confirmed, there is a good chance he was Syrian.
Omran is alive, but life is not likely to be easy for him or countless other child survivors of the wars in Syria and elsewhere in the region today.
“I wonder what kind of future is this kid going to have?” said Mr Khouri. “It’s not just the helplessness or the dehumanisation of this little kid, it’s the hopelessness of his life and his generation that is a reality for so many people in some Arab countries today.”