Few images have captured the peculiar horrors of the war in Syria more powerfully than the photograph and short video that emerged recently showing five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting in an ambulance after being rescued from the aftermath of an airstrike in Aleppo.
Within minutes of the video (reportedly filmed on August 17 by photojournalist Mustafa al-Sarout) being uploaded by the Aleppo Media Centre the images were being shared on social media and gaining the attention of Western newsrooms. As the Financial Times reported, 24 hours after the original YouTube report was posted, it had had 350,000 views and been shared thousands of times. Former foreign secretary David Miliband, currently president of the International Rescue Committee, tweeted:
Tragic image of young boy in Aleppo reawakens the world to the most innocent victims of Syrian war: children. 6M remain in need.
In the UK, Omran’s image adorned the front page of Thursday’s The Guardian and Times . As Mailonline proclaimed “Image of Aleppo boy shocks world”, The Sun called Omran, “the young lad [who] reminded the world of the horror inside the war-torn nation”.
Though there were, perhaps inevitably, some claims that these events were staged and little more than anti-government propaganda, it’s not hard to see why, to use the tabloid exaggeration, these images captured the world’s attention. It is Omran’s preternatural response to what’s going on that is immediately arresting. Sitting patiently in the oversized orange chair, he seems oblivious, or indifferent, to the hell around him. His innocence is symbolised by this lack of emotion and stillness – which may emphasise the appalling normality of what he is experiencing.
It is reasonable to say, too, that with his longish, unruly hair and shorts and tee-shirt, Omran easily fits the Western archetype of a scruffy little boy. As Anne Barnard pointed out in the New York Times, his rumpled shirt bears the insignia of the Nickelodeon character, CatDog. This little boy could be your son – if the circumstances were different.
As Susie Linfield wrote in The Guardian about the shocking images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned when the boat that was carrying him and other refugees sank en route to Turkey in September 2015:
Because children are vulnerable and blameless – the purest victims – depictions of their suffering have an extraordinarily visceral impact.
In cases such as Omran’s, it is not sentimental to be upset and infuriated, it is merely human.
Moving right along
But as Omran’s image trended on social media, the problem for many commentators was that the sharing of images would in all likelihood be the end of the matter. In The Independent, Will Gore wrote of the chaos of Syria and the fact that, though Omran had survived, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has estimated that to the end of May this year up to 14,000 children have been killed during the Syrian war with many tens of thousands more badly injured. In the Daily Mirror, the excellent Fleet Street Fox (Susie Boniface) stated:
“You want to know the most awful thing about this picture? Sharing it is all we’re going to do.”