The boy in the picture
In August Aleppo-based cameraman Mustafa al-Sarout filmed a child being pulled from his apartment building, which had just been bombed. Three months later he speaks out about the fate of that boy, Omran Daqneesh, and how life has changed since in a city still under siege
18th August 2016 (Taken from: #24)
The numbers coming out of Syria had started to lose their power to shock. The country’s conflict had raged for more than 2,000 days, leaving 250,000 dead and 11 million – over half the pre-war population – displaced. But one image brought the realities of the fighting in Syria back home to the world with a sickening crash. Five years old, dazed and disorientated, Omran Daqneesh sat mutely in the back of an ambulance, struggling to comprehend what had happened to him. Minutes earlier he’d been asleep at his home in the Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo. After an airstrike by Syrian or Russian aircraft on the opposition-held area, the walls had started to crumble around him.
Omran’s plight was captured by cameraman Mustafa al-Sarout. “That day was very scary,” he tells us, three months later. “As the sun went down the shelling became more intense. I was almost hit by a mortar while on my way to the area where I found Omran.” When al-Sarout arrived he found a neighbourhood in ruins. The building where the Daqneesh family had once lived had partially collapsed, trapping them inside. The home next door was completely destroyed.
The Syria Civil Defence force, popularly known as the White Helmets, were among the first to arrive on the scene. This 3,000-strong volunteer group is believed to have saved more than 60,000 lives since Syria’s conflict began in 2011. Omran’s was one of them. The White Helmets got into Omran’s house through an adjacent building and jumped a five-foot gap to get to his family. Omran’s father had got him out from under some fallen brickwork and handed the boy to the White Helmets from a balcony. Omran, his parents and siblings were led out of the ruins to safety. Eight of their neighbours weren’t so lucky and lost their lives in the attack. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, died of his injuries three days later.
Al-Sarout, who works for the Aleppo Media Centre, was filming the rescue attempts. His footage caught the moment when Omran, his face and hair coated in a thick layer of brick dust, was placed in the back of an ambulance. The little boy sat forlorn and alone, rubbing a hand across his bloodied eye. Al-Sarout’s footage of Omran – which Syrian president Bashar al-Assad claims is faked – was swiftly uploaded to AMC’s social media feeds, where it went viral. It crossed over to mainstream news broadcasts, and stills from the video adorned dozens of front pages across the world. It was just one story among millions from the crisis but for some reason it stuck. “I think the image spoke to the world because it gave the crimes against civilians a human face. A child’s face,” says al-Sarout. “Still, I did not know that Omran’s image would get so much attention. I see children who have been victimised by this war on a daily basis.”
We are under constant bombing and shelling, and on top of that we are besieged. Bashar al-Assad wants to bomb us and starve us to death”
The images of Omran drew parallels with the photographs of another victim – Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean on 2nd September 2015 after the boat in which he and his family were trying to escape to Turkey capsized. The pictures of his limp body washed up on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum sent shockwaves around the world and European politicians came under pressure to do more to protect refugees. Two days after Kurdi’s picture was published, then-prime minister David Cameron announced a major increase in the number of refugees who would be admitted by the UK, and Germany promised to let in a large number who had been left stranded in Hungary. Media coverage softened – in the UK, The Sun newspaper, having previously published a column in which refugees were compared to cockroaches, launched a fundraising campaign for Save the Children’s Child Refugee Crisis appeal in Kurdi’s name, and pushed to give Syrian orphans new foster homes.
Is al-Sarout annoyed that it takes such shocking images to make people engage with the crisis? “It is a little frustrating, but at the same time, at least one or two images shock the world enough to demand action,” he says. But he is sceptical about whether such pictures generate any long term effects. “Alan and Omran were Syrian children, Omran was under shelling and Alan was escaping the bombs. Two images shocked the world yet nothing significant has been done to change that. The reality is that there are thousands – millions – of Syrian children living in worse conditions than Alan and Omran.”
Before the war al-Sarout was a promising football player with dreams of turning professional, but when the Arab Spring uprisings began he felt drawn to the cause. “It was the time for me to stand in the face of the oppressive al-Assad government,” he says. When the regime responded to the protests with brutal force he turned to journalism in the hope of conveying the realities of life in a country at war with itself. “I wanted to deliver the people’s voice to the world,” he says.
Al-Sarout volunteered to join the Aleppo Media Centre, which was established in 2012 when the city joined the Syrian revolution and has been described by al-Assad’s supporters as a purveyor of war propaganda. “AMC reverberates throughout the region as it has proven itself to be a very trustworthy source of news from Aleppo,” says al-Sarout. “The truth is life here is unbearable. We are under constant bombing and shelling, and on top of that we are besieged. Al-Assad wants to bomb us and starve us to death.”
On 12th September, a month after Omran’s picture captured the attention of the world, a US- and Russia-backed ceasefire came into force. It seemed like an opportunity to end the agony of Aleppo. US secretary of state John Kerry said the accord “should put an end to the barrel bombs, an end to the indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighbourhoods”. It was not to be. On 17th September a US-led airstrike directed against Isis wrongly targeted a unit of Syrian soldiers south of Dayr az Zawr, killing 62 government troops. Two days later, a humanitarian UN convoy on its way to bring supplies of food to a rebel-held area near Aleppo was attacked and destroyed: 20 people were killed and the incident was described by UN officials as a potential war crime. The US pointed the finger of blame at two Russian aircraft. Russia denied the claims. The ceasefire crumbled and in Aleppo the bombs began to fall once again. They are still falling when we talk to al-Sarout in November. “Aleppo is being bombed as we speak,” he says. “People have run out of food and medicine and the warplanes continue to bomb schools and hospitals. I am here, with my people, trying to survive under the regime’s determination to kill every last person in the city.”
Omran, too, remains in the city. “His health is good and he’s in a safe place,” says al-Sarout. “As safe as besieged Aleppo can be.” The day we speak, it emerges that the only children’s hospital in the city has been bombed out of action. Two days after that, airstrikes take out the last operating hospital in the east of Aleppo.
For al-Sarout, the fact that his video has been seen by millions means little if people don’t act on it. “The world [now] knows what’s happening in Aleppo,” he says. “It’s not a matter of knowing, it’s a matter of taking action. The world hasn’t done enough for the people of Aleppo. I want the world to see, really see, that the crimes of the Syrian and Russian governments need to stop. These people are civilians; they’re innocent and the world needs to protect them. I ask citizens of the world to demand their governments stop Bashar al-Assad. I ask people to take a serious stand at a time when Aleppo is being flattened to the ground.”
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.