Caught on camera: Don't mistake Assad's war crimes for 'tragedy'

Caught on camera: Don't mistake Assad's war crimes for 'tragedy'
Comment: A viral photo has reminded the world of Syrian war horrors, but once again, the momentary acknowledgement of 'tragedy', is unlikely to be followed up, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
08 Aug, 2019
The viral photo sent shockwaves across the internet [SY24]

In Syria, another picture of the horror visited by the regime on Idlib recently captured the world's attention, but only momentarily.  

In this particular scene, two young girls try desperately to save their infant sister as she dangles precariously off the side of a recently destroyed building in Idlib.  The father, his hand on his head in disbelief and unimaginable anguish, attempts in vain to get to his beloved children.  

The mother of this family is nowhere to be seen. She, along with another sister, was murdered in the airstrike, carried out by Assad or Russia.

The infant sister survived the ordeal, but one of the sisters, five-year-old Riham, trying so bravely to save her sister, died.   

But although it's easy to consider this scene a 'tragedy', it's dangerous to do so.  For it's more than a tragedy: it's a crime. 

Not a tragedy, but a larger crime

It's a snapshot of a larger crime, one older than all the girls in the photo, which produces these kinds of moments on a daily basis.  While of course the scene depicts tragic events, to 'tragedise' the context of the photo is to depoliticise the scene – as if you were looking at a natural disaster.  But this is a man-made crime. We know the names of the perpetrators and we know, in vividly grisly detail, the manner in which they carry out their crime.

The perpetrators of this crime are the rump regime of Bashar al-Assad, backed up decisively by Russia and Iran.  This hardly has to be stated, given they've been carrying out this crime so openly for 8 years.

But over the course of the Syrian civil war, we have witnessed these criminals go from strength-to-strength, while the victims have largely fell below the radar of popular concern.  To the rest of the world, they only exist in snapshots of tragedy in the media.

While the snapshot of terror may have somewhat faded from the collective memory of most, Assad and Russia’s murder machine rolls on with vicious industriousness, as it has done over the last 8 years

It has been almost two weeks since this photo entered into public consciousness and, while the snapshot of terror may have somewhat faded from the collective memory of most, Assad and Russia’s murder machine rolls on with vicious industriousness, as it has done over the last 8 years.  

Who could forget the grisly photos of those murdered in Houla way back in 2012?  After Assad's sectarian gangs, who moved house-to-house killing as many as possible in this former hub of resistance against the Baathist regime, were done, over 100 souls had been murdered, including 49 children.  

And, as with the most recent photo, it's perhaps the photos of the suffering of children that truly capture the inhumanity, with their little clothes so familiar to anyone with kids, but their blood-spattered, mutilated, lifeless faces that conjures in most right-thinking people feelings of very alien horror and sorrow. 

Then there was the surreal photos of rooms filled with the bodies of children choked to death during Assad's first gas attack on Ghouta in 2013. They look like they could be sleeping, if not perhaps for the way their mouths hang open in unspoken horror, or the presence of parents who crouch over them, with their devastation and heart-stopping grief captured on film.  It would be only three years before Assad would once again gas civilians to death at Khan Sheikhoun.   

One of the most infamous images that emerged from Syria was that of three-year-old Alan Kurdi.  His little lifeless, drowned body had washed up near Bodrum after his family were denied asylum in Canada and desperately tried to escape the precarity of a refugee camp for a better life.  While Alan's photo made it onto Time's Most Influential Images of All Time, Syrian and other refugees continue to drown in the Mediterranean in huge numbers with very little publicity.    

The photo of Omran Daqneesh also briefly captured the world's attention during a pivotal moment in the fate of Syria. The photo of the 5-year-old Syrian boy, who sits in the back of an ambulance dazed but not crying, his face caked in dust, plaster and blood, with his tiny smoke-stained legs dangling over the seat, captured the world's attention after a Russian-Baathist airstrike hit his house in East Aleppo.  

This was during Assad-Iran-Russia's assault on what was then Free Aleppo, an assault which claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives, the cleansing of hundreds of thousands and the destruction of much of the civil infrastructure and national heritage of the liberated parts of the city.  The exact same blueprint for destruction is playing out in Idlib as we speak.

Beyond the lens

But perhaps the most chilling photos came from 'Caesar', a defector from the Syrian Military Police, whose job it was to take pictures of detainees in Assad's dungeons in one region of the country over a two-and-a-half-year period.  

What emerged was photo evidence documenting the systematic extermination of 11,000 people in these veritable concentration camps. Most of the corpses were emaciated, showing signs of starvation, while others had showed signs of extreme torture, such as castration and having their eyes gouged out.  

From Caesar's photo evidence, it is thought that at least 60,000 people have died in Assad's dungeons and camps since the beginning of the uprising. And this extermination continues until this day uninterrupted.  

This is not just an arbitrary list of photos that depict the horror of what's happening in Syria. This is not just a cynical attempt to pornographically exploit violence out of some distorted sense of self-righteousness. Too often, though the intent of the photographers is almost always noble, once these images have been rendered by the mass media, they can be reduced to mere melodramatic 'tragedy' and heavily loaded narratives can overtake reality. More often than not, the images create a spike of concern that is soon blunted.  

The intense feelings that these images initially conjure quickly fades. The political context has been successfully obscured and complicated to the point of being virtually unknowable to a 'layman'. 

Take this photo as an example: it depicts, quite simply, the victims of Assad and Russia's current assault on Syria. 

As soon as the gravity and simplicity of this crime becomes apparent, the dizzying array of complications and very deliberate propaganda saturates the context

If one wanted to, one could read that in the course of a mere 10 days, 103 people, including 26 children like Riham, have been murdered in Assad-Russia's deliberate targeting of civilians in the last liberated province. 

As I said, many will have forgotten about the photo, but even for those who did linger on it, as soon as the gravity and simplicity of this crime becomes apparent, the dizzying array of complications and very deliberate propaganda saturates the context. 

Suddenly one hears or reads the name 'al-Qaeda' or words like 'terrorists' linked to Idlib and, while the care for a child victim remains, the culpability of the criminals becomes less clear than before.  But regardless of whether al-Qaeda are involved in Idlib or not, it's the clear culpability of the criminal that is key to stopping – or at least trying to stop – the crime.

What ought to be a case of indignation against the main perpetrators of the murderer of R and thousands of others is transformed into helpless apathy. 

This manufacturing of indifference and apathy is how crimes like genocide are able to flourish. The spike in 'concern', the momentary acknowledgement of 'tragedy', is never followed up – it's forgotten and the crimes continue out of focus. 

Tragedisation, in short, is normalisation. 

The very proof of this is in the fact that year-after-year these photos continue to emerge.  It could be a day, week, month or year before the next spectacle of horror is provided to the world by Assad and his allies.  But whether or not someone captures it on film, it's happening beyond the lens on a daily basis. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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