Magazine article The New Yorker

Images of War

Magazine article The New Yorker

Images of War

Article excerpt

Images of War

On August 18th, Omran Daqneesh, who is five years old, survived an air strike on the apartment building where his family lived, in Aleppo, Syria. Rescue workers pulled him out of the rubble and took him to an ambulance. Mahmoud Raslan, of the Aleppo Media Center, who works in areas controlled by the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, photographed the child on video. His face was coated with blood and dirt; he sat staring silently. Within days, millions of viewers had seen Omran's image on social media; the Times put it on the front page. The picture recalled Nick Ut's iconic Vietnam War photograph of a nine-year-old girl, Kim Phuc, taken as she fled naked and screaming from a napalm attack, or the images widely shared last year of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned off the Turkish coast, and whose body washed up on a beach. For adults to pause and reflect upon the costs of war, they sometimes require confrontation with a child's suffering.

Omran Daqneesh lived, but his ten-year-old brother, Ali, died from the injuries he sustained. The tragedy stimulated a brief news cycle about the plight of Syrian civilians living in besieged areas. Aleppo, the nation's largest city, has been in the grip of a fratricidal war since 2012. Assad's regime controls districts in the west, while rebels are embedded in the east. The rebels include both jihadists formerly allied with Al Qaeda and commanders aligned with the Free Syrian Army, which has been supported sporadically by the Obama Administration. The rebels fire inaccurately into government areas with improvised mortars that they call "hell cannons." The rounds include gas cylinders packed with explosives and metal shrapnel, designed to terrorize and maim. Assad's forces, backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah militias, have a monopoly in the skies; their aircraft repeatedly bomb hospitals, markets, and residences. (The Islamic State holds territory nearby but is not organized in the city.)

It is hard to imagine a battle like the one in Aleppo getting worse, but it is. According to the United Nations, as many as two hundred and seventy-five thousand people may be trapped in rebel districts, because government forces have cut off the roads. Those people and hundreds of thousands of other residents have no electricity or running water. Despite ongoing international negotiations and periodic agreements to enact ceasefires and allow the provision of humanitarian aid, Assad's government has slow-rolled or blocked aid deliveries, which often must be made by truck, on contested roads. In May, the Syria International Support Group, which includes Russia, China, the Arab League, European nations, and the U.S., endorsed another ceasefire and pledged to "ensure full and sustained humanitarian access in Syria." This summer, that promise crumbled, like many before it.

The rebels and the civilians in Aleppo have endured, even though they are largely helpless against aerial assault. In addition to continued armed resistance, they have put together an extraordinary array of rescue workers, ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors, underground hospitals, electronic I.C.U.s, media producers, and low-power radio stations that warn listeners about air raids. The U.S., Europe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other nations, along with nongovernmental aid groups and the Syrian diaspora, have financed this infrastructure.

On August 14th, Al Jazeera released a film made by the Danish journalist Nagieb Khaja about the Syrian Civil Defense, a network of nearly three thousand first responders in rebel zones, who are known as "white helmets. …

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