Written by Leila Nachawati *
Thursday, 01 October 2015 02:53
Those who follow the destruction of Syria from the beginning, as we do, are used, by force, to view every day pictures that freeze the blood. Pictures that no sane person would like to see if they did not believe that seeing them, verifying them and sharing them would be useful for stopping this tragedy.
After the outbreak of the popular uprising in 2011, Syria changed from a “black hole” in news reports for decades to be converted into the largest producer of videos in the region and is nowadays among the largest in the world. YouTube has even changed its rules, which hindered the dissemination of violent content, to suit the historical necessity of telling what went on inside the country. Each day several hundred videos are published showing the determination of the protesters and the cruelty of the repression by the forces of Bashar Al-Assad.
Conscious of the historical significance of what is happening in their cities, and that the world would know nothing if they did not share, the streets were filled with protesters taking pictures with their cell phones, which would be unthinkable a few years ago. There are images of concentrations in which are seen countless cell phones shining in the darkness in raised hands.
Experts in documenting death
For these photos and videos to reach the rest of the world it was important to verify them, contextualize them, translate them, put subtitles, and those like us, who closely followed the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa and relied on social media in other countries, worked through this retrieval work. A painful work, unbearable to most, for which we were unprepared and that over time has been leaving permanent wounds.
“We, experts in documenting death, do not cry,” said the lawyer Razan Zeitouneh before being kidnapped in Duma, at the outskirts of Damascus. “The details of the killing are endless; they are in thousands of recorded videos. Experts in documenting deaths like us do not cry; it is enough for us to bear witness with open mouths and wincing faces. In concrete times, they listen to a voice which howls inside and they do not cease to wonder, those who certify death through the screens of their devices or those who do so using their fingers and hands, whether they will return one day to be ‘natural’ beings or if Death will have left them in a sort of limbo forever.”
Months before the militarization of the uprising, the images arriving daily from Syria were already atrocious. In order to demoralize the protesters, the Assad regime used, from the very beginning, pictures of children. The face of Hamza al-Khatib, thirteen years old, after taking part in a protest at Hama, appeared beyond recognition after torture, his body covered with cigarette burns, his testicles ripped out. He died in custody of the Syrian authorities. That image helped spark the demonstrations, in which the need for reforms turned into demanding Assad’s stepping down. This image, which we have seen, checked, titled and spread, should have sufficed to make the world aware, had the world wanted to see, of the importance of bringing down a regime capable of inflicting such harm to its own population.
We shared it because they crossed the “red lines” [violated human rights] and it was necessary for the world to know. If the photo of the child Kim Phuc, injured by napalm, taken by the Vietnamese journalist Nick Ut in 1973, contributed, according to many historians, to curb the war in Vietnam, all the atrocities photographed and spread out from Syria would also have their impact in the international community. Now that everyone could have access to such images, the world could not turn its back on what it saw. And since every passing day a new “red line” was crossed, it became more important to keep showing them even with arguments against.
In these four years, as the world seems to have gone blind, there was a parade, on the different internet channels, of images of youths slaughtered by snipers of the regime, saddened mothers with their children in their arms, whole families agonizing after a bombing, bodies mangled by chemical weapons, children with no arms, with no legs, without heads. In recent months, to the atrocities of the regime were added those of the self-styled Islamic State, which shares in HD its ceremonies of tortures, stoning, explosions, drownings, beheadings.
Images we checked, contextualized, put titles on, each time with less impact. At times we argued about whether we should disseminate them or not, abstracted ourselves in endless debates about respect for the privacy of the dead and their families, the sensitivity of those who were following us, the importance of exposing the effects of chlorine gas. We were debating about the “red lines” that separated the broadcasting of something from not doing it, wherever those “red lines” of civil protection were no more respected.
The advent of the Internet and social media, which enabled sharing and spreading any picture at any given time, also contributed to thin what so far we knew as graphic images in the infinite ocean of content. The warnings we received to protect us from scenes that could affect our sensibilities do not exist in the spaces in which we move, for many the primary access to information.
Graphics as just another product
From listing down videos of Syria on YouTube as historic and documentary content we went forward to the automatism of sharing and accessing graphics without generating any discussion. Over the past two years, after the change of algorithms on Facebook and Twitter, these images did not even appear concealed behind a URL, after a text that invariably began with “http”. With the evolution of these technologies and the eagerness to generate traffic, the URLs have turned into photos and images embedded directly in the posts on Twitter or Facebook.
“If one of the people you follow on Twitter decided to include a screenshot of, let’s say, a freshly decapitated journalist, you’d have no time to avoid it.” said the journalist Andy Carvin in an article titled Graphic footage: fanning the flames or bearing witness?: “Like it or not, you’d catch it in the corner of your eye, or even worse, front and center. And by then it’s too late. ” The graphic images were imposed as just another product that can be consumed while you enjoy a plate of spaghetti with tomato at your favorite restaurant.
Carvin wondered if the line between showing or not graphics coming from Syria or any other context, between giving or not visibility to crimes that deserve not to be forgotten, still exists. Does that line still mean anything? For many of us who follow the horror in Syria for more than four years, for a long time it has not existed. The debate that takes place these days, about whether to share or not the three-year old boy Aylan Kurdi’s image, who drowned along with his mother, his siblings and other children who were trying to reach the shores of Greece brings us back to thousands of pictures of children we have seen and disseminated over these four years, to those we believed the rest of the world had also had access to.
I am surprised by the complaints against those who shared the image, tearing hair of those who were unwilling to see it but could not avoid it. But what really is surprising is the fact that until now they have not bumped into any of these pictures, when every part of the Internet is clogged with these images in the last four years. For us who follow Syria closely, the only important issue is whether this will help influence a growing frightening reality every day. At last people will truly face the loneliness into which the Syrian people is mired, will analyze the source of the disaster and the ones responsible for it, whether there will be accountability, and whether a brake is put to the destruction on the ground while easing the suffering of those fleeing. For many, the metadebate about whether the image of a dead child hurts or not one’s sensitivity has fallen by the wayside a long time ago.
* Leila Nachawati is a Spanish-Syrian human rights activist based in Madrid. Writer and consultant in communication, with a special focus on the Middle East and North Africa. She is part of the SyriaUntold movement.