When Omran Daqneesh’s picture was taken after what was said to be a pro-government airstrike on a rebel-held neighborhood in the city of Aleppo, it instantly became an icon of Syria’s cruel civil war.
Images and video of the little boy, the dust and blood on his face comingling as he sat in an ambulance chair in bewilderment, went viral on social media. They dominated the news cycle, propelling Syria once more to the front pages of newspapers and the top of news broadcasts. One CNN newscaster, Kate Bolduan, could barely hold back tears as she spoke of Omran’s ordeal.
Yet for many residents of the western, government-held part of Aleppo, Omran’s image promotes a one-sided narrative about the conflict. They see it as yet another salvo in a media war that they are losing, their suffering all but forgotten in the eyes of the world.
“The policy of these western countries is to destroy the Syrian government, or the ‘regime’ as they call it, so they don’t mention what happens in government territory… because they don’t want their people to know the truth of what is happening in the country,” said Ayman Oweilah, a 30-year old engineer student living Aleppo.
“Western channels don’t send their correspondents to government-controlled areas because that would be an acknowledgement of the Syrian state.”
Yet Damascus often denies visas to journalists, either because they are from countries or outlets antagonistic to the government or their coverage is deemed not objective by the Syrian Ministry of Information. It is also difficult to reach people in government areas; mistrustful of western media in general, they are reluctant to talk for fear their words will be twisted or get them in trouble with the authorities.
“It reflects the general sense that Assad’s side is responsible for far more of the death than the rebel side,” said Thanassi Cambanis, a Fellow at the Century Foundation who was granted a visa last year. “But access is a far bigger issue than the political judgment of who is the bigger villain in the conflict.”
“Whenever the Syrian government has let journalists in to do work, there is always a steady stream of stories that highlight the suffering of civilians on the government side,” he said.
As the battle has raged for control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, casualty numbers indicate that people on both sides — which have largely been locked in a stalemate since 2012 — live in a crucible of suffering, where death can drop from above at any moment.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog with a network of activists in Syria, 218 civilians, including 46 children, were killed in Aleppo in the month of August alone as a result of government airstrikes on opposition-controlled neighborhoods.
Although loyalist forces control the skies, rebels have lobbed hundreds of mortar shells into western Aleppo. Many of the explosives are crude gas canisters repurposed for the indiscriminate shelling that killed 178 civilians in government-held areas in August. The death toll among children there was even higher; the observatory put it at 52.
Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the observatory, explained that despite the disparity in the destructive power of the rebels’ arsenal compared to the government, government-controlled Aleppo had a “much higher population density.” There are roughly 1.4 million people living in government-held areas, Abdul Rahman said.
“In the western neighborhoods you have five or six times the people in the east, and so the number of the casualties is higher,” said Abdul Rahman.
“Just the other day, one shell got eight people in one go.”
While aid groups estimate anywhere from 175,000 to 300,000 people still live in eastern rebel-held Aleppo, it is difficult to gauge the accuracy of figures from rebel territory. For example, Darayya, another besieged rebel-held city, was said to have more than 8,000 occupants. But last week, when government forces evacuated the entire town, they found fewer than 2,000 people still residing there.
Ironically, many of those killed or injured in rebel bombardment come from opposition-held areas themselves; thousands have fled the fighting and constant government airstrikes on rebel territories and join the roughly 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians in the country, according to the U.N.
In the days following Omran’s tragic rise to world attention, pro-government outlets and activists uploaded images of children they said were injured or killed in west Aleppo and had been ignored by western media.
One resident, Kamel Mohammad, shared a photo from pro-government outlet "Syria Now" of a young boy, his face covered in the now-familiar red-and-white mask of blood and dust. “Who will cry the for this child?” he asked.
Below, the caption read “A child from Aleppo… after his house was shelled by the gangs of [religious] terrorism.” Pro-government outlets routinely refer to the opposition pitted against Syrian President Bashar Assad as terrorists.
“Unfortunately, his enemy is protected by CNN and its ilk… and the world won’t see the terror in his eyes,” it read.
Edward Dark, the pseudonym of a Twitter user living in government-held Aleppo, uploaded a picture of Rim, a little girl he said had been injured by rebel mortar fire just below that of Omran.
"One of them made global headlines, while the other was ignored. Guess why," he wrote.
"Of course western media will never show you the children shelled & murdered by the jihadis their government back in #Syria,” he wrote.
Mohammad and other social media users also posted videos and pictures casting doubt on Daqneesh’s story.
Mahmoud Raslan, the photographer who took the picture of Omran, said that the boy was rescued along with members of his family from the rubble of their house in the rebel-held Al-Qaterji neighborhood. Three days later, activists said, one of his older siblings succumbed to his injuries and died.
Theories about how the image must have been staged circulated on social media. Medical workers wouldn’t leave a wounded child like that; the ambulance looked too clean; Omran seemed too calm. One widely distributed photo showed a make-up artist prepping “wounds” on a girl.
“This is what the studios of [Al-Arabiya] and [Al-Jazeera] have always done… visual tricks to sway Western public opinion,” the picture’s caption said, referring to news channels affiliated with Syria’s regional enemies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Even the Russian Ministry of Defense fueled speculation, denying in a statement that it had conducted airstrikes near Omran’s home.
“The nature of the debris shown by Western broadcasters during the operation to save [the wounded boy, Omran Daqneesh] demonstrates that there are intact windows in a building nearby,” the statement said,” and this in turn shows that the strike, if it happened, was carried out not using aircraft ammunition but a mine or a gas cylinder, which are commonly used by terrorists.”
The relative absence of pro-government areas from coverage feeds the perception that any individual story of suffering is told to the detriment of others. “To me, Omran's plight is that of all Syrians caught in this war,” said Leith Abou Fadel, editor of the pro-government Masdar News. “It agitates me when people try to use images of children to spread their political agenda, be it opposition or government. Both sides are guilty of it.”
“West Aleppo has suffered immensely; however, they are terrible at promoting this stuff,” he said. “Which is sad now that someone has to "promote" the hell these civilians are going through.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.