Syria's thousand-yard stare

It seems to me that how we perceive conflict is largely about distance. If a battle is raging anywhere near you, then it's terrifying. If it's a long way off - in another country, on another continent - then you tend to view it dispassionately. You mentally “relax”. At best you might “study” it, decide who’s in the right, who’s in the wrong, possibly campaign for something to be done. At worst you might totally ignore it - out of sight, out of mind.

Conflict is all about proximity, about distance. Until ... you see something on TV or online which suddenly shrinks that distance. For me one example this year has been the short films the French film-maker Mani has made about Syria for Channel 4 News. One of his latest, broadcast on Monday, shows the Farouk brigade, a battle-hardened group of Syrian opposition fighters working within the Free Syrian Army:

For the most part I think the film is actually (if I can put it like this) just good. Its account of a contingent of tough-looking, mostly young men (they're all men) in the Syrian town of Talbisa near Homs is certainly compelling. Their sniper tactics, their military planning, the deliveries of massive bundles of dollar bills and new weapons, the apparent insouciance of men standing near an anti-aircraft gun as it blasts away. But there's also the unnerving sight of a fighter looking fixedly at the camera - possibly a PTSD-type 1,000-yard stare, possibly a hostile look. Who knows?

But the truly heart-stopping moment comes at the end. A young boy looks at an injured Farouk fighter, a man who has lost part of his left leg after a Syrian army tank shell landed nearby. The boy’s look goes on and on.

And it’s this look that I think symbolises what’s happening in Syria right now. For example, a new Amnesty report out today documents the recent - largely unnoticed - carnage in the Idlib, Jabal al-Zawiya and north Hama regions. (See the embedded video from the report author Donatella Rovera, and also take a look at this slideshow of images). The story here is all about how Syrian government forces have sprayed towns and villages with a range of imprecise weapons (aerial bombs, artillery shells, mortars) killing 166 civilians (including 48 children and 20 women) and injuring hundreds of others in 26 locations in a 12-day period (31 Aug-11 Sept).

Here’s an example:

On the morning of 1 September a Syrian government air strike on the village of ‘Ainkawi (north of Hama) killed five people (three children and two young men) and injured dozens of others. The bomb exploded in an orchard near some houses, sending bomb fragments flying hundreds of metres in all directions. Five-year-old Maram Bassam Qaddi was 200 metres away standing at the patio door of her house, but was hit by a fragment that caused fatal head injuries. Meanwhile, 15-year-old Doha Sattouf, who was standing about 150 metres from the bomb blast was also killed by a bomb fragment which cut off most of her head.

The incident is typical. Highly vulnerable people killed in or near their own homes by inaccurate weapons fired by forces apparently out to terrorise and punish the local population for its perceived support of armed opposition groups (there were no opposition fighters in the area at the time, it was the civilians they were targeting).

Two hundred metres sounds like quite a long way from an explosion but as Maram and Doha’s fate shows, it’s actually far too close for safety.

In the Amnesty report a man called Ahmad Rahal, who had just lost his wife and two-year-old son in an airstrike, says: “How have we come to this? Our own government is killing its people, women, children, bombing civilians indiscriminately; and nobody is doing anything to stop this. We have been forgotten by the whole world”.

How indeed. One answer is distance. Syria’s plight is far away from the reality of most people’s lives. Except, every now again, with a news item or even a single chilling image, the gap closes. That boy’s stare does that for me. We need to stop averting our gaze from Syria.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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