This photo from Syria is horrifying, but does seeing it change anything?


This photo, taken Jan. 31, shows residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, queuing to receive food supplies, in Damascus. A United Nations official is calling on warring sides in Syria to allow aid workers to resume distribution of food and medicine in a besieged Palestinian district of Damascus. The call comes as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Syrian government to authorize more humanitarian staff to work inside the country, devastated by its 3-year-old conflict. (United Nations Relief and Works Agency via AP)

The above picture was released Monday by the United Nations Relief And Works Agency (UNRWA). It shows the Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, southern Syria, which has been under siege since July 2013. The crowd in the image, which was taken on January 31, stretches back as far as the eye can see. They are all waiting to receive food supplies.

"It is impossible not to be touched by the apocalyptic scenes emerging from the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus, besieged and cut off for months," Christopher Gunness of UNRWA told The Post in an e-mail. "The images are at once epic and personal. Row upon row of gaunt faces, serried ranks of grimy, raged figures; the delicate, hunger-ravaged features of children waiting in line for an UNRWA food parcel; the face of a mother creased in grief for a deceased child; tears of joy as a father is reunited with a long-lost daughter; these are the vignettes of inhumanity that have become the regular fare of nightly news bulletins. They are UNRWA's daily reality."

The U.N. is feeding around 3.9 million people in Syria, but UNRWA only managed to get into Yarmouk recently after a fragile ceasefire between government forces and rebels. With around 20,000 people are stuck in Yarmouk, most of them are unable to even get to the U.N. distribution spots before food supplies ran out. For some, it was way too late: There have been multiple reports of death by starvation in the area.

Gunness is right that the photo makes a clear impact, and it is being shared widely on social media. But does an image like this actually change Western perception of the crisis in Syria? It's been almost two years since we first began seeing striking images from Homs after heavy government shelling, for example, and almost a year since we saw the videos showing the truly horrific aftermath of an alleged government gas attack. The Syrian conflict has lasted almost three years, but broader public interest, not to mention the possibility for intervention, appear to have waned over the years (the September Post-ABC poll saw Americans split on whether America’s vital interests are at stake in Syria by 45 to 48 percent).

Instead, the release of the image seems designed to apply pressure to the Syrian government, who many Western leaders have accused of deliberately blocking aid to starving people. A statement on UNRWA's Web site said the agency "welcomes the support of Syrian authorities to resume distribution."

To see more about life in Yarmouk, you can watch this moving video from the BBC's Lyse Doucet, one of the few reporters who have made it into the area. UNRWA's website has also published a video that is well worth watching too:

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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Adam Taylor · February 26