The harrowing farewell message came Sunday, just three short sentences.
“We are sure the army is capturing us now. We will see each other another day dear world. Bye.”
It was signed “Fatemah,” the mother of Bana al-Abed, a 7-year-old Syrian girl who amassed more than 200,000 Twitter followers as she and her family have documented their struggle to survive in war-ravaged Aleppo. Fatemah indicated that the Syrian army was closing in on the rebel-held neighborhood where her family had fled after their house was destroyed last week in a bombing.
And then, Bana’s Twitter account was abruptly deleted.
Her mother started the Twitter account in late September, and Bana — a petite child with long dark hair, big brown eyes and a lilting voice — quickly became the newest symbol for the horrors unfolding in Syria. She shared her fear of the nightly bombings, tweeted photos of obliterated buildings and chronicled the quiet moments spent with her little siblings. Social-media users and international media outlets quickly took notice.
More than seventy years after a Dutch teenager penned the diary chronicling her family’s life hiding from the Nazis, Bana has become the Anne Frank of the Syrian civil war — except this time, the world is watching the story unfold in the present, moment to moment, with no sense of how it will end.
On Oct. 4, she stood beside a garden piled with rubble. “This is our bombed garden. I use to play on it, now nowhere to play,” she said.
On Oct. 14, she sat with one of her two little brothers on the floor of their home, scrawling words in blank notebooks. “We are writing to forget the war,” she tweeted.
Four days later, she stood in the middle of a ruined street, holding her arms up to the sky, grinning in her white hooded sweatshirt. “I am very happy because it’s raining,” she wrote.
On Nov. 30, it was her mother again signing the tweet, in a message addressed to President Obama: “We are a family suffering along with many others in East Aleppo. Any help to get us far away from the battlefield?”
Here’s what we know about Bana:
She misses school. She dreams of being a teacher someday, like her mother, whose English-language skills helped make the family’s Twitter feed popular in the United States and other Western nations.
She would love to write a book.
She recently lost a baby tooth, which she held up to the camera, grinning. “The tooth fairy is afraid of the bombing here, it run away to its hole,” she wrote. “When the war finishes, it will come.”
She has also lost friends. “This is my friend house bombed, she’s killed,” she tweeted in late September, alongside a photo of a demolished home. “I miss her so much.”
She loves reading. Thanks to Twitter, she connected with blockbuster author J.K. Rowling, who sent the girl digital copies of her Harry Potter books.
And she is, by all accounts, real.
A decade into the social-media revolution, there’s a natural skepticism around personalities that seem perhaps too compelling online: How much have they curated their lives for us? Do they even exist at all? A handful of journalists have made contact with the family; in October, NBC filmed them in Aleppo, and Bana and her mother did a video chat with the BBC. Fatemah maintained that they were not part of a charity or political group’s media outreach, just a regular family trapped in a war zone.
Not everyone is receptive to the message. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who previously denied the existence of Omran Daqneesh — the traumatized little boy filmed as he sat in an ambulance, caked in blood and dust after a bombing that killed his brother, an image that went viral — recently told a Danish journalist that Bana’s Twitter account is a similar media-fed lie. “It’s a game now,” Assad scoffed. “It’s a game of propaganda.”
On Twitter and in interviews with journalists, Fatemah has explained that the family uses a cellphone and a solar-powered charger to send sporadic transmissions. The tweets are re-tweeted thousands of times, and responses pour in from across the world — France, Scotland, the United States, Australia, Peru.
We are praying for you.
Stay safe, little one.
Oh God!!! Save her and her family!
So when Bana’s online presence vanished Sunday, her followers tweeted anxiously under the hashtag #WhereIsBana.
Was this the end of her story? What could be done to help her? There was a sense of urgency and helplessness. Then, Monday afternoon, the account suddenly reappeared, posting another dire message: “Under attack. Nowhere to go, every minute feels like death,” Fatemah tweeted. “Pray for us.” They were alive; their story continued.
It wasn’t the first time the family had tweeted from the brink. “Dear world, we are dying,” Fatemah wrote Oct. 24, appended to a video of a black sky reverberating with explosions. “Last message — under heavy bombardments now, can’t be alive anymore,” she tweeted Nov. 27. “When we die, keep talking for 200,000 still inside.”
Anne Frank was already gone by the time she became famous, and she never could have known that tens of millions would read her diary. But Bana, her mother has told journalists, always understood that strangers were following her words. Her messages aren’t private musings, but a public cry for help. We see her, right there, in real time, standing near a window in a seconds-long video posted to Twitter in October. She stares out over a dark city as bombs thunder in the distance.
“Hello world, you hear that?” she chirps. Her shoulders are draped in a baggy green sweatshirt, her fingers plugging her ears. With every blast, her little body cringes.
That was before her home was destroyed, before she got sick, before her family was on the run, before her Twitter account was deleted for unknown reasons and then restored.
On Tuesday morning, another message arrived from Aleppo, more hopeful this time: “Hello my friends, how are you? I am fine,” Bana tweeted. “I am getting better without medicine with too much bombing. I miss you.”
It was a fleeting assurance. Then hours passed, and Bana’s account was silent as her followers tweeted pleas and prayers. The world watched on screens, waiting for her name to reappear.