The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Omran, the dazed Aleppo boy who reappeared this week, became a political pawn in Syria’s war

For a few fleeting moments, scores of people worldwide knew the face and name of the young Syrian boy in the ambulance.

They saw the gut-wrenching scene in Aleppo last August captured in a photograph and video that quickly circulated on the Internet. In it, a rescue worker carried the boy, Omran Daqneesh, out of the rubble where his house once stood, plopping him down on an orange seat in the back of an ambulance. With a layer of dust covering his face, arms and legs, Omran just sat there, stunned, his eyes burning into a camera.

He wiped the blood from his cheek, looked at his hand, but remained completely silent.

Omran’s look of muted shock became an international symbol of the horrors of Syria’s war, and triggered a rare level of emotion in journalists and viewers. Television news anchors fought back tears as they broadcast the video.

“We shed tears but there are no tears here,” CNN’s Kate Bolduan said in a wavering voice. “He doesn’t cry once.”

Activists and aid workers hoped the story would boost international support to help bring an end to the suffering and fighting in Syria. Syrian activists altered the photo to show the boy beside world leaders, saying Omran “has become their representative to the world.”

But as quickly as people latched on to Omran, they forgot about him. Attention moved to other viral videos, other devastating photographs.

Meanwhile, Omran’s family was stuck in a war with no end in sight, in a city recaptured by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Soon, Omran, the symbol, became Omran the political pawn. Both sides of the fighting seized on his story for their own political gain, blaming his suffering on the fault of their opponents.

And now, for the first time since his story first circulated, Omran has reappeared in interviews with broadcasters aligned with the Syrian government.

In those interviews, Omran’s father, Mohamad Kheir Daqneesh, repeatedly accused rebel parties of using his son’s images as propaganda against the government. He gave reporters a narrative seemingly promoting Assad’s agenda, conflicting with initial accounts, and spurring questions about what really took place.

It is not clear if the father spoke freely when he made these statements. Since the family is now living under government control, there is a strong likelihood these interviews may have been “coerced,” Valerie Szybala, of the independent research group Syria Institute, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“This is a government that we know arrests and tortures anyone that speaks out against it,” Szybala said.

The interviews underscore the troubles that can emerge when an ordinary person or a family becomes an international symbol. Think of Elián González, the 5-year-old who, in 1999, became the focus of an international controversy over whether he would stay in the United States with his family or return to his father in Cuba.

Initial reports suggested the airstrike that hit Omran’s house was launched by forces allied to the Assad regime. The government recaptured control of Aleppo at the end of last year after years of fighting, a victory that “dealt the heaviest blow yet to Syria’s rebels and marked the start of an endgame for the country’s bitter war,” The Washington Post’s Louisa Loveluck reported.

As the dust on an information war settles, the truth about the battle for Aleppo

Omran’s 10-year-old brother, Ali, died from wounds sustained in the same airstrike — the death marked the “devastating postscript” to Omran’s story of survival, Loveluck wrote.

Russian officials denied accusations that the airstrike on Omran’s neighborhood was carried out by Russian aircraft. Moreover, they denied that there was an airstrike at all, pointing to damages that indicated the damage must have come from a shell or gas cylinder.

And in October, Syria’s president disputed the details previously provided by rescue workers and medical personnel of what happened that night. In an interview with Swiss media, Assad lambasted the boy’s rescuers — volunteers known as the “White Helmets” — and made accusations that the images of the boy were altered.

“This is a forged picture and not a real one,” Assad said. “We have real pictures of children being harmed, but this one specifically is a forged one.”

In his appearances broadcast this week on Syrian, Russian, Iranian and Lebanese news networks, Omran’s smiling face was hardly recognizable. He looked like any other healthy young boy — his face brighter, his hair shorter.

“I am Omran Daqneesh,” he told an interviewer with a Russian news outlet. “I am 4 years old.”

Last year, it was reported that Omran was 5. His age was just one of the new pieces of information that changed from the initial accounts of his story.

Mohamad Kheir Daqneesh, the father, said in the latest interviews that he did not hear an airplane before his house was struck. He claimed media outlets in Turkey, Europe and the U.S. offered to pay the family for interviews and asked him to bad-mouth the Syrian government, but he refused.

Members of the media allegedly “offered housing in Turkey and the United States and Britain in exchange to leave Aleppo, but I refused. I am the son of this city,” the father told Lebanon’s Al Mayadeen News.

“The child — thank God — is all right,” Daqneesh said. But some media outlets reported falsely in the aftermath of that night in August that Omran had died.

“They still trade in his blood,” Daqneesh said. “He’s been killed several times and then revived in the media.”

The father told Kinana Allouche, a reporter for a pro-government Syrian broadcaster, that at one point he called his son by a different name and cut his hair to protect his identity. He accused opposition groups of threatening the family and feared the boy would be kidnapped.

Allouche posted pictures and a video of the interview on Facebook. The same reporter once posted a selfie with the dead bodies of opposition fighters, the Guardian noted.

الطفل عمران يكشف زيف التضليل الاعلامي لقنوات سفك الدم السوري ..على قناة #سما _الفضائية

Posted by ‎Kinana Allouche كنانة علوش‎ on Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Syrian and Russian broadcasters latched onto the narrative that Omran’s story was used as propaganda against the government. The Russian news outlet Sputnik News wrote in its story: “One can only hope that the Syrian militant groups won’t use the suffering of more Syrian children as mere ammo in their ongoing efforts to topple the country’s government.”

Fares Shehabi, a member of the Syrian parliament for Aleppo, used even stronger language, tweeting: “Remember Omran?! His family tells the true story of an Aleppo boy abused by western media presstitutes for political propaganda!”

Daqneesh accused “insurgents” of filming his children while the father was still in the house, helping other members of the family out of the rubble.

“They took him to the hospital just to film him,” Daqneesh alleged. “I was busy saving my family, while they seized the opportunity and filmed my family.”

It is unclear who initiated these interviews with the family, who declined to speak to the media when the story first broke. But what is clear is that the family remained in their home in Aleppo — under the control of the Assad regime — as the war continued to drag on across their country.

“This is the country we have lived in all our lives, and the children have the right to come back here,” Daqneesh said in an interview. “This is everything we know.”

Louisa Loveluck in Beirut contributed to this report. 

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