On Sunday, the Twitter account @HowManySyrians or "How Many More" tweeted a name: Ayham Ahmad al-Hariri. The account said that Hariri, a man from the southwestern Syrian city of Daraa, was shot dead on March 18, 2011.
Hariri wasn't a famous man, but his death is noteworthy. Back in 2011, anti-government demonstrations had begun to spread across Syria. After children were arrested for spray-painting anti-government slogans, Daraa became an epicenter of protests: As CNN would later put it, the southwestern city would come to be considered the "spark to light the flame." On Friday, March 18, protesters were holding a "Day of Dignity" in Daraa. According to reports at the time, at least three people were shot and killed by security forces.
Hariri's name wasn't mentioned in reports at the time -- even now, after his death, he's not well-known. But his name was recorded by the Violation Documentation Center in Syria, an independent group dedicated to monitoring human rights violations in the country. On a stark Web page run by the group, the basic elements of Hariri's life and death are collected, and the page includes a link to a video that appears to show his dying moments.
Hariri's death came just days after what is generally believed to be the start of the Syrian war -- Tuesday, March 15, 2011, a "day of rage" marked by hundreds protest in Damascus and Aleppo. In the four years after that date, what began as simple protests has turned into a true civil war, with government atrocities and religious extremism tearing Syria apart. In hindsight, the deaths on March 18, 2011, were just the start of the violence.
Now, as we enter the fifth year of the Syrian conflict, Hariri is just one name out of thousands. "How Many More" is attempting to tweet as many of them as possible. Every half a minute or so, a new name is tweeted from @HowManySyrians with information about how that person died. At the moment, almost 10,000 names have been tweeted, and eventually more than 100,000 names will appear. On Wednesday, campaigners appeared outside the White House to read the names aloud, continuing a similar event from last year.
Counting the dead in Syria is an inevitably political task. According to Middle East Eye, How Many Syrians is getting its names from the Syria-based VDC and cross-checking them with the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). These are some of the best sources for accounting for the dead in Syria, but in such a chaotic situation, all estimates are imperfect.
At the beginning of 2014, for example, the United Nations announced that it would not be updating its death tolls anymore. It later reversed that decision but announced that its new figures were “indicative” rather than “gospel truth." In the void left by official bodies, efforts from activists took their place. In particular, SOHR became a well-known but controversial source of information, in part due to a lack of transparency about methodology.
To SOHR, 100,000 would be an extremely low estimate. Last year, it announced that it had documented the killing of more than 200,000 people. In a phone call with The Post in December, the SOHR director, who used the pseudonym Rami Abdulrahman, said he believed that the real number was something like 280,000 but that he could not confirm it. At the time, the VDC said it did not dispute the higher numbers from groups such as SOHR but that its own criteria are stricter: Importantly, it requires the name of every person listed as killed. Its death count currently stands at 113,249.
Whatever way the dead are counted, they are too many. “It takes three seconds to say 200,000 people have died in Syria, but it will take 40 days to tweet half their names; 5 days to read their names,” Lina Sergie Attar, one of the leaders of "How Many More" and co-founder of the nonprofit Karam Foundation, told the Huffington Post this week. That's a huge amount of time for a huge number of names. And tragically, counting the full death toll of Syria's conflict would take far longer -- and it might, quite simply, be impossible.
"How many Syrians must continue to die because of the world's hypocrisy?" @HowManySyrians tweeted on Friday, before adding a hashtag #HowManyMore? The implication is not only how much longer will the world allow this to happen -- but how many other Ayham Ahmad al-Hariris are there out there ? The likelihood is we'll never know.