The pictures of 5-year-old Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh sitting dazed and bloodied Wednesday in the back of an ambulance have rightly sparked worldwide anger and sympathy. We are also all perplexed by the world’s apparent unwillingness or inability to stop the mass destruction and suffering across Syria. Like the death by drowning of 3-year-old Syrian child Aylan Kurdi a year ago, this single incident captures the Syrian war’s wider circles of human suffering.There is nothing as powerful as a traumatized and helpless innocent child to evoke strong revulsion about events in Syria, or any other such conflict. We react with intense emotions and equally powerful frustration because that child could be our own son or grandson, or neighbor, or cousin – or just a fellow human being who had done no wrong, could not protect himself and fell victim to the cruelty of others.
Calls for diplomatic or military action to stop this kind of thing from recurring ring intense for a week or so, and then things more or less return to their previous wartime routine. Our great unmet challenge is how we go beyond moral and political revulsion, and take effective action that minimizes such criminal deeds, and ideally holds accountable their perpetrators. There seems little chance of that happening in this case.
The case of Omran will only add to the cycle of fear and resentment that drives the many wars in Syria, now dominated by the intense Syrian and Russian aerial attacks against rebel, terrorist and civilian targets. Families and communities that suffer such barbaric treatment always fight back, seeking to rehumanize themselves. The attack that injured Omran and his family also resulted in the death of eight civilians. Those families will do more than cry.
Perhaps dozens more have died in the days since then, and probably will continue to die at this rate for months ahead. Beyond the intense human response to the sight of Omran nonchalantly wiping the blood from his face, this incident reminds us of the routine and widespread danger, suffering, injury and death due to such atrocities that are carried out on a daily basis in Syria and elsewhere in our region.
The Arab world has become a house of horror, where the most cruel suffering and death are perpetrated by government, rebel and foreign militaries alike, on a daily basis, with no deterrence or accountability. Omran’s ordeal is that of a single child, but the intense rage it elicits across Syria and the Arab world reflects a much older, deeper and wider familiarity with the many ways that innocent Arab civilians can die in their own homes and communities. These ways to die are becoming more gruesome, and also more routine.
The day after Omran’s picture captured the hearts and conscience of the entire world, Amnesty International issued a report that documented over 17,000 deaths in Syrian government jails in the past five years. This is just one way that citizens die at the hands of their state, in just one Arab country, in just the past five years. This may be only the most extreme example of conduct that routinely happens across much of the Arab world. The deaths of prisoners from torture and other mistreatment in prison – including tortured children, such as Hamza Khatib in Syria in spring 2011 that hastened the civil uprising against the Assad government – have occurred in many Arab countries in recent decades. Particularly terrifying and often unreported episodes of prolonged, mass death and pain also have occurred in Algeria, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Libya, Morocco and other quarters of our region.
We have suffered the cases of Arab citizens who “disappear,” often after being picked up by state security agents, including hundreds in recent years in Egypt alone. New examples of criminal deeds that lead to death – by governments mostly, but also by rebels in some cases – include barrel bombs dropped from the sky, increasingly with banned phosphorous or inhuman napalm-like material that ignites and burns anything it touches, including human skin. Chemical weapons are now used with some ease in Syria, and perhaps in Iraq also, according to some reports.
Missiles are routinely fired against schools and hospitals in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, in assaults that are directly carried out or supported by the U.S., Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others. Medieval-like sieges of civilians are a recent innovation, causing death by starvation or lack of medical care. Some people die at the hands of snipers who pick them off as if they were target-shooting at a local fair. Some people lose all hope and decide to flee as refugees, and they run the risk of dying by drowning in the Mediterranean.
We are shocked by Omran’s ordeal because we are decent human beings who refuse to accept such behavior. We are also afraid because we know that we are all potential Omran Daqneeshes, Aylan Kurdis or Hamza Khatibs, and we are outraged because this possibility is primarily the consequence of our own failures in managing our countries, societies and states.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter at @RamiKhouri.