The Chemical Massacre in Eastern Ghouta: The Distance Between the Images and the Victims

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Map of Damascus and Ghouta showing the location of Moaddamiya, Zamalka and Ain Tarma (source: Google Earth; Syrian Ministry of Agriculture)

On the 21st of August 2013, the Ghouta area of Damascus was shelled with rockets containing sarin gas, according to the United Nations report published on 16 September 2013. The estimated number of victims of the massacre range between 281 according to the French authorities statement, to 1729 according to Free Syrian Army sources. Until now, there is no clear account of the number of victims, and since then, most discussions are centered around whose responsibility, which weapons were used or the legal status of the attack. The victims and the death toll were swiftly pushed to the background, almost forgotten, aside from some inconclusive lists of names, and hundreds of photos and videos in the archives. These photos that were widely circulated and published last year hold something in common, beside the sarin: They show anonymous victims.

Did anyone wondered why the victims in photos coming from Syria, or from third world countries in general, are nameless? Why there is no effort ever invested in identifying them? why there is a distanciation between the viewer/reader and the victims in the photos?

In Autumn 2013, i wrote an article in Arabic for al-Manshour trying to address these issues, first, by identifying the victims in one photo, and second, by tracing the life and death of a little girl who was killed in the attacks. What follows is the English translation … so as not to forget:

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From the early hours of 21 August 2013, photos and videos started to emerge purportedly showing the victims of the chemical strike in Ghouta, Syria. Amid the flood of visuals, precise information were scarce. All that was known, is that the Syrian Regime used chemical weapons in Ghouta, and the images of victims. In parallel, some syrian websites began to publish lists of the victims’ names. But who are the victims in these photos?

Since the first months of the Syrian revolution, several activists and organisations began documenting martyrs names. However the association between the names and images is still significantly lacking. Add to it that Arab medias rarely add captions to the pictures, while Western media often accompanied the pictures with general or ambiguous comments.

The following is a modest attempt and tribute to the victims of the chemical attacks, through the identification of some of the victims apparent in two widely circulated and published photos.

“bodies of boys and men lined up on the ground”

Ihsan

(photo: Muhammad al-Abdallah)

That is what most media agencies wrote as a caption for this photo. Some added that it was in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus. The victims in this photo also appear in other photos or videos. Through comparing the names of the victims with the records of the Violations Documentation Center in Syria it turns out that the photo was taken at al-Ihsan Hospital in Hammouriya, where bodies of anonymous victims were laid down in the ground floor of the hospital. For every victim, a number was assigned, and stuck on the forehead. In this photo, bodies were lined numerically, from number 83 (at the top left corner of the photo) to number 98 (at the bottom of the photo). The victim numbered 89 does not exist in the photo. Relatives of the victims were checking the bodies to identify them, and some were identified that way. They are:

Muwaffaq Suleiman (83) known as Abu Fahd, from Zamalka; Ghayyath al-Dabbas (84) known as Abu Wael, from Zamalka; Toufiq al-Ghosh (85) known as Abu Fahd, from Zamalka; Muhammad al-Dallal (93) known as Abu Talal; Ayman al-Dahla (98), the son of Abu Mazen al-Dahla, and he is from Zamalka.

As for the rest, their photos were posted on the facebook page “Anonymous Missing and Martyrs in Damascus and its Countryside,”[1] and were shared on other facebook pages. This process led to their identification, and they are:

Khaled al-Issa (86), the son of Faisal al-Issa, from Zamalka; Samir al-Khatib (87) known as Abu Ali, and a resident of Zayniya; Dhaher Abu Zeid (88) a palestinian refugee; Ahmad al-Hati (90) known as Abu Oussama al-Erbini; Muhammad Suleiman (91) known as Abu al-Kheir; Adnan al-Tary (92) from Zamalka, the son of Ali al-Tary, and he was buried in the cemetery of Ain Tarma al-Jadida; Samer al-Hayek (94) a resident of Zayniya, the son of Abdullah al-Hayek, and he was buried in Hammouriya; Soubhi al-Khatib (95); Samer Rahmeh (96); Ahmad Ourfali (97) known as Abu al-Layl, and he is from Zamalka.

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The names and pictures of the victims in the photo “bodies of boys and men lined up on the ground”
(Click on the image for a larger view)

The girl in the purple t-shirt

The second picture shows a man holding a child, a girl. Her purple t-shirt is pulled up, her mouth is slightly open, and her hair is wet and messy. She seems like sleeping, but she is dead.

fatima

(photo: Diaa al-Din)

Most media agencies copied Reuters caption: “A man reacts as he holds the body of a girl.” AFP added in the caption that it is at a makeshift morgue in Eastern Ghouta. At the same time this photo was taken, a video was shot, and was later uploaded and viewed widely on YouTube, on some instance under the title, “Syrian Father crying over his children who were killed in the chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta”:

In the video, the man addresses the camera while holding the girl in the purple t-shirt:

O Arab countries. O United Nations. For god’s sakes. Children. You haven’t seen anything. By chemicals … Do you know what they said before they slept? You killed them Bashar, you killed them twice. Death by chemicals. And before they slept, this girl came.

And he points to a girl in a yellow t-shirt, laid on the floor, and continues:

This girl. she said, “Dad,” before … she put the food for her. This girl. She told me before: “Dad,” today is not my turn to eat its the turn of my siblings. From the siege, from the bread, and the food, and the hunger. What should we do, O good people? Look, look, look. Look at this face. By Chemicals? By Chemicals?

Note that the BBC published a photo of the girl in the yellow t-shirt, showing her receiving medical treatment. The caption said: “Children are among those clearly in distress.”

I managed to interview one of their relatives.[2]

The girl in the purple t-shirt is called Fatima Ghorra, three years old. The girl in the yellow t-shirt is her sister, Hiba Ghorra, four years old. The man is their maternal grandfather, Abu Hamza al-Sheikh. Their father is Nabil Ghorra, a medical doctor, and their mother is from al-Sheikh family. Fatima and Hiba have three sisters and one brother: Battoul, 16 years old, Rama, 15 years old, Muhammad, 12 years old, and Dania, 9 years old. Ghorra family resided in Zamalka. Nearly one year ago, the parents forbade their kids going to school, especially after some pro-regime teacher began showing up to school with their guns, and questioning 12 year old children on their political affiliations. Since then, the children spent most of their time indoor. In moments of intensified shelling, parents tried to calm down their kids either by lying on them or by holding them. At the beginning of this year, and due to escalating clashes and shellings, Ghorra family moved to the nearby town of Hazzeh, to return to Zamalka couple of months ago, but to a new apartment in Zayniya neighbourhood.

On the 21st of August 2013, at dawn, around eight shells fell on Zamalka, Ain Tarma, and Hazzeh. What followed was a scene of chaos. The ghorra family was dispersed. Abu Hamza al-Sheikh arrived with Fatima and Hiba to the field hospital in Erbine. Fatima and Hiba died, as well as their sisters Rama and Dania. Their father, Nabil, was at first listed among the victims, but was later found in another field hospital, receiving medical treatment. Their brother, Muhammad, was still missing at the time of the interview.

Paradoxically, we know more of Fatima and Hiba’s death than their lifes. Several Youtube videos document chronologically their last hours, at the Erbine field hospital (the videos In chronological order: Video1, Video2, Video3, Video4, Video5, Video6 and Video7):

Fatima laying on a hospital gurney, in the field hospital in Erbine, which is located in the basement of one of the buildings. The room where she is in started to be filled with injured and dead bodies. Her hair and clothes are wet. Her lips have the same colour of her t-shirt, purple. A paramedic placed an assisted breathing device on her face, attempting to resuscitate her. The medic went to give medical treatment to Hiba, who is on an adjacent bed. Fatima is still lying on the gurney, around her three syringes and several empty syringe envelopes. In the ground floor of the hospital, the process of assembling and lining the bodies has begun.

34 steps separates the basement from the ground floor, Abu Hamza al-Sheikh climbed them holding Fatima in his hands. He went to put her on the floor next to Hiba. Few cameras were waiting for him. He addressed the cameras. He put Fatima next to Hiba, and gently passed his hand over their heads.

The number of victims increased. Children were assembled and lined separately from adults. Fatima, Hiba, and the children next to them were covered with a black sheet. Abu Hamza is still next to Fatima and Hiba, getting more angry and rage, while some were trying to calm him down. As temperature rose on a hot august day, ice bricks were placed on the bodies.

It is the last picture of Fatima and Hiba. The two girls covered with a black sheet, surrounded by children of the same age. Ice bricks placed on their necks and bodies. Fatima, with her face towards the ceiling, and Hiba, her head leaning towards Fatima.

Zamalka’s graveyards could not accommodate all its residents’ bodies. The Ghorra girls were buried in a mass grave in the town of Saqba.

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The last picture of Fatima and Hiba Ghorra. (photo: Diaa al-Din)

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Mapping the movement of Ghorra family in 2013, and the direction of evacuation of the chemical attack victims (In addition to the existing sources in the text: the main victims evacuation directions were identified through the records of the VDC; the approximate areas of combat through this article; the approximate location of strikes through these two links.)
(Click on the image for a larger view)

 

Between the images and the victims

In an article in the Washington post, titled “Why Syria’s images of suffering haven’t moved us,” Philip Kennicott wrote:

Images of dead children are so excruciating that we are now well-trained to short-circuit our emotional responses, to move from horror to suspicion to indifference.

He continues:

The one consistent fact about the horrifying images that have come out of Syria over the past 21/2 years is that in many cases, we don’t know who made them and what they depict. All we see are decontextualized cruelty and misery. Cynicism creeps in, and there is a natural tendency to push the images away as a kind of insoluble puzzle.

Thus, and so as the images of victims from Syrian does not turn into an ordinariness in our life, a routine we are trying to evade, an insoluble puzzle, and so as not all images became entangled in similarity, we have to mention their names, to tell their stories, to resuscitate life, at least, in the pictures.

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1.  On 17 September 2013, Facebook deactivated the page of “Anonymous Missing and Martyrs in Damascus and its Countryside” : www.facebook.com/MissingAndMartyrs1; Their backup page is: www.facebook.com/MissingAndMartyrs111.

2. He was reached on one of Zamalka’s Facebook pages. He preferred to stay anonymous. The interview was conducted via Skype on 26 August 2013.

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Note:

Since Autumn 2013, Facebook has been deactivating pages related to Syria, as it is the case with the page “Anonymous Missing and Martyrs in Damascus and its Countryside.” For this reason, several links related to this research might not be reached.

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Co-researcher: Emily Dische-Becker.

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Follow me on Twitter: @hisham_ashkar

Like on/off … but mostly off page on Facebook.

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