UNICEF has announced their photo of the year, part of a set by Niclas Hammarström about Syrian children caught in a warzone. Hammarström quit news photography for a decade- his return as a freelancer matched the breakout of civil war in Syria. It is good to have him be able to bring such haunting portraits to us.
All aspects of the Syrian conflict are terrible- the shooting of unarmed protestors, the shelling of civilian centers, the millions of refugees fleeing to countries that want nothing to do with them, the civil wars among the “rebels” themselves, the use of violence to make religious and political statements.
It makes sense to become acclimated, to see this as just more torture, more murder, more war. But that is an injustice to those that suffer and die. Be horrified, be disgusted. It’s how things get changed.
Few Americans have to directly confront the horrors of war. Soldiers, charity workers, contractors. The scars follow these people back, as we see so many soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and commit suicide at an alarming rate. Most of us have the luxury, the fantasy of detachment. How many people have truly thought about and comprehended the civilian death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan? How many treat that number as an essential concern?
This is what a photographer helps. They photograph people, and through them their stories. The first photo in this story- that girl has a name. Dania Kilsi. People love her. Or they once did- before they died. Her injuries were not severe but they were preventable. And for every Dania Kilsi that lived there are those that died- and they had names and lives too. The hospital she and hundreds of others were treated at that day was later destroyed. This picture cannot be replicated, because the reality now is even worse.
I am not a pie-in-the-sky pacifist. And I know that this civil war- this senseless, stagnant butchery- is not just about the factions of the Levant and the innocent people who were dragged into slaughter by their hatred. It’s about all of us. The reason Bashar al-Assad gained power, stayed in power, was able to use heavy arms and chemical weapons- this comes back to countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China. There is seldom a conflict that does not at some point lead up to the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Part of the same international organization as UNICEF, who selected these pictures to show to the world. “It’s not my fight” is just wishful thinking. That doesn’t mean arming the various rebel groups to the teeth. But if war came to where we live, the places we travel, where friends we keep from all over the world live- we’d be appalled if those with the power to help said it wasn’t their fight.
Syria and similar conflicts should rip out a piece of our soul and make us hurt. Because that kind of hurt can only be stopped by getting that piece back- by regaining the empathy and compassion we need.