Syrian teen's war selfies draw attention and criticism

Selfies said to be taken by a 15-year-old Syrian teenager in the heavily bombarded Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta have provoked strong reactions. Some see them as testimonies to the horrors of the war, others see them as an act of resistance.

Youtube screengrab | Muhammad Najem in a video posted on January 2, 2018.

In a video posted on January 2, 2018, the boy stares silently into the camera. Behind him, a plume of smoke rises over ruined buildings. He doesn’t speak, but sirens and what sounds like a child crying can be heard in the background. After a minute, he too, turns to observe the scene before fixing his eyes again on the viewer. He is both subject and documentarian, and he is calling to “#BreakGhoutaSiege”.

The author, Muhammad Najem, describes himself as a 15-year-old Syrian living in Eastern Ghouta, the rebel enclave near Damascus, which has suffered near constant bombardment by Syrian and Russian jets.

In other videos, the teenager, always facing the camera, speaks in broken English over the sounds of war: “We are killed by your silence,” he says in one. “(Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, and (Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei killed our childhood.”

Sometimes he is accompanied by other children, but in almost all the tweets he appeals to the world to bear witness and to do something. “What is the world, which can send machines to (Mars) and can’t do anything to stop killing people,” he asks in a post pinned to his profile.

The messages are troubling, not just because of Najem’s youth, but because of the contrast between the subject war and the form the selfie.

Not journalism

In one of the videos, Najem says he wants to become a reporter “when I am grown up”. But for Franco-American journalist Jonathan Alpeyrie, who covered the Syrian conflict (in 2013, he was held captive by an Islamist group for 81 days), “a journalist shouldn’t be seen… Otherwise he becomes the subject,” he told FRANCE 24.

To Alpeyrie, the teenager is more activist than journalist. “He is hostile to Bashar al-Assad but the role of the press isn’t to take a stance.” In another video, Najem calls what’s happening in Syria a “genocide”, a term that strikes Alpeyrie as inappropriate: “Every war has its context. There was a genocide in Rwanda. We can’t say the same for Syria.”

Although several news outlets have relayed the teenager’s testimony, Alpeyrie thinks it’s dangerous to do so: “We can’t confirm the provenance of these videos. He says that he’s filming in Eastern Ghouta, but we don’t know anything.”

American television station CNN published a video called “Eastern Ghouta's 15-year-old war reporter”, with a disclaimer buried discreetly in the linked article: “CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of these videos.” Alpeyrie says he saw similar aberrations while covering the conflict in the Ukraine, when the international media did not have enough reporters on the ground. They relied instead on social media posts and ended up exaggerating the extent of the fighting.

The phenomenon of war-zone selfies “is not new”, said Alpeyrie, who described seeing “soldiers taking selfies during combat to send to their friends afterwards” in Ukraine and in Iraq at the battle of Mosul.

The selfie as an act of resistance?

The Eastern Ghouta region, home to an estimated 393,000 people according to the UN, has been under siege since April 2013. Najem is not the first to take to Twitter to call attention to the plight of civilians in Syria. In the fall of 2016, Bana al-Abed, then 7 years old, attracted thousands of followers when she began tweeting with the help of her mother about her life in Aleppo, where her family struggled to survive during the siege.

But she faced intense criticism, even after many of her photos and videos were verified and her story corroborated by other residents. Some doubted she was in Aleppo at all, others suggested she was being used as a propaganda tool to push the rebel agenda. At the time, Aleppo was sealed off to Western journalists and there was no way to verify the details of her story. Still, her mother Fatemah defended her decision to open the account. “We decided to go to Twitter because of direct access to the world,” she told the New York Times in October, saying that she wanted to raise awareness about their hardships in Syria.

“The question of sincerity is central” to this story, as it is in the digital world in general, Elsa Godart, professor of philosophy and psychoanalysis and author of "Je selfie donc je suis" (a play on “I think, therefore I am”) told FRANCE 24.

If a teenager is behind the account, his reliance on the selfie can have different motivations, said Godart. In the worst situation, aside from manipulation: “We can envision an extreme narcissism, where one plays on a tragic event under the sympathetic guise of defending humanity.”

And if we assume that the gesture is real and sincere on the part of an adolescent on the ground? “Then this could be just as it appears: a selfie as an act of resistance. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei documented his 2009 arrest with a selfie that he later exhibited as a work of art,” said Godart.

To her, the selfie taken at war is similar: “It denounces something extraordinary. It is a testimony of something that one feels a duty to report. ‘I am attacked, and here is the photographic evidence.’”

Undoubtedly, she said, this use of a selfie by a Syrian teen raises questions about generation gaps and globalisation.

But she would like to interpret it as simply “a child calling to the world, ‘Wake up, we are dying!’”

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