On Saturday, the Times published a deeply disturbing account from a British surgeon, David Nott, who volunteered in a hospital in Syria and who said that snipers had been targeting pregnant women. According to Nott, the pregnant women he saw “were all shot through the uterus, so that must have been where they were aiming for”. The article claimed that one baby had a bullet in its brain, and an X-ray image accompanying the piece appears to show a foetus with a bullet just above its eye socket.
New Statesman was a little puzzled by the image – there seemed to be no damage to the baby’s skull and no visible entry wound. So I asked Igor Sutyagin, of the Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank, to look at the image for me. Igor Sutyagin is a Research Fellow in Russia Studies at RUSI, has a physics background and researches anti-ballistic missile defence systems. He warned me that his conclusions are only tentative – he would need more time to investigate his suspicions before drawing firm conclusions. He did, however, have some doubts about the image.
Sutyagin flagged up that the bullet appeared slightly asymmetric, which “is impossible in the case of a real bullet”. Similarly “the brain is rather soft at that stage of foetus development – so it should be splashed about if bullet really strikes it [sic]” – instead the skull seems intact. He also points out that the foetus doesn’t appear to be in the right position if the X-ray was taken while the foetus was in the womb.
I called Syria Relief, the NGO that provided the Times with the photo. Yashar Kassar, the head of fundraising, said that the photo was taken in Aleppo by the Syria Relief media team that accompanied Dr Nott and others to the field hospital. “It is a real picture, taken by one of our team, and we can guarantee that,” he told me.
He added that Syria Relief also took a photo of the same baby after an operation to remove it from the mother’s womb, which he agreed to send to me. The photo is too graphic to post online, but it neither corroborates nor disproves the X-ray image above, as there is no evidence of any wound to the foetus’s forehead. It is on its side, so only the left hand side of its head is visible. There is a possibility that the bullet wound is obscured on the right-hand side of the baby’s head - although if that is the case, it would have made more sense for the photo to depict this.
There isn’t sufficient evidence to come to a decisive conclusion either way. And in any case, even if the X-ray photo is not genuine, that does not mean Dr Nott’s testimony is false. And I certainly don’t want to generate the impression that atrocities aren’t being committed in Syria – it’s indisputable that the Syrian civil war has caused immeasurable human suffering. But it’s essential that journalists don’t suspend their scepticism when presented with these emotive and disturbing images.
This is important because both the Syrian government and opposition groups have been guilty of crimes against civilians, and both are taking their battles online, keen to influence international opinion in their favour. Unpicking the truth is even harder when journalists cannot operate safely in Syria. There have already been a number of slip-ups with misused images – including in 2012 when the BBC incorrectly used an image from the Iraq war in 2003, claiming it showed the bodies of children in Houla, Syria. It's vital to act with caution.