The Times says Assad's snipers target unborn babies: but is this horrifying photo real?

Experts have raised doubts over a shocking image, used by the Times, purporting to show a foetus which has been shot in the womb.

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.

 

 

An image of an X-ray used by the Times, provided by the NGO Syria Relief, who say it shows an unborn baby that has been shot in the head. Image taken from Syria Relief's website.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
Show Hide image

Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.