Bana Alabed is seven, and she likes Harry Potter. She has also gone to bed every night for the past few months wondering if she will wake up alive. Five days ago, her family fled her neighbourhood as pro-Assad forces moved in. The home she moved to was hit by a rocket. On Monday her mother, Fatemah, tweeted: “I am very sad no one is helping us in this world, no one is evacuating me & my daughter. Goodbye.”
The Assad regime would like you to believe that everyone left in eastern Aleppo is a terrorist. But we know enough about what is happening in Aleppo to act. We know, not just from the news reports, and the drone footage, and the human rights briefings, but from the daily trickle of reports from citizen reporters under siege.
— Bana Alabed (@AlabedBana) November 17, 2016
Even accounting for rebel counter-propaganda, we have enough video footage and individual accounts to know that the bombing is indiscriminate, that it destroys whole apartment blocks from the air, and kills medics attending to the wounded.
Journalists like Waad al-Kateab, who made award-winning films for Channel 4, and Salah al-Ashkar, have been reporting for months. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, it is possible for journalists sitting in centrally-heated offices in London and New York to ask their counterparts under siege questions, and get an answer in days, or even hours.
In October, the photographer Thaer Mohammad wrote to me describing civilians trapped under rubble, air strikes on hospitals and a lack of medicine, food or baby milk. “The regime is trying to cut all sources of life in besieged Aleppo,” he wrote.
The regime would like us to believe that those who stay in eastern Aleppo have chosen death, but that choice may have been taken away from them a long time ago. We know this too. In his message to me, Mohammad told me the regime arrested him for eight months because he was organising protests and sharing images on social media.
The Assad regime’s intolerance of free speech does not stop there. The family of Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times foreign correspondent killed in Homs, has accused it of deliberately tracking and targeting her.
As citizen journalists have created their own outlets, a strange online community of concerned humans has emerged. Alabed’s tweets are retweeted thousands of times by well-wishers. JK Rowling sent her e-books of the complete Harry Potter series. Pro-Assad Twitter trolls have attempted to steal her identity.
Meanwhile, in the growing Syrian diaspora, stories are shared through outlets like the grassroots radio SouriaLi, and Humans of Syria. Syrians living in exile receive private messages from friends and family. One Syrian refugee in the UK wrote to me to highlight the plight of his family in western, regime-controlled Aleppo, where civilians have had to bear the rebels’ counter attack. “I can talk about both sides of the poor Aleppo city and the kind people who lived/are still living there,” he wrote. “But I just want to highlight that the main casualties here are civilians.”
We live in a world that can read instant messages from a warzone (imagine if Londoners in 1940 were live-tweeting the Blitz). And yet that same world does not seem to have figured out what to do about this information. We know what is happening to these people, and we can guess at the fate that awaits them.
The inertia of the Twittersphere is repeated on the world stage. Haid Haid, a Syrian columnist and Associate Fellow at Chatham House described the international community’s public condemnations of mass violence as “toothless”.
The regime, he points out, only responded to Western demands when the US threatened airstrikes. “The lesson learned here is clear,” he said. “Only strong enforcement mechanisms and real pressure could force Assad to change his behaviour.” At the end of the day (and that end is rapidly approaching in Aleppo), the old-fashioned practice of 650 MPs making a judgement call is more influential than thousands of clicktivists.
Meanwhile, the besieged of eastern Aleppo keep tweeting. A Syrian activist who calls himself Mr Alhamdo tweeted about how he feared for his daughter’s life, but how he couldn’t seek protection in a regime-held area, because “I am speaking out, and that is a crime”.
Understand this. I can’t simply surrender and being captive. I am speaking out and this is a crime. I might then ask death and not got it.
— @Mr.Alhamdo (@Mr_Alhamdo) December 12, 2016
One young woman from Georgia, USA replied: “I’m so sorry we couldn’t stop this.” A mother from England responded: “I understand your call and I wish we could save your daughter.”
Mr Alhamdo ended with what, at time of writing, was his last tweet: “Thanks for everything. We shared many moments. The last tweets were from an emotional father. Farewell.”