Every morning, after the children go to school, I turn on my computer to check that Bana Alabed is alive and unharmed. I do the same at night. I have never met Bana. She is a sweet-faced, skinny seven-year-old girl who tweets from rebel-held east Aleppo with the help of her mother, Fatemah, an English teacher. Last weekend, as the Syrian government, Russian and Hezbollah forces took over north-eastern Aleppo amid heavy bombardments, Bana tweeted: ‘Tonight we have no house. It’s bombed and I got in rubble. I saw deaths and nearly died.’ As she and her family contemplated their rapidly narrowing options, Bana wrote to her escalating number of followers: ‘I want to live, I don’t want to die.’
At first Bana’s account showed her daily life with her mother and two younger brothers in Aleppo’s al-Shaar district. At home Bana was often reading or writing, or appearing in short videos in which, in her endearing sing-song English, she thanked Twitter friends for their good wishes. The next tweet, however, might show a nearby explosion or its catastrophic aftermath. Recently Fatemah tweeted the author J.K. Rowling, asking how Bana could read the Harry Potter books. Rowling sent them in e-book form, and Bana responded with a picture of herself holding up a hand-drawn thank-you sign.
Bana is good at making signs. In one video, she walked down a former street, now piled high with grey-white rubble and twisted metal, and held up a multicoloured placard saying: ‘Stand With Aleppo. Please Stop The Bombing And End The Siege.’ Twitter followers can send emojis, prayers and exhort Bana to take care, whatever ‘care’ might mean in the circumstances. But they cannot protect her. Following Bana is an exercise in powerlessness.
From 2012 until last weekend, Aleppo had been divided between the regime-held west and the rebel-held east, which became fully encircled. The last stocks of food and medicines in the east were running out, and all the hospitals had been bombed to destruction. The rumour mill said that the assorted east Aleppo rebel groups, ranging from the more moderate Free Syrian Army to factions linked to al-Qaeda, were stopping civilians from leaving to regime territory, or that civilians were frozen from terror of what horrors await them among regime forces. The two explanations, of course, need not be wholly exclusive. David Nott, a British surgeon who has worked in Aleppo, said that his doctor friends there no longer talk to the media, feeling that the suffering has become ‘a spectator sport’.
Last week I checked Bana’s account and there was a picture of a young girl, dead. Bana wrote: ‘This is my friend killed in a bomb tonight.’ It’s the details that land the punch to the gut: in this case, the pink sweater dotted with sparkly bits that the girl had put on that morning, the precious little choices that can never be made again.
It feels shameful to gaze at such an image from a place of safety and equally crass to look quickly away. Once, it would have been decorously kept from the pages of newspapers, or published only after a long and impassioned discussion. Now, a dead child can pop up on Twitter, unannounced and unmediated. The interpreters of good taste have lost their power to fence off the slaughter.
Western journalists, too, have shrunk from Syria’s devouring chaos: some, such as Marie Colvin, died trying to tell its story. It falls to trapped citizens and local freelance journalists to get the word out, and (subject to erratic phone or internet connections) they can do so almost in real time. In the thick of carnage, they understandably see no reason to spare our distant sensibilities. There is footage from Aleppo of a small boy being dug out of rubble, still alive but with the back of his head sheared off. Why shouldn’t the world be shocked? Is this not shocking?
Pro-regime critics acknowledge that Bana exists, but argue that she is a social media puppet controlled by jihadis, and that her western followers are dupes. The PR war has gone right to the top. President Assad, asked by a Danish journalist if he trusted Bana as a source, said: ‘You cannot build your political position or stand, let’s say, according to a video promoted by terrorists or their supporters.’ He continued: ‘In some areas, the terrorists use the civilians as a human shield, but we have to do our job to liberate them.’ And: ‘You always have mistakes, committed by anyone — but this is not policy — and you always have innocent victims of that war.’
In a few phrases Assad introduced multiple views of a seven-year-old girl: a potential terrorist propaganda vehicle, a hostage and an innocent victim. Yet his and Putin’s prescription for all categories has been exactly the same: a deluge of bombs and chlorine gas on civilian areas which has been vociferously condemned by human rights organisations. Indeed, perhaps emboldened by the overtures of President-elect Trump, Putin intensified the bombardment in the aftermath of the US election. His model seemed to be Russia’s destruction of Grozny, which in 2003 the UN called the ‘most destroyed city on earth’.
A Twitter account called Banana Alabed, which ridicules that of Bana, conflates her with Anne Frank, dubbing both girls fakes. Yet it is interesting that, even in this callous worldview, the link is made between the two. For Bana, even though openly assisted by her mother, does indeed remind us of what Frank reminded us: that the deliberate destruction of children and their joyous possibility is a profound obscenity even in time of war.
Her repeated message has been simple: stop bombing civilians, stop denying food and medicine. It carries above the tangled factions of Syria. Bana Alabed is not more important than the other children of Syria — including, too, those endangered or killed by Islamist extremists — but she represents them, as one whose voice has travelled beyond the country’s borders. At the time the wider world didn’t know about Frank, writing in secret from her hiding place. But we do know about Bana, and the important thing to remember is that Bana doesn’t want to be our new Anne Frank. What Bana really wants is to stay alive.