A Photographer Watched Syria's Children While Their Government Bombed Them

A young Syrian father posted a video in 2020 showing his daughter, four, laughing at the sound of incoming bombs. The video shows a strike being heard and then the little girl with the rosy cheeks, who is sitting on a couch beside her father, bursts into laughter. She squeals and says, "Yes, it's very funny!" This video shows the paradox of Syria: Despite all the destruction and suffering, life continues. Witnesses to War, The Children of Syria by Bassam Khabieh captures this poignantly.Khabieh began taking photos in 2011 when the conflict started. He didn't want to become a photographer but because he was uniquely positioned to record his community and its horrors. Khabieh, an insider whose photos were quickly distributed around the globe, became a photojournalist and refused to stop documenting his country's destruction. Khabieh took photos of his family, friends, and community during the destruction of their country by bombings and chemical attacks. He also documented the immiseration and brutal war of attrition. Khabieh's first book asks his audience to see what he saw not as a sadistic act, but rather as a call for more witnesses and more accountability. Witnesses to War asks those who open the book to look at what was done and what was lost. Khabieh stated to The Intercept that he wanted to make it clear to the world that innocent people should not be subjected to death machines for ten years without any intervention from the international community. I'm not referring to armies and fighters. I am referring to a society that was decimated by war machines such as the United States of America, France, Germany and Russia. Everyone went to Syria and began bombing everything. They didn't distinguish. There are no images of men preparing for battle; there aren't tanks rolling through the dirt or guns soaring into the sky. It is instead a record of the things that Khabieh's camera has allowed to happen in Syria to innocent children and infants.A father hugs his son as he evacuates the boy from Douma, Syria during the cease-fire in the bombing campaign on March 19, 2018. Many men had to leave their families and children after the negotiations between the government of Eastern Ghouta and the rebels. Photo by Bassam Khabieh/ReutersThe scope of the ongoing and relentless bombing of Syria cannot be captured in a single image or article. The internet became a hub for civilian-recorded footage of war, which allowed for misrepresentation, propaganda and glorifying violence. Khabiehs photographs are a different kind of document. They also aestheticize the evidence of crimes against humanity. Although Khabiehs photos document war crimes with impunity, they also show a gentleness, calm eyes, and are beautiful. We choose to look because of its beauty. Khabieh explained why he decided to concentrate the project on children. In every attack there is always a child injured. Although the violence in Syria's lands is difficult to comprehend, the regime of Syria came to help the families. Over 5 million children have been forced to flee their homes after more than 10 years' war. These numbers do not reflect the true impact of war. It causes a tremendous trauma to each individual and damages the social fabric of families and communities. Khabieh's images show the true power of the image: the individual suffering in front and the destruction of society in the background. One photograph is a slow shock. Four young children are riding on a miniature merry go-round. They seem to be distracted by popcorn and lollipops, with one girl looking fixedly past the lens. The viewer soon realizes that these children are not riding on garlanded horses, but rather on the remains of Russian bombs. Although the foreground content of army-green bombs replacing the wonder of the carousel is enough to make the impact clear, it becomes more apparent the more one looks. They aren't outdoors, but in a basement or bunker. This is where they celebrated Eid al-Adha. It is one of the most joyous and important Muslim holidays. It is hard not to think about how familiar these children must be with both unexploded ordnance and the exploding type. The sky is dangerous in Syria, Leslie Thomas writes and Amy Yenkin describes in the introduction to Witnesses To War. Khabiehs photos often show children playing. The school or play is often in the shadows of destruction. There are children playing in a bombed out bus, a girl wearing a brightly colored butterfly headband, a toddler standing on a tire, balancing in front of a bullet-damaged wall, and a eager student, missing one arm, rising from his desk. Or they are dead: their bodies are limp and wrapped in their parents' arms. Khabieh explained that this book was created to show how the war in Syria has affected a whole generation of children. Some people knew nothing but war, even though they were born and died.On the first day Eid al-Adha, a boy sits on a tire and looks out at a bullet-ridden mosque facade in Douma (Syria) on Oct. 4, 2014. Photo by Bassam Khabieh/ReutersAfter shelling in Douma, Syria on Oct. 20, 2016, a child's hand is seen. Photo by Bassam Khabieh/ReutersThe Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime, which violently retook control of large parts of the country, continues to rule the country. The country's economy is in a state that rivals that of the destroyed infrastructure. Even in areas that are not currently under direct fighting, there is always the possibility of being arrested and disappeared by the regime. This threat does not come from Assad alone or the splintered militias that are fighting against him and each other in Syria. The country continues to be used as a proxy battlefield by the United States, Russia and Iran. President Joe Biden ordered the first airstrike against Iran-backed militias. It was conducted in Syria. Biden's second strike in June saw multiple bombs of 500- and 2000-pound weight hit buildings in Syria. Again, this was allegedly to target Iran-backed militias. Khabieh's photos of Eastern Ghouta were taken in the middle of the conflict. He took a photograph of a mother placing her finger in her daughter's mouth to stop her crying of hunger in 2018. Ghouta was under a prolonged blockade and the family was in desperate need of food. They left their home and went to the market. Unfortunately, they arrived just as it was under attack. Her son had just been killed in the market and the blood on her mother's hand is the same as the one she uses to pacify her infant. The caption gives us the details, but the photos show them more clearly: the empty eyes of the infant, the futile gauze bundle in the background, and the stoic look in mothers' eyes that makes it seem as if everything had just been taken away.Photo by Bassam Khabieh/Reuters