NOT ACCIDENTAL VICTIMS OF WAR

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I visited my friend Firas today in his office at Sout Raya, a radio station in Istanbul that covers Syria for Syrians. The last time I saw him he had a single printout hung on the wall with pictures of three children whose families had died while crossing the Mediterranean. They were on their way to new lives in Europe, fleeing the war, and perished in a storm at sea instead. “It’s a reminder that Syrian people are dying in many ways,” Firas said of the pictures.

Today we watched YouTube videos of men with tear-stricken faces clawing through rubble. In one, where buildings once stood, all that’s left is wreckage—the result of barrel bombs from the Assad regime. Men dig with their hands until they bleed, removing slabs of concrete, dust, and twisted metal. They dig for a minute, and then another, clearing away the broken pieces block by block, until a face emerges from the ruins. A child’s face. Covered in soot. She wears no facial expression at all. But there’s no blood. And now a miracle: her arm moves and she rubs the dirt out from her eyes. The child, encased in all of this for minutes, is alive. The men shout. Their faces are wet with tears but they’re smiling. Given the circumstances, you could say it’s a happy, triumphant video.

The next video is more or less the same. There’s a basement and the roof is caved in. There’s a young girl trapped and crying. Men are picking through the pieces and hauling them out of view, and they’re doing it all with an extraordinary calm. There’s good news in this video already: the girl is crying. She’s alive. You can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. The next video starts. More bloody hands, sooty faces, tears of joy.

Then Firas shows me the other half. These videos seem to last longer. It feels like they’re digging forever, and with every swipe of dirt, you hope to see the beginning of another life being saved. But instead there’s just more material to remove, and not enough movement from the person beneath. You start to wonder: How long can a person stay alive while buried? What are the odds of being enveloped by jagged concrete blocks without being broken? The answers come from the rest of the videos that end in horrifying ways, and the recent UNICEF report that states some 10,000 children have died in Syria since the conflict began, and they’re often “not accidental victims of war.”

Firas just looked at me and said, “This is what is happening. Not every day. Every hour.”