Seven-year-old Bana al-Abed, the ‘face of Aleppo’

Mehul Srivastava:

Bana has her mouth full, so I speak with Fatemah. She’s 27, and had been training to become a lawyer when the war came to Aleppo. I have to ask her how she feels about her child being used “as a tool for propaganda” — first for the anti-government forces and now by the Turkish government. When the Turkish government brokered the chaotic retreat of fighters and civilians from east Aleppo, they found Bana and her family in a makeshift camp in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, and flew them by helicopter to Ankara. She and her two younger brothers ended up in front of the cameras, sitting on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s lap. Now, even as Turkey sends in its own military, arms opposition fighters and demands the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, they are presented as symbols of his magnanimity.

Fatemah has been thinking about this, she says. She worries what it will do to her child. Her sons, aged three and five, have known nothing but war and even today are scared to be alone, crying in their sleep. “Bana wants to help, but also I want the world to understand that Bana is a child,” she says. “We want her to be a normal child, and live like a child of the world, without war, without anything.”

But Bana has a strong personality, she adds. “For my Bana, it’s different because when her father and I raised her, we gave her her own personality. We don’t want to make her what we want — we don’t want a robot, do like this or do like that.” she says.

“The war itself, it’s a big teacher,” she adds. “Even for the children. They know and they recognise that when they hear the bombs, they know the sound, which bomb it is. They know if it was a cluster bomb, if it was a barrel bomb, if it was phosphorus bombs. They know everything.” They pick it up, from listening to adults, from reacting to their fear, from what they hear on the television. “If you ask a little one, three years old, where’s your house, he’ll say it’s destroyed. Why? Because of the bomb. Who sent this bomb? The war plane. He knows.

“But they don’t know real life. If you say, ‘Draw something’, maybe they will draw a rocket, maybe they draw a bomb. [Normal] children draw flowers, butterflies, because they imagine life.”