Sayed Kashua |

Why I Forced Myself to Look at Uncensored Photos of Kids Gassed in Syria

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Illustration: Assad rolling a barrel marked with a skull and bones.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman

They’re just sleeping, the children, just sleeping. Look, they’re covered with blankets, and I swear I can see two of them starting to stretch their arms. No, it’s not from a bumpy ride in the van or wagon that’s carrying them. Definitely, they’re breathing; in another second they’ll wake up, smile and rub their eyes with little fists. There’s a girl sleeping with one eye open and the other half-shut. But that doesn’t mean anything – children often sleep with one eye open. “It’s deer sleep,” my mother used to tell me when I was concerned that my kids’ eyelids weren’t completely closed when they were sleeping. It’s natural in children.

I didn’t make do with the images of the children with blurred faces. I had to search out the uncensored images, and I knew I would find them on the right Arabic news sites – or the wrong ones. I felt a need to examine the children’s expressions up-close, to touch death as closely as I could. No, not death, not death, because they will certainly wake up immediately, and the twitching in one of the children’s arms is just a response to the cold; the boy wasn’t covered with a warm blanket like the rest of those sleeping nearby. A family connection? I tried to find the resemblance in the facial features, to figure out who’s the eldest and who’s next in line.

So, why aren’t they waking up already? It’s light outside and it’s the middle of the week; they have to get ready for school.

Hey, maybe all of this has been staged? I hoped so – not for any political reason, only for the children’s sake. Maybe a self-interested photographer asked the children to sleep like this, next to each other, not to bat an eyelid or move their hands, not to smile during the picture-taking. “Just a few moments,” the director with the cell-phone camera said to the children. “Don’t move. You’re heroes, you can do it.”

If I search on the right news sites, or the wrong ones, I’ll find that none of this ever happened beyond what was shown on the television screen. There are no children, there is no poison gas. It’s just a game – camera tricks and clever director’s instructions. I knew nothing had happened, all I had to do was change the information source and then I’d find the account that would suit me, according to which the youngsters were sleeping, or play-acting, and were already certainly home from school, and after doing their homework they had run into the yard to play hide-and-seek.

But they’re not moving, these children; time is passing and they are not waking up. Maybe it really did happen? And if so, it certainly must be a very rare occurrence. You know, people always say that things look a lot scarier from a distance and that when you get close, you discover it isn’t as bad as those who rely on media images imagine. “After all, people abroad could still think that Israel is really at war, because that’s all they show on the news” – that’s a remark I’ve heard frequently from Israelis. It proves how powerful denial can be when you’re compelled to deny.

When I started to understand that that the children were not going to wake up, I was able to choose the guilty party according to my mood. I could have found all the proof in the world that it was the Assad regime, with Russian and Shi’ite-Iranian assistance, that was responsible for the children’s murder. I could just as easily have believed the websites that reported that the armed militants, or the rebels, the terrorists, the Salafites and their allies from the Gulf and from the West, were actually the real murderers. In fact, I could have written the different versions of events before the representatives of the various players had conveyed them to the masses. They simply formulated what people had already worked out for themselves, providing confirmation and sparking a sense of relief in light of the truth each person harbored in his consciousness, according to the camp he belonged to. People knew in advance who was guilty.

All the camps perhaps share in the same feeling of sorrow, however brief it may be, at the sight of the dead children: a feeling that gives way to a desire for revenge and the hope that those responsible – the guilty ones, according to each person’s point of view – would get the punishment they deserve.

On certain channels, the Syrian children became grist for a discussion about domestic American politics; on others, they were used as justification for a pat on the back and a cry of self-praise for a display of moral superiority. A few channels stressed the cruelty of the West, while others underscored the blood lust of the Eastern mentality.

I looked for the channel that came out in favor of the children. I looked for a source of information that would suit my desire, an anchorman who would tell me that the children were going to get up in just a second. I waited for an outstretched arm to appear from behind the camera, holding a teddy bear that would gently touch the cheek of a small child, who would open his eyes and smile. I looked for a channel that would promise me that it was all going to pass, a channel promising me that you get immune to the image of dead children. In fact, it seemed to me that I cried even more another time – when I saw the body of a child in a red shirt and blue pants, washed up on a beach.