A way to understand Syria.

Protestors in Syria

I am at work. I’m a scientist. I’m a professional. My job is not to sit here writing down my feelings. I work with databases and it’s about as unemotional as it comes. Yet I’m compelled to write this now because I’m fighting back tears and there’s an uncomfortable, sickening feeling in my chest and a lump in my throat that won’t go away.

You know the one. My office has large glass windows, and the IT guy is looking at me and pretending not to notice my red eyes. You see, I am a professional, but I’m also a mother. Today I don’t want to push the emotion away and move on back to my comfortable space. And the catalyst is a dead child’s pink pyjamas.

It started during a few moments of procrastination this morning – a quick check of my twitter feed. A link to an article on the recent massacre in Houla* appeared. It interested me because I’ve been ruminating on whether social media is really useful in generating not just social awareness but real social change, e.g. Kony-style campaigns.

I also clicked on it above other links to articles in my short space of procrastination time because I, like many others, have been horrified, disgusted and, if I am truly honest, morbidly fascinated, with how on earth this type of massacre involving so many children killed at close range could occur.

Within this excellent article was a reference to the “gutsy front page” of The Independent on Sunday, a British tabloid newspaper. This drew me to open the link to the online front page of that paper, and then seek out the article and photograph the chilling headline refers to.

As the front page of the newspaper clearly warns, the image is really distressing. Of course, it is not the worst incident I have seen in a photograph, because unfortunately through history massacres of men, women and children have happened on a far larger scale.

But what this picture did to me was personal. You see, the small girl lying dead on the left of the picture is wearing pink pyjamas. They are almost identical to the ones my own 4 year old daughter was wearing last night. Those pyjamas bring that small lifeless body into my own living room. And because of that I make myself look properly at the photograph, and all of the children. I don’t skim over it because it’s too hard to look at, as I usually might. I make myself look into the lifeless staring eyes of the dead children. I really see their blood-smattered legs and feet and their horrific wounds. It’s intimate, and so it becomes real.


The TV images last night of the bodies wrapped in white sheets didn’t cause the same reaction in me. I think that although we may feel horrified and sad and even dwell for a few minutes on the plight of the poor people in the situation, until you put yourself and your own children there and feel even a small measure of the grief and trauma the surviving parents and family are undergoing, or the terror the children must have felt before their beautiful innocent lives were brutally ended, it’s not truly real.

So what do we do with this outrage, the horror, the heart-wrenching empathy we feel?  If we lobby our politicians for change, how can we know that they will support the “right” course of action, or the “right” side for that matter? Is there a “right” side at all? After the mistakes and the bloodshed that has happened in the war against oppressive regimes thus far, how can we be sure we’ll do more good than harm? After all, the six children and their parents that were killed in a NATO airstrike in Afghanistan the same day are just as precious as those in Houla. As an individual with no influence and limited access to the evidence and facts, I seem to be truly impotent when it comes to these issues.

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do know that one of the saddest things is that we see and we feel, but then we forget so quickly. I do think that if we could harness the aching hearts of mothers (and fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts etc.) in a true protest against violence wherever it rears its ugly head, we have a better chance of filling the void in the world left by these innocent children.

Maybe we should make more of an effort to really look. It is not enough, but we can start by ensuring that these people are actually real to us.

* Syrians are being massacred. Over the weekend more than 100 were shot, knifed and otherwise slaughtered. At least 32 of them were children. The UN says it was almost 50. There was video. While more than 15,000 have been killed since uprisings began against the Bashar al-Assad regime, it was the weekend’s attacks that prompted international outrage.

Late yesterday afternoon Foreign Minister Bob Carr issued expulsion orders – in line with major European powers like Britain and Germany – to Syrian envoys giving them 72 hours to leave Canberra. So far, stronger action against Syria has been vetoed by Russia in the United Nations.

UN special envoy Kofi Annan met Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad in Damascus last night in an effort to revive a peace plan.

While Syrians die, emails have emerged that reveal the Syrian first lady’s luxurious shopping habit. Asma has been ordering expensive, custom furniture and designer shoes and clothes from overseas under false names.

– Here’s Mamamia’s cheat sheet from June, 2011 which explains how the Syrian uprising began.

Melanie Butcher is a geologist and mum of two with a passion for bicycles, travel, political discussion and social responsibility. You can occasionally find her on twitter and Pinterest.