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

© James Ferguson

During the four-year battle for Aleppo, the world was flooded with images of the toll it took on the civilians trapped between the Syrian regime and opposition militias. As the siege tightened, the ancient city was dubbed Syria’s Stalingrad, enduring relentless street fighting, indiscriminate barrel bombings and deadly “triple-taps” — that killed civilians, killed those who came to rescue the wounded, and finally destroyed the hospitals that the few survivors could reach.

It was a siege smothered in myth and propaganda. With few independent journalists left to document the collapse, it had to be archived on social media — immediate, unfiltered and often inescapable. In the deluge of those images, one voice cut through the noise, like a clarion call broadcasting our failure to protect the weakest. It belonged to Bana al-Abed, a precocious young girl whose Twitter feed — managed by her mother — captured in painful granularity the confusion and fear of being a child caught in a war. Each tweet felt like a frame in a horror film — one in which her followers worried constantly she might be killed. She became for many the face of Aleppo.

And here she is in front of me, wide-eyed in a shopping mall in Ankara with her mother Fatemah as my lunch guest.

“My name is Bana, I’m seven years old . . . This is my last moment to live or die.” So wrote Bana on December 13, amid one of the heaviest bombing campaigns. Three days later, as the bombing drew closer, she wrote: “Please save us now.” Two few weeks earlier she had posted: “I am sick now, I have no medicine, no home, no clean water. This will make me die even before a bomb kill me.”

In those terrible weeks, the Twitter feed @AlabedBana went viral. It brought fame: JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, shared Bana’s tweets with her millions of followers. It brought danger: for the Syrian regime, it was a daily reminder of the suffering they wrought upon civilians, marking her first for character assassination and finally, her mother felt, for death. Eventually, it brought her to Turkey.

Now, she is one of 3m Syrians here, after the largest human exodus since the partition of India. An object of fascination — child, social media legend and witness to war — she is also a pint-sized prop in a geopolitical propaganda game. Both, I explain to Fatemah, are good reasons for me to have lunch with them. But, as any parent will tell you, choosing a place to take a seven-year-old for lunch is fraught with peril: too formal, and the child loses interest; too adventurous, and the child is put off.

For advice, I ask a six-year-old, Mira, the daughter of a colleague. We have settled on the Kent Mall in Ankara — what it lacks in fine dining, it makes up for with a huge playground — and ice cream.

Bana approves of the choice. Her hands are swiftly entwined with Mira’s, who I have brought along to help break the ice. We walk through the shiny mall, the sort of place young Turks so love, struggle with an elevator and eventually reach a cul-de-sac that leads to Gelato Ice & Caffé, which has pop music on the stereo and a decor that tries — and fails — to evoke a “Ruby Tuesday” in the American Midwest. Our table is a latter-day Tower of Babel. Bana speaks Arabic and a little English; her new friend, Mira, speaks Turkish and English; Bana’s mother speaks near-fluent English and Arabic; I speak neither Turkish nor Arabic; and my Arabic translator, Jihad (who jokes later that he better change his name if he wants to move to America), is so excited to meet Bana that he often forgets to translate.

***

We order quickly: a burger, with onion rings and a Coke for her; a mushroom pizza and a chicken wings for mum; fajitas for me; manti (cheesy ravioli, covered in yoghurt) for her new friend, Mira. Simple and unexciting — but a feast compared to the fare in her months under siege.

For many months, Bana has been an Anne Frank-like figure, a visceral, online diary of the rawest of human emotions. But she has also been accused of being a tool of propaganda. In the version of the Aleppo siege propagated by pro-Assad groups, including the machinery of RT (formerly Russia Today) and cyber trolls, Assad was a brave leader fighting terrorists and defending the world from Isis. Bana’s story helped puncture that lie and for months her mother has been hounded by people claiming they were faking their tweets, that Bana spoke no English, and was being manipulated to generate fake sympathy for terrorists. There were death threats and the fear of being singled out for execution.

Behind this global profile is a girl we know so little about, other than the fact that she loves Harry Potter and didn’t want to die. She may have captured the inhumanity of war for millions, but she remained veiled, a totemic image of every child in war. In possibly a first for Lunch with the FT, we strike a deal — we’ll eat something first and talk, and then, we’ll all share ice cream.

***

Bana is proud of her English, which she speaks like any child talking in a foreign-language would — sometimes haltingly, sometimes in a rush of words unconnected by grammar. But she is thoughtful right now. She says it was her and her mother’s idea to go on Twitter and that she wanted to share a picture of herself with the world. That first tweet, on September 24 2016, was three words long. “I need peace,” it read.

After dozens of television interviews in the early days, many of her sentences sound like stock phrases (“I want to help the children of Aleppo”; “I want to be the voice of children of Syria”). We switch to the translator, hoping she will open up more. I ask her if she understands how different her life has been to those of other children her age.

She thinks for a while, and then delivers a rush of words, tangled up in emotion. “In Aleppo, I couldn’t feel like a child,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t find a safe place. There were bombs dropping overhead, in the morning, afternoon, night. I couldn’t find any food — biscuits, or normal food, like normal children. We were always worried — when will a bomb come on our heads? I wanted to go to school, but my school was bombed.”

She and her family had a particularly close call. Their kitchen was destroyed one evening in a bombing raid when they happened to be taking shelter in the living room. Her mother shows me photos on her phone of a shattered room, and her children covered in dust and dirt. The timestamp said November 27 7.55pm. She describes what happened. “My husband and his brother and my mother-in-law were sitting with Bana, there is a family conversation. Suddenly, the rockets came down, like birds in the sky. I was in the kitchen, I was cooking. Thank God I just moved for two seconds from the kitchen.”

Bana starts to tell me about her friends. “I had a friend, her name was Yasmin, and I had another friend, her name was Fatma, and we were the same age and we played with each other all the time . . . My friend Yasmin is dead. Fatma’s still alive, but we cannot contact her,” she says. Yasmin’s death inspired one of her most powerful tweets, with a picture of a young girl’s bloodied and lifeless face. “Oh dear world, I am crying tonight, this is my friend killed by a bomb tonight. I can’t stop crying.”

It seems like a cruel moment for our food to arrive. Our waitress bustles around, bringing Bana her burger, Fatemah her pizza and wings. The wings are spicy, and Fatemah is pleased. Bana’s burger is too big to fit into her mouth. She loves it, she loves the onion rings, she loves her Coke. I notice she’s missing a few teeth. She counts them out in English — seven — and then flashes a big grin.

I remember a tweet of hers from October, when she smiled into the camera, holding a tooth that had come loose. The next morning, she tweeted again. “The tooth fairy is afraid of the bombing here, it run away to its hole. When the war finishes, it will come.”

Fatemah explains how the tweeting worked. She would ask Bana how she felt, or what she was thinking, and would type them down for her. Even towards the end, they had solar panels to charge their phones and they could sometimes pick up a mobile phone signal from government-held Aleppo, or from the satellite internet provided by Turkish and other NGOs.

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.”

***

Bana is full and she wants ice cream. We reach another compromise — she can go and play in the amusement centre with Mira. The two girls run off with Mira’s mother and, as Fatemah and I keep talking, my phone pings with pictures of Bana on the swings, on a rock wall, playing an arcade game. She is laughing — Mira is her first new friend in Turkey and, although they can barely understand one another, they have bonded.

I return to my question, about the balance between being a little girl, a siege survivor, and a global symbol. As a mother, does she feel torn? Fatemah answers cautiously. She is used to the fact that her daughter is an object of fascination but daunted by the idea that she is now seen as a little girl who speaks about big issues, maybe without fully understanding them. Now in Turkey, all Bana talks about is going back to Aleppo, she says, about saving the children of Syria. Fatemah herself is more circumspect — she is considering a life in Turkey, learning the language, looking for schools for her children.

“She is a child of war, and a child of war knows more than adults and cares for others more than adults do, because they feel there is something lost,” she says. “During the war, she was the daughter, but also the big sister to two younger brothers, and she wanted to be the angel, the saviour for them. She was always afraid to lose one of us, so she had a lot of energy to do something. But now she is free, but she almost has to continue what she started during the war — she talks about returning to Syria, that Syria is free, and she is going back to her street, her school, her house.”

Fatemah wonders aloud how the war and her celebrity status have made her daughter want things she herself does not. Fatemah wants a normal life, to shop in a mall, to finish her degree. Bana, she says, wants greater things. She giggles as she thinks of an example. “If you ask her, ‘Why did God put you on earth?’, she says, ‘My God created me to help people.’ I don’t know how she thought of it. We asked her, and she answered like that. We were surprised that she talks like this.”

She says Bana’s answer made her laugh at first, and her husband, too. “If we try to ask her this question again, she feels angry. ‘Why are you all laughing?’ she asks.”

Perhaps the most magnetic thing about Bana’s tweets was that they were, for the most part, a mirror of shattered innocence. Most days, they were simply a reflection of how she had survived, what she had done, what she had seen. They were the windows of childhood, opened up to a gruesome world. I ask Fatemah if she was surprised that her tweets got so much attention, that even JK Rowling paid attention to them.

“When Bana was talking on Twitter, she was talking about her life, not politics. There is no agenda in there, there is nothing, just a small girl in a war zone. She wants to live, she wants to go to school. At night, she heard bombs; in the morning, she heard bombs; in the afternoon, she heard bombs. She saw her friend dead. She wanted to leave. She showed people the garden in which she was playing, but she can’t now because it’s bombed. Showed the world that, ‘Look, this is my window, and look what I see: I see bombs’.”

Bana and her new friend have returned. She picks out a waffle cone, with sprinkles on it, and two scoops — one strawberry, one vanilla. Fatemah asks for a Turkish coffee. She puts a small hairband on her daughter’s long hair, and braids Mira’s so it matches Bana’s.

And suddenly, ice cream in hand, hairband in place, fresh from a playground, giggling with her new friend, Bana is just a seven-year-old child. Nothing more.

Mehul Srivastava is the FT’s Turkey correspondent.

Illustration by James Ferguson

Via FT