"We are dying."
The three-word message – which followed a video that captured the sound of artillery shells landing somewhere in the darkness – burst through the cacophony on Twitter late Thursday, leaving 73,000 followers worrying about the fate of a seven-year-old girl trapped in the besieged eastern half of the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Bana Alabed and her family didn't die on Thursday night, though her mother Fatemah told The Globe and Mail that they didn't sleep a wink as Russian warplanes relentlessly dropped bombs nearby. Bana and Fatemah are among 275,000 people trapped in eastern Aleppo as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tighten a month-old "starve-or-surrender" siege of the rebel-held enclave.
"It was a night of bombing, this morning too and today, numerous airstrikes happen," Ms. Alabed wrote in an exchange of e-mails and instant messages on Friday. She apologized for worrying the followers of her daughter's Twitter postings with the "we are dying" message – which was followed by 20 hours of silence from the account – but suggested that it was normal for Aleppo residents to think each night might be their last.
"Bombs started again this week and many people like close to 200 are dead. We normally have a dose of bombs as routine, getting scared and fearing for your family is just normal," she wrote.
The media-savvy Ms. Alabed warned that many more would die if the international community didn't do something to force a halt to the Russian air strikes and the Syrian army's siege of east Aleppo. Told she was in contact with a Canadian journalist, she tailored her appeal directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as well as U.S. President Barack Obama.
"If you can make my daughter and I message [seen by] Justin and Obama, we will be grateful," Ms. Alabed wrote. "I say, Obama and Justin, please jump in and save 275,000 people using your power, if you don't we will all die."
That's not necessarily hyperbole. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, warned last week that the world could witness "another Srebrenica, another Rwanda" if nothing was done to end the siege. "In a maximum of two months, 2 1/2 months, the city of eastern Aleppo may be totally destroyed," he said.
The battle for Aleppo – which had two million residents before the war, making it Syria's most populous city – may be a key in determining the outcome of the bloody civil war. When anti-regime rebels seized much of Aleppo in 2012, it was seen as a sign Mr. al-Assad was no longer in control of the country, that his regime's days might be numbered. Retaking it would be a major step toward Mr. al-Assad's declared goal of reconquering all of bitterly divided Syria.
In a war where the human costs can be too staggering to contemplate – more than 400,000 Syrians have died since fighting began in early 2011, and millions more have been forced to flee their homes – Bana Alabed has become a name, a face and a cause that many outside Syria can associate with and root for.
The top "pinned" tweet on her Twitter page is a photo of Bana – a flowery pink barrette stuck in her long brown hair – sitting at her desk with her doll and an open English textbook (her mother was an English teacher before the war). The Sept. 26 photo is captioned "Good afternoon from Aleppo. I'm reading to forget the war."
Asked to describe an ordinary day in Aleppo, Ms. Alabed focused on what her daughter was going through. "Her school is destroyed, right now she is home afraid because many of her friends [were] killed … a close neighbour friend was killed near us when her house [was] bombed. The garden where Bana used to play is also destroyed by barrel bombs."
The plain-spoken appeals for peace – including moving videos in which Bana addresses the camera in her improving English – have captivated the outside world, while apparently infuriating Mr. al-Assad himself. The Syrian President spoke about the account in an Oct. 6 television interview, calling it "not a credible source" and saying the author was affiliated with "terrorists or their supporters."
Syria and Russia routinely refer to the anti-government forces in eastern Aleppo as "terrorists," a claim bolstered by the fact that an al-Qaeda-linked group fights alongside more moderate U.S.-backed militias in the city.
"Sir Assad," Bana quickly replied in a tweet she signed herself on Oct. 6. "I'm not a terrorist, I just want to live and no bombing please."
Confirming the authenticity of the account is almost impossible, given the safety risks the family would have to take to prove they are indeed in east Aleppo. All photos and videos of Bana and her brothers Mohamed, 5, and Noor, 3, are taken inside a nondescript apartment. Asked to verify that she was indeed Bana's mother, Ms. Alabed sent The Globe and Mail a photo of the little girl in a white dress inside the same apartment.
Ms. Alabed and her daughter have also come under criticism from Twitter "trolls" who say the account's English is too good, and the family too sympathetic, to be real. Bana has posted appeals to Twitter asking for @AlabedBana to be given the blue "verified" checkmark in order to distinguish it from accounts with similar names that have been created specifically to undermine her credibility. "Anne Frank wrote her diary with a ballpoint pen, yrs b4 its invention. I tweet from Aleppo, in perfect English, with electric power being down all day," reads one spoof "Banana Alabed" account.
Ms. Alabed said she believed the Twitter critics were working for either Mr. al-Assad or Russian President Vladimir Putin. She said she became deeply worried when Mr. al-Assad mentioned her daughter's account, and now fears the family could be targeted for punishment as the Syrian army tightens its siege.
But she won't be scared into silence. Ms. Alabed said she started the Twitter account last month hoping it might help get the world to do something about what was happening to Aleppo.
"I just wanted to share what Bana was [saying], she really wants help for us and I wanted just to share what she has to say about her life … we are so desperate, so I created [the account] in attempt to get us attention so at least someone will see us and decide save Aleppo."
Bana, she said, had one simple message on Friday after they survived Thursday's bombs. "Bana says, I want to go back to school, can you make bombs not fall on schools."