"We give up on life." This is not the kind of message you want to hear from anyone in the world, but especially not a seven-year-old girl. When it appeared on Thursday it was one of the last in a stream of desperate tweets sent out by Bana Alabed, who is trapped in the ruinscape of East Aleppo with her parents and her two little brothers.
In many ways, Bana has become the voice of destruction in Syria, along with her mother Fatemah, a teacher who manages the Twitter account @alabedbana. She is a very young citizen journalist. Her work is crucial because extremely few professional journalists are able to cover Syria and especially Aleppo – the government restricts journalists' activities, and it's too dangerous.
Perhaps observer is a better word. There's little of the dispassionate outsider in Bana's Twitter messages and videos: Here is her home, destroyed. Here is her friend, dead. Here she is cowering by her bed as bombs fall. She writes that there is no food for sale at the market, that people are starving. "I am sick now," her Twitter account said on Thursday. "I have no medicine, no home, no clean water. This will make me die even before a bomb kill me."
The Syrian Army continues its assault on East Aleppo. A UN envoy says it is in danger of becoming "one giant graveyard." In the estimation of Human Rights Watch, one-third of the civilians besieged in that part of the city are children. Nearly 200,000 people are trapped, approximately the same number who follow Bana's twitter feed.
As Bana documented the destruction, the world began to draw comparisons between her and Anne Frank. In Bana's case, though, the world was witnessing a tragedy unfolding in real time.
Alongside the pleas for help and the photos of devastation, there is a weird normalcy to Bana's account, which is to be expected. Children crave familiarity and routine, even in war zones – perhaps especially in war zones. She likes to draw, to play with her dolls (until they were lost in a bombing), and to read. A tweet from Sept. 26 shows her with a book at her desk, alongside the words: "I'm reading to forget the war." Bana's story made international headlines when J.K. Rowling arranged for the Harry Potter novels to be sent to her as eBooks. A day later, Bana was pictured reading one of the books on a phone, with her little brothers huddled by her side.
Here is where a gruesome story becomes even more gruesome, and the comparisons to The Diary of a Young Girl are even more pronounced. There is a substantial number of people who believe that Bana's Twitter feed is a hoax, just as many people have denied the authenticity of Anne Frank's diary over the years. In both cases, questions of technology (how does Bana's family access WiFi? Were the annotations in Anne's diary written in ballpoint?) are spun into full-blown delusion. Conspiracy theorists look for any tiny angle to exploit their agendas.
Syrian bloggers have responded that WiFi does, in fact, exist, and is accessible, if patchy, even in Aleppo. Eliot Higgins, of the investigative site Bellingcat, indicated his team had looked into Bana's account and "it's certainly posting images from a certain location in Aleppo, so seems genuine." Alarmingly, he tweeted that "we can't, for her family's safety, publish our findings until she is a refugee, or dead."
Others have questioned whether Bana's mother, Fatemah, is using her children as "propaganda" in a fight against the Syrian regime. I would argue that it's not propaganda to ask for your children not to bombed in their homes and schools or to not be the victims of torture and chemical attack. If I had kids in a war zone, I'd use every means at my disposal to keep them safe. If a camera phone is all you have, a camera phone becomes your only weapon. To judge by the world's inaction, though, a camera phone is not much help in a barrel-bomb fight.
Unfortunately, it often takes an image of a child in unimaginable pain to shock the world's calcified heart into action. Think of the photo of napalmed Kim Phuc screaming on that road in Vietnam, or the emaciated children brought by their mothers to Ethiopian feeding stations, whose names we'll never know.
Syria has produced no shortage of those photos: The lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey; five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, covered in the dust of the rubble he'd been pulled from, sitting stunned in the back of an ambulance. The world sighs in sympathy, and having sighed, moves on.
You could argue that the picture of Alan Kurdi affected the Canadian federal election, but beyond that there's been no global push for a negotiated peace. If anything, the visual evidence from Aleppo, and the misery of millions of displaced Syrian refugees (half of whom are children) seems to have hardened the heart of the international community. A psychologist perhaps could explain it, because I can't.
As of my deadline, Bana hadn't put a message out on Twitter for a whole day. I can only hope that she's tucked away somewhere reading, or gathering fresh evidence, and in any case that she is safe.