How “iconic images” of suffering become meaningless

Often within the borders of European countries, any murders, loss of life or missing children, receive broad coverage. A famous case of a missing British child in Portugal in 2007 led to a protracted search costing millions. Recently, a young child who died following a fatal dog bite in the UK was one of the headlines on BBC News and received wide media coverage.

Let’s be very clear. It’s not that such cases are not deserving or insignificant. Anyone with a child will know they will give up the world and more for their kid. Children are priceless gifts that no amount of power or riches can ever compensate.

It’s a fact that the West often narrows its focus of tragedies to internal borders. Massacres, humanitarian catastrophes and acts of genocide do not always get the full justice they deserve.

Take the thousands of Yezidi girls who remain under the brutal hands of ISIS with little media coverage, what would be the reaction if the girls were English or French?

Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq, Ján Kubiš, recently stressed that “… it is of paramount importance that the perpetrators of these heinous acts (against the Yezidis) are fully and properly held to account.”

Unfortunately, on the second anniversary of crimes against the Yezidis, thousands of girls remain under barbaric captivity.

As the recent terrorist attacks in Europe have highlighted, the West is only alarmed and outraged only when it’s on their doorstep. The other daily terrorist attacks or atrocities in places like Iraq and Syria are seen as distant lands.

Then every so often, the West is shocked by so-called “iconic images” of war. This week it was the shocking picture of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, injured and dazed from a deadly airstrike in Aleppo. Omran, along with his three siblings and parents were pulled from the rubble of their apartment building.

According to one of the rescue workers, they tried to speak to Omran as they took him to the ambulance but he said nothing. Even iconic pictures never tell the full story. Omran was relatively calm and not tearful and screaming as we would expect. It is because Omran had already cried his lungs out from fear, pain, and solitude amongst the piles of rubble.

Mustafa al-Sarout, the Aleppo-based journalist who filmed the video of Omran, decried “these are children bombed every day. It’s not an exceptional case”.

19th August marked World Humanitarian Day that commemorates the devastating bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 mostly aid workers.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed that “World Humanitarian Day is an annual reminder of the need to act to alleviate the suffering,” as he emphasized for people to raise their voice against injustice and work for change.

However, the reflection of misery should never rise as a result of a single day or iconic images. These milestones come and go, but the suffering continues.

Kurdistan is no stranger to such a predicament. It suffered decades of repression and genocide in Iraq culminating in the unforgivable chemical bombing of Halabja. Pictures of dead mothers and fathers holding on to their babies symbolized the grave murders.

While the event was largely forgotten as the population continued to suffer physical and mental trauma. Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell when visiting a cemetery filled with lines of headstones of Halabja victims in 2003, stated “What can I say to you? I cannot tell you that the world should have acted sooner, you know that.”

Closely connected with Western view of iconic images of war is effect of Western foreign policy itself. For example, in Syria, the US and EU response was too tentative as the Syrian crisis deepened and the Syrian regime crossed various red lines. Then action against ISIS was only taken after they had had long established their influence, overran cities such as Mosul and killed thousands of Christians and Yezidis.

European powers became more entrenched against ISIS when they witnessed terror first-hand on home soil.

The view of Bradley A. Blakeman in News Max echoed many others, “ISIS should have never been able to attain the power and gain the territory it has…Why did they not build a coalition earlier to stop them? Why did we not have a strategy? Why did we not stop them?”

Ultimately, the West is too often swayed by the aftermath of events. Just like in Kurdistan, Srebrenica and Rwanda, there is a post mortem on western foreign policy and how such crimes were allowed to be perpetrated when it is too late.

Iconic images change little when cities are left to rubble, communities remain starving under siege and millions of people are left displaced.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

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