The photograph was taken in Yarmouk, Syria, showing thousands of desperate Palestinian refugees waiting to receive food aid. It was shared millions of times last month via social media, and on Thursday evening, it appears on a big screen in New York’s Times Square in an effort to focus attention on a civil war that’s now in its fourth year.
The image is epic. Thousands fill a gray canyon of rubble framed by shattered buildings. Yarmouk is a neighborhood made up of of Palestinian refugees who fled to Syria decades ago. For more than a year, Syrian government forces have held 20,000 people there under siege. The photograph documents a food distribution in January by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.
The photo is “cinematic in its scope and grandeur, and yet, it’s deeply personal,” says Chris Gunness, the group’s spokesman. “Etched on each small face is a very personal private story. And I think it’s the combination of the epic and the miniature which partly explains it.”
It’s about timing, too, he says. He released the photograph as the U.N. Security Council debated a resolution last month urging Syria’s government to open besieged areas for aid. The social media reaction was unexpected.
“It’s been extraordinary. Within minutes of that iconic photograph being sent out, it went viral,” he says.
When charges surfaced that the photograph was a fake, Gunness released a video from Yarmouk recorded at the same time.
The food distribution came after a fragile ceasefire between government forces and rebels inside Yarmouk. The video shows the magnitude of humanitarian crisis for civilians.
“A lot of the people I’d seen had very black hands, because of the inability to wash with soap on a regular basis,” says an aid worker who wants her name withheld. She’s not authorized to speak to the media.
In Yarmouk, she says, a woman in the food line, hungry like the rest said, “We are not beggars.”
“It’s very, very powerful. She’s like, ‘I have never stood in a bread line in my life,’” the aid worker says. “They were people who were middle class, people who had businesses. They were teachers, they had their kids in university.”
And they are trapped, says Amr Al Azm, an academic with ties to the Syrian opposition.
Syrian government officials say Yarmouk is held hostage by “terrorists” and besieged the camp to flush them out. Western governments charge the Syrian regime deliberately blocked food and medicine to starving people. Al Azm says the U.N. system has failed Syrians, a system dependent on approvals from a host government to deliver aid.
“The whole aid program has been a total catastrophe. It’s been allowed to be used by the regime to advance its own agenda, for its own purposes, and they’ve done nothing about it,” Al Azm says. “The international community has done very little to prevent this from happening.”
International aid workers say it’s a struggle to work in Syria. Gareth Price-Jones directed Oxfam’s program there, a country he rarely visited, he says, because the Syrian government restricts visas to aid workers.
“I think we’re all deeply troubled. There are many, many compromises that we’re unhappy about having to make,” Price-Jones says.
There has been some success. Oxfam has delivered generators that now pump clean water for a half-million people, he says. But the conflict tests a basic principle: neutrality. Humanitarian groups are dedicated to helping all civilians in a conflict.
“The political will to make this happen is just not there,” he says. “The whole of the international system was set up after World War II to address these grand challenges, and it’s clearly failing dismally.”
And that brings us back to the photograph from Yarmouk camp, which sparked a social media campaign, generated international sympathy but has done little to open the besieged neighborhoods in Syria.