Minutes earlier, the five-year-old had been rescued from the rubble of his home in the rebel-held Aleppo neighbourhood of Qaterji after a government airstrike. His emergence from the debris was captured by local journalists who filmed the rescue, and the ordeal of the boy and his family. The pictures were broadcast around the world on Thursday as a symbol of the unrelenting, indiscriminate suffering of Syria’s civilians.
“I’ve seen so many children rescued out of the rubble, but this child, with his innocence, he had no clue what was going on,” said Mustafa al-Sarout, an Aleppo-based journalist who filmed the video that has now gone viral on social media. “He put his hand on his face and saw blood. He didn’t know even what happened to him.
“I’ve photographed a lot of airstrikes in Aleppo, but there was so much there in his face, the blood and the dust mixed, at that age.”
Dr Mohammad, a surgeon in Aleppo who declined to give his surname, treated the young Omran when he arrived at hospital. He was struck by how stunned the boy was.
“He arrived in total shock, total bewilderment at what happened,” he said. “His body was covered in dust in addition to blood on his face from a wound on his forehead, and the blood mixed with the dust.
“He was frightened and shocked. He had been sitting safely in his home, perhaps asleep,” he said. “And the house was brought down on top of him. When we were treating him, he was not screaming or crying, just in shock.”
Hours after he and his family were rescued, Omran was discharged from hospital, having suffered a head injury and bruises in the attack, but nothing too serious. His older sister and brother had been brought in the ambulance with him, while his father also emerged in the aftermath of the strike, his face covered in blood.
Sarout said he was surprised the video he filmed had met with such attention. The killing of children has become such a common feature of the war in Aleppo and the rest of Syria that those who document its brutality, day in, day out, are no longer surprised by what they see.
“These are children bombed every day. It’s not an exceptional case,” he said. “This is a daily fact of Russian and Syrian government airstrikes. They take turns bombing civilians in Aleppo before the whole world. This child is a representative of millions of children in Syria and its cities.”
To many in the outside world, however, the footage has become a visceral reminder of Syrian children’s anguish, deprived of normality after five years of revolution and civil war. His is not the first image to have encapsulated the wretchedness of the Syrian war. Last year photographs of Alan Kurdi, a child lying dead in the sand on a beach in Turkey, brought home the huge risks taken by desperate refugees at sea.
Omran’s image, circulated by the Aleppo media centre of which Sarout is a member, symbolises the suffering of the city, once Syria’s thriving commercial capital, now divided in two halves both largely under siege. It is one of the most devastating urban conflicts in recent memory.
Sarout, who rushed to the scene when news of the airstrikes on Wednesday night emerged, said the scars of the fighting were obvious around Omran’s home.
“There was immense destruction in the neighbourhood,” he said. “There were so many people wounded, maybe 13 or 14 there. There were people who were walking around in the street when the bombing happened and they ran to hide inside the buildings and then got trapped in the rubble when the buildings collapsed.”
The rebel-held east is now in ruins, 250,000 civilians living in a shell of the city’s former glory, the result of an unforgiving aerial campaign that has seen thousands of barrel bombs rain down on its inhabitants and their mosques, markets, schools and public squares.
A rebel campaign launched by thousands of fighters has broken a month-long siege on the east, but the corridor that was opened is a war zone through which little can pass. The government-held west, long subjected to indiscriminate artillery itself and home to at least 1.5 million civilians, has in turn been besieged because the corridor was the main supply line into the districts controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s military.
In a sign of the despair and frustration at the situation in Aleppo, the UN envoy for Syria abruptly cut a Thursday meeting of its humanitarian task force short because aid convoys to besieged cities and towns have been impeded this month amid the surge in fighting.
“Not one single convoy in one month has reached any of the humanitarian besieged areas, not one single convoy,” Staffan de Mistura, who chairs the task force, told reporters. “And why? Because of one thing. Fighting.”
The US state department on Thursday called Omran “the real face of what’s going in Syria”.
“That little boy has never had a day in his life where there hasn’t been war, death, destruction, poverty in his own country,” said state department spokesman John Kirby, who suggested Omran’s case should spur efforts to secure a broad cessation of hostilities.
For Mohammad, who treated Omran, the devastation of this latest attack is worsened by the knowledge that it will not be the last. “We have been living the daily reality of children and innocent civilians being killed for five years,” he said. “The dumb missiles and barrel bombs do not discriminate.
“Stop the killing. It’s not logical that the regime and Russian air forces can keep killing people and innocent civilians and the world stays silent.
“Syria’s children deserve to live in peace.”