Photographer Mahmoud Rslan has taken many pictures of children killed in Syria’s war but none as haunting as the one showing Omran, four years old, dazed and covered in blood.
Shot after an air strike that hit a rebel-held district the battlefield northern city of Aleppo, the picture of Omran shows the brutality of Syria’s five-year conflict and the suffering of people trapped by fighting.
“I’ve taken a lot of pictures of children killed or wounded in the strikes that rain down daily,” Rslan told AFP on Thursday, the day after he captured the image that has gone viral on social networks.
“Usually they are either unconscious or crying. But Omran was there, speechless, staring blankly, as if he did not quite understand what had happened to him,” he said by telephone.
A video filmed by the Aleppo Media Centre, a network of activists in the divided northern city, shows Omran sitting still in an ambulance, his face, arms and legs caked with blood and dust.
He stares into space, raises his arms to touch his bloodied forehead, looks at his hand then wipes it on the ambulance seat.
Omran has a head full of hair that fall into his eyes.
He is wearing a T-shirt and shorts but his feet are bare, having apparently lost his shoes when he was pulled out alive but in shock from the family apartment destroyed in an air raid.
Wednesday night’s air strike hit the Qaterji neighbourhood in rebel-held east Aleppo, Syria’s former economic hub which is divided between insurgent and regime control.
Rslan was nearby when he heard the raids at 7:15 pm (1615 GMT).
“It was dark already but I saw a building that had totally collapsed and another half destroyed,” he said.
He and rescuers rushed to the buildings to search for survivors.
When they reached the first building, they had to step over three bodies before they could go inside and once there they could not go any further because the staircase had collapsed.
Rslan and the rescuers went next door and found Omran and his family, wounded but alive.
– ‘Symbol of innocence’ –
They were plucked out of the building one by one, brought down through balconies.
Omran was the first to be carried to an ambulance, followed by his 5-year-old brother, his sisters, 8 and 11, and finally the rescuers took out the parents.
“When we placed Omran in the ambulance there was some light, so I was able to take pictures,” Rslan said.
“Omran was in a state of shock, a wall had collapsed on him and his family,” he said.
“This child like all children in Syria is a symbol of innocence. They have nothing to do with wars.”
Syrian and Russian aircraft have been carrying out intense air strikes this week on opposition strongholds across northern Syria to prevent rebels sending reinforcements to Aleppo, a monitoring group has said.
Aleppo has been the scene of fierce fighting since July 31, when the “Army of Conquest” alliance of rebels and jihadists launched a major offensive to break a regime siege of opposition-controlled districts
The haunting image of Omran reverberated around the globe, much like the photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi whose drowned trying to reach Europe with his family last September.
Aylan’s body washed ashore on a Turkish beach.
Thousands of Syrian asylum seekers have continued to attempt the deadly crossing to Europe in rickety boats, joining thousands others from Africa and other Arab countries hoping for a better life.
The Syrian conflict has killed more than 290,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government demonstrations.