“Their video footage actually contains children that have been recycled in different reports. So you can find a girl named Aya who turns up in a report in say August, and she turns up in the next month in two different locations.”Eva Bartlett, 9 December 2016
Eva Bartlett is a Canadian citizen who describes herself as an “independent writer and rights activist”.
She writes a blog for the state-funded Russian media outlet Russia Today and is candid about her support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who is fighting Syrian rebels with Russian and Iranian help.
In a speech organised by the Syrian mission to the UN, Ms Bartlett recently criticised the western “corporate media”, saying journalists were “compromised” and used sources that were “not credible”.
She went on to attack the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group funded by a number of western governments including Britain.
Western media outlets – including Channel 4 News – frequently broadcast footage supplied by the White Helmets, which purports to show the aftermath of regime attacks on various rebel-held areas in Syria.
Supporters of the Assad regime have variously accused the White Helmets of being puppets of western powers, peddlers of faked footage or even terrorist fighters posing as humanitarian workers, all of which the organisation vigorously denies.
Ms Bartlett said: “Their video footage actually contains children that have been recycled in different reports; so you can find a girl named Aya who turns up in a report in say August, and she turns up in the next month in two different locations.”
A clip from the press conference has been viewed more than 3 million times on In The NOW, a Facebook page run by Russia Today but not branded as such.
We’ve tried to contact Ms Bartlett without success, so it’s not 100 per cent clear what she means by this, but our best guess is that she is referring to a claim involving a girl called Aya which has been circulated widely on the internet:
The suggestion here is that the White Helmets filmed the same child – presumably some kind of actor – at three different locations, presumably to exaggerate the effects of regime bombing, or to fake attacks altogether.
This is almost certainly nonsense. Here’s why.
The dates mentioned in this photo montage are roughly accurate.
The girl in the top half of the picture was photographed on 27 August by Abdalrhman Ismail, a Reuters photographer who has been working on the front line of the Syrian conflict for three years.
The shots show an unnamed girl and two other children supposedly being rescued from rubble by White Helmets.
Mr Ismail shot the girl alone and with other children, along with many other survivors of two airstrikes that hit the Bab al-Nairab district of Aleppo.
Two barrel bomb strikes on that neighbourhood on that day were very widely reported. The attack that day was notable because it hit a funeral where civilians were mourning deaths from an earlier attack.
Some people commenting online seem to think it sinister that the child was photographed in the arms of three different men, but we have seen plenty of other footage from Syria where rescuers work in a chain and pass children to each other.
The girl in the bottom left photo is hard to see from the still used in the “Al Qaeda/White Helmets” montage. She was the subject of an astonishing piece of video footage that was broadcast around the world in September this year.
Identified in reports as Rawan Alowsh, aged five, the girl was shown buried deep in debris after an airstrike in Aleppo on 23 September this year. The rest of her family – three sisters, parents and baby brother – were reported to have perished.
The long sequence in which rescuers painstakingly clearing rubble away from around the girl suggests that it would have been difficult to fake this footage.
Someone would have had to have buried a screaming child up to their chest in rubble and carefully assembled a large amount of heavy wreckage around and on top of her – an extraordinary logistical challenge and an extraordinary collective act of child abuse.
Judging by some of the online conversation about this, some people don’t believe it’s possible for children to be pulled out of the rubble of collapsed buildings without serious injury, but we know that it can happen.
It happened recently after an earthquake in central Italy. And in other conflict zones, adults and children have been known to emerge unscathed from houses wrecked by bombs.
Indeed, Eva Bartlett herself reported on such a case in Gaza in 2009, telling the story of a Palestinian man called Abu Qusay who was “buried alive” by an Israeli bomb but emerged with “only a mere scar at his left eyebrow”.
The footage was not released to the world’s media by the White Helmets through their usual online channels.
Rawan is later filmed lying on a hospital bed soon afterwards, apparently asleep or unconscious. Her jumper has been removed and her face is more clearly visible:
Some online comments we have seen suggest – without any evidence – that this is not the same girl we see being rescued and carried away. But some of the details of the outfits match, like the two gold bangles the girl is wearing on her left wrist, which is visible in earlier footage too.
A report in the Australian newspaper from a few days later – heavily based on conversations with doctors in rebel-held Aleppo – said of Rawan: “She is being cared for by her grandparents but remains in deep shock, barely able to speak and apparently unable to understand that her parents and siblings are dead.”
This video footage was also very widely circulated. It was first uploaded to YouTube by anti-Assad activists in Talbiseh, a large rebel-held town just north of Homs, and around 100 miles away from Aleppo. Again, it was not released by the White Helmets.
We see a girl with blood apparently pouring from a wound on the bridge of her nose, in some distress, after an airstrike on Talbiseh on 10 October. She is calling for her father in Arabic:
The girl then gives her name as Aya. She was reported to be eight years old. Reports from the time suggested that Aya’s parents and three siblings all survived the attack and she was reunited with them later.
Again, judging from comments, some people believe that this footage is staged, that the girl is acting and the blood on her face is fake.
Whatever this video does and doesn’t show, it lets us have a good look at Aya’s face, so we can compare the three girls side by side.
It seems pretty obvious that these are three different children, with quite different facial features:
We can also clearly see throughout the footage that, despite some superficial similarities in the girls’ outfits, they are not wearing the same clothes.
Aya is wearing a sleeveless turquoise top, while Rawan is wearing a jumper in a similar colour and the unnamed girl photographed by Abdulrhman Ismail is wearing a turquoise top with a distinctively different design.
Like Rawan, this girl wears gold bracelets, but they are on her right wrist. And unlike Rawan, her jeans are studded with sequins.
Timing of the attacks
Another thing we can check is whether there are independent accounts of attacks taking place at times and places that fit these incidents.
In the case of the unnamed first child, the attack in August was described by the Reuters photographer who took the picture, and there are numerous other press reports of a double airstrike in the same neighbourhood of Aleppo on that day.
Rawan was purportedly rescued from rubble on 23 September, a day when anti-government activists in Aleppo, local medical staff, journalists on the ground, the UN agency Unicef, Human Rights Watch, the Violations Documentation Center and others all reported heavy airstrikes on the city.
Indeed, the Syrian Army announced it was about to launch an operation to retake rebel-held districts of east Aleppo, including airstrikes, shortly before the incident.
In the case of “Aya”, footage uploaded by the same activist group in Talbiseh on the same day shows the aftermath of bombing on the town. Videos of victims, including crying infants and the dead body of an elderly man, were posted on the same day, apparently without attracting disbelief.
The attack took place a week after a wave of airstrikes in the area, after Russian officers were quoted as saying they were intensifying the air campaign in rebel-held areas.
It’s hard to prove something like this absolutely, but we think it is beyond reasonable doubt that the three little girls in these pictures are different people.
We would suggest that if you choose different still images and compare them with each other, the girls don’t really bear a very strong facial resemblance to each other at all.
The most striking similarity is their outfits – turquoise tops and jeans. But that raises an obvious question: if you really were using a child actor to fake three different incidents, why would you dress them in similar clothes? Logically, if anything, wouldn’t you make an effort to make them look as different as possible?
Add to that the other circumstantial evidence: the White Helmets – supposedly the instigators of all this “fakery” – did not actually release the footage of any of these rescues via their usual channels.
It’s not clear whether critics of the White Helmets believe that all the videos the group posts of people being rescued from bombed-out houses are fake. There are dozens listed on the group’s YouTube page in the last six months alone.
In the case of all of these three girls, we have footage of other injured children from around the same time as the attacks took place, which no one has suggested was staged. Why use fake victims when there were other real people to film and photograph?
And we have a Reuters photographer on the ground at one of the incidents, who was satisfied that the events he was recording were genuine.
Finally, we can verify from other sources that the airstrikes that led to these pictures really happened, and judging from the time they were first uploaded, we know that the pictures were taken very soon after bombs fell in the vicinity.
So to believe that these images are really of the same child actor, you would have to believe that a little girl was on standby somewhere in Syria, waiting to be rushed to different locations – crossing several front lines in the process – as soon as there was news of a regime airstrike.
Perhaps the simpler explanation is the more likely one: children really are being orphaned in Syria, or left wounded and distressed, and those children are now being wrongly accused of involvement in an elaborate conspiracy.
We ought to say that there is the possibility that Eva Bartlett had something else in mind entirely from this montage of pictures. We’ve tried to contact her for clarification but haven’t received a reply yet. We will update the blog if she gets back to us.