Teenager’s screams still haunt Syria a year after raid that nearly killed him
THE TIMES — Under cloudless desert skies the burnt boy keeps to the shade of his basement home, hiding from the sun. Light and heat antagonise his wounds. He cannot go to school, nor even play with his friends after sunset, as sweat also irritates the scar tissue covering his ravaged body.
Instead, Mohammed Hamid is spending his teenage years sequestered in the shadows, seated near the cooling breeze of a fan, playing games on his mobile phone in which a boy on a motorbike escapes fireballs shot at him by a pursuing helicopter — and gets a second chance should he fail.
If the 14-year-old leaves home, then it is at dusk, to walk in the company of his father through Hasakah’s streets, where he tries to ignore the shouts of children playing games he would love to join but cannot.
“I miss football and the other games I used to play with my friends,” he said at his home in northern Syria last week, voice wistful at the realisation of a youth stolen by a capricious tweet, a plunging shell and a ball of fire. Once just a normal Kurdish boy, today he is an emblem of cruel betrayal. “The doctors have said that if my burns and skin grafts can properly heal then I must avoid the sun, or anything that makes me sweat, for five years. Some days that seems a long time.”
Mohammed Hamid was burnt one year ago, when he was set ablaze during the bombardment of the town of Ras al-Ain by Turkish forces as they attacked and seized territory held by Syria’s Kurds, America’s principal ally in the fight against Islamic State. Days earlier President Trump had announced a surprise US withdrawal from Syria, in a tweet that exposed the Kurds to immediate Turkish attack.
I had seen the boy in a field hospital near the front only hours after the attack. His burns — stretching from his throat to his waist and moulding together the fingers of his left hand — were horrific. I will never forget his screams. Had he not been evacuated from Syria to France for treatment after the direct intervention of the British charity Save the Children and President Macron, Mohammed would certainly have died.
Now, seven skin grafts later, we meet again. Since I last saw him, the teenager has become bleakly famous in northern Syria. Photographs and footage showing his flayed torso and face contorted in pain in the immediate aftermath of his burning were seen around the world, and are still regularly replayed by local TV stations.
When he returned to Syria after four months in a Paris military hospital, Mohammed found that his image had become synonymous not only with the savagery of the attack on Syria’s Kurds, but also with the acute sense of betrayal the Kurds continue to feel towards the Americans who abandoned them. “I try not to think about the US troops who remain here,” he said. “My family have been displaced from their homes by fighting three times in the past six years. We have survived so much, but can we survive another attack? War is our constant fear. Do the American soldiers guarantee us any protection against another Turkish offensive, or will they abandon us as they did before?”
Though accusations of betrayal were so acute even among senior Republicans that Mr Trump later stopped short of a full US withdrawal, leaving several hundred American troops in the northeast of Syria, the damage was done. In a matter of days in October last year more than 300,000 civilians fled their homes to escape the Turkish onslaught, codenamed Operation Peace Spring, which involved a ground assault by Syrian Islamist militias, backed by Turkish airpower and artillery, on key Kurdish towns along Syria’s border with Turkey.
As a symbol of betrayal and suffering, Mohammed Hamid was not alone. Three days after the offensive began fighters from one such militia, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, ambushed a vehicle containing a widely admired Kurdish woman politician, Hevrin Khalaf. The 34-year-old politician was pulled alive from the car. When her body was later found she had been beaten, shot repeatedly, and partially scalped. The evidence against Ahrar al-Sharqiya, including video and tweeted photographs, was compelling. Yet the international response was muted and Turkey came under little pressure to put militia members on trial for Khalaf’s murder.
“The murder of my daughter meant that human rights were worth nothing here in the eyes of people we had thought of as allies,” Ms Khalaf’s mother, Suad Mustafa, 63, told me last week. “Her murder was America’s and Nato’s shame. She was a woman, a politician, unarmed, carrying no knife or gun, killed in a terrible way. When it came to the Kurds, everyone talked proudly of us as allies who defeated Isis. Yet when we needed support from the Americans, they acted like they were blind and deaf.”
The sudden abandonment by Mr Trump caused such shock and anger among the Syrian Kurds that their relationship with the US has never recovered. They no longer have any faith in their former allies, and are suspicious of what the US may do next, no matter who wins the presidential election.
“After all this time we still don’t even understand what the US policy is here,” said Aldar Xhalil, a leading figure in the Kurdish-led self-administration in northern Syria who has met US military and State Department delegations on countless occasions.
“One of our greatest shocks was to realise that our rights mattered to no one, neither the US nor the UN,” he added. “We still wish to have good relations with the West but in the wake of the Turkish operation we also realised that despite defeating Islamic State as the coalition’s main ally we have been left standing alone.”
The unusual nature of Mohammed Hamid’s burns added to Kurds’ sense of injustice. The scope and depth of the boy’s injuries, which included third and fourth-degree burns, led to suggestions by doctors and weapons experts that he may have been burnt by white phosphorus, the use of which against residential areas is banned.
There were numerous other cases of strange burns among the Kurds injured in the offensive. Ten tissue samples were taken from burns casualties in Syria and stored in a hospital in Sulaymaniyah in Iraq, pending analysis. Western nations have refused to test the samples for white phosphorus, wary of further compromising Nato’s fractious relationship with Turkey. The UN also baulked at becoming involved. Eventually, one sample was sent to a private Swiss clinic, where it tested positive for white phosphorus. No one seemed to care.
Mohammed’s injuries are not only physical. His medical report from Paris notes “extreme psychological trauma” and as we sat talking on the floor of the small apartment he shares with his parents and five siblings, behind him the background television suddenly started playing clips from the Turkish offensive. In a perverse twist of circumstance footage of his burnt body suddenly appeared on the screen, as the terrible sound of his screams penetrated the room.
He was rendered speechless by the sound and for a moment a look of abject terror returned to his eyes. “It upsets me that I am famous for that,” he said when he was finally able to speak again, “and that I cannot escape from what happened to me whenever I watch TV.”
Eventually his father, Hamid, 37, a water lorry driver who works in the nearby refugee camp, spoke up.
“My son almost died, and was saved,” he said. “Whatever our losses, however we were abandoned, that I even have him in front of my eyes still is something I thank God for.”
Russian airstrikes killed 78 rebels in Idlib province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Another 90 were wounded in the attack yesterday on a training camp run by the Faylaq al-Sham faction, which is supported by Turkey. The rights group said it was the deadliest assault since a ceasefire was agreed in March.