Finding Bana - Proving the Existence of a 7-Year-Old Girl in Eastern Aleppo
This article was written collaboratively with Bellingcat contributor Timmi Allen.
Bana Alabed is a 7 year-old girl who lives in East Aleppo. Through her broken English and simple messages alternating between fear and hope, she has become a representation of the suffering that children face every day within Syria. She is also a star on Twitter. In the three months Bana Alabed’s account has been active it has amassed 284,000 followers, including J. K. Rowling, multiple news reports and over 580 tweets. She also posted multiple videos on Periscope which show her daily life, as well as the bombing that E. Aleppo has endured. Her rapid rise to prominence has resulted in questions from some about the veracity of Bana Alabed, her account and the subject matter she covers. This report will examine the media she has posted, the context in which it is posted, and its probable veracity. Due to the possibility of Bana’s account being deleted, all the tweets we have linked to are screenshots from cached pages.
Bana’s family consists of five members: Her father, Ghassan Alabed, reportedly works in the legal department of the local council registering births and deaths. He also currently describes himself as a “Activist against terrorism and ISIS” on his Twitter page, and is something of a poet, having posted poems lamenting the destruction of Aleppo on his Facebook page since October 2015. Her mother, Fatemah, is an English teacher who has also studied law, politics and, significantly, journalism. Bana also has two small brothers: Noor, who is 3 years old and Mohammed, who is 5.
Bana and her Twitter profile rapidly gained prominence after it was set up on the 24th September, indeed on the 29th September several media organisations ran reports on her, including the Mail Online, who claimed to have spoken to Fatemah via Skype, the Telegraph and Quartz. Although initially it is surprising that @AlabedBana became well known so rapidly, the ability of Twitter to spread information so efficiently and intense media scrutiny surrounding Aleppo make her rise remarkable, but not impossible. The simple messages of fear and hope from a small child spoken in broken English from a warzone, make Bana Alabed very easy to report on, and easily caught the imagination of those who read about her.
After this initial exposure, @AlabedBana was the subject of a multitude of different news reports, ranging from simple descriptions, to detailed documentary segments and Skype interviews. These drew interest from all sides of the political spectrum, and resulted in @AlabedBana becoming a polarising figure, up to and including President Assad, who conflated @AlabedBana and her account with “terrorists or their supporters“. At this point Bana stopped being a simple girl, and instead, by her very existence, became a political activist and a threat to the reputation of Assad himself.
One of the first, and most easily dismissed, allegations about Bana’s account is that it is not tweeting from East Aleppo, but rather from Turkey or somewhere else in Syria. Examining videos posted on Periscope and Twitter from her roof, including footage in which she is clearly present, we can geolocate them to 36°12′16″N 37°11′09″E. While Bana was tweeting, this block was firmly inside rebel controlled East Aleppo. This location appears to be, and is described by Fatemah on their periscope videos, as their home. All videos or photos showing Bana, her mother Fatemah, or her father outside the apartment were geolocalized by us and were near her flat.
Bana’s account has also posted other photos, such as this one of children killed in an airstrike on a school in Idlib. However these are clearly posted to raise awareness of other events within Syria or Aleppo, rather than direct descriptions of her situation.
Management of account
Some have questioned how a 7 year-old girl with broken English can run such a successful social media campaign. The simple answer is that she doesn’t. Her Twitter account clearly states that it is “managed by mom”. As we have seen, Fatemah is a teacher, an English speaker, has studied journalism and appears to be adept at using social media, which easily explains the sophistication of Bana’s social media presence.
As of 8th December 2016 the account had posted 580 visible tweets attributed to several different people: 121 were signed “Bana”, 181 signed “Fatemah” or “Bana mom”, 1 signed “Mohamed”, and 124 lacking an attribution. There are also a significant number of retweets, accounting for 153 posts. The tweets directly attributed to Bana are therefore in the minority, with the majority actually accredited to Fatemah. Their two styles are noticeably and understandably different, with tweets attributed to Bana being more simplistic. The sophistication of the unattributed tweets strongly suggest they are posted by Fatemah rather than Bana, while the simple, yet grammatically correct English employed by Bana suggests that, at the very least, they are edited or transcribed by Fatemah.
It is clear from this that the account is about Bana, rather than run by her. Her mother controls and manages the account, hardly surprising considering Bana is only 7 years old. This is quite clearly stated on the account.
Access to electricity and internet
Others have questioned how Bana and Fatemah have access to both electricity and internet services in a city that has been so heavily damaged by war. Concern over the ability of the account to post so many tweets from such a devastated city is valid, indeed on the 4th of October she tweeted 18 times and re-tweeted 111 times. However, once we examine the context of East Aleppo and the content of the media itself we can see that this is entirely credible.
Bana and her family have access to electricity through solar panels installed on their roof. This charges some form of car battery which is then used to charge the phones. This infrastructure is clear to see on Bana and Fatemah’s periscope videos, and also on a report by Sept à Huit, which made a documentary about Bana in late November of this year. This infrastructure is also alluded to in a BBC report from late September:
How exactly Bana and Fatemah connect to the internet is not initially clear, but the account does claim that they use “poor 3G and remaining WiFi service”:
One suggested alternative is that Fatemah has access to a satellite phone, which would explain the fairly regular access to the internet. However, the account makes no mention of a satellite phone, nor is one seen at any point in any of the media attributed to the account.
Considering the effect of 5 years of war on the infrastructure of Syria, it is surprising to find that Aleppo does actually have mobile coverage and some forms of WiFi coverage. The mobile coverage is quite easily confirmed by texts sent to residents of East Aleppo by the regime. Meanwhile the rebel “Hawa Net project”, as well as several enterprising private individuals, apparently provided internet access to East Aleppo using microwave links to Turkey. These links were connected to a WiFi router to which ordinary residents purchased access. This tweet and its thread by Syrian activist Kenan Rahmani also describes the process of accessing local WiFi sourced from companies with access to satellite phones in more detail. The legacy of these services would explain the “remaining WiFi” that the account describes. It appears it is also possible to access 3G services if one is near a government controlled area. There is certainly access to the internet in West Aleppo, as this article by Dyn Research shows. Therefore it appears there are multiple ways Bana and Fatemah could be gaining access to the internet, although it is probably not by satellite phone.
Criticism and Attacks by trolls
While examining @AlabedBana we occasionally see tweets which seem out of place for an account run for a small child and appear to incite violence, including starting a third World War.
Although these tweets would be absurd if attributed to a 7 year old child, they ring quite true as outbursts from a person, almost certainly Fatemah, who is currently trapped with her young family in a city that experiences constant fighting, and faces death on a daily basis. Although their content can be seen as reprehensible, and criticised for attributing overly political statements to a 7-year old, the tweets are still entirely consistent with the context around this account. The morality of mixing this kind of content with messages from Bana is something that our readers must decide for themselves.
Bana’s account has also experienced sustained attack by trolls and those seeking to undermine and discredit it. This has ranged from abusive comments on her Twitter page to fake accounts being set up to discredit both Bana and Fatemah.
Criticism of Bana’s account is rife with deliberate misunderstanding, misinformation, and lack of evidence. For example, claims that Ghassan Alabed probably works for a Sharia court are totally without basis in evidence. We have already seen how the @AlabedBana account clearly states it is managed by her mother, a fact that seems to have been deliberately ignored by the multitude of commentators. A popular “debunking” of the account, which has been posted by those critical of Bana is a prime example:
Not only does this “debunking” article wilfully ignore obvious facts, it is also factually incorrect on several counts, such as suggesting Bana is tweeting from Gazientep in Turkey, and the laughable assertion that neither Russia nor the Syrian regime are conducting airstrikes in East Aleppo.
This article also maintains that the account may actually be run by Mr Alhamdo, citing a short video he posted of Bana and him together, and the use a similar style of written English to Bana and Fatemah. Considering Fatemah is a student at Mr Alhamdo’s institution and also a foreign speaker, any similarity would not be surprising. However, their styles are in fact quite different: Fatemah scrupulously uses capital letters in the right place, correct punctuation, and correct spacing, all things Mr Alhamdo is much more slap-dash about.
Unless you are an arch misogynist who does not believe that women are able to use technology such as Twitter, the idea that Mr Alhamdo is required to upload tweets and run the account is absurd. There is a similar undercurrent of prejudice in the claim that @AlabedBana is being run from the West, as if a Syrian is not capable of running their own Twitter account. The documentary made by Sept à Huit clearly shows Fatemah taking a video of Bana and uploading it. Considering Fatemah’s background as an English teacher, as well as her studies in politics and journalism, it seems unlikely she would need much help to set up Bana’s account. If anything Mr Alhamdo seems more likely to be taking advice from Fatemah, since his account was set up in mid-October 2016, well after Fatimah set up Bana’s account.
The attempts to discredit Bana have verged into the ludicrous, including people quoting the clearly fake accounts described above as proof of Fatemah’s radical Islamic credentials. There was even an attempt to show that Bana’s account was run from the UK by a ham-fisted examination of the meta-data from her account. In that case the meta-data being examined was actually that of the person doing the searching, rather than @AlabedBana. That particular sleuth did eventually delete his tweet and withdraw his comments, but still maintains the account is “suspicious” and that he “had something on it”. What this “something” is remains to be seen.
Bana’s home bombed
Bellingcat was already working on verifying Bana’s account when she was apparently a victim of a bombing on the evening of the 27th November. Two pictures were posted by @AlabedBana showing rubble strew in the alleyway between Bana’s house and the neighbouring building, as well as some bomb damage. This also prompted J.K Rowling to retweet one of Bana’s videos, raising her profile still further:
It is difficult to fully assess this damage as the photos do not show the inside of her flat, however, using the photo and older satellite imagery we can see it was indeed taken from the same block of flats as her videos:
Examination of satellite photos before and after the date of the bombing clearly show significant, localised, damage to her block of flats. Looking at damage in the neighbourhood as a whole, this damage is very specific and appears targeted (Source – Digital Globe NextView License)
As for Bana and her family after the bombing, they escaped relatively unharmed.
On the 4th December Bana’s neighbourhood fell to the Syrian Army. Fatemah made one last post and then temporarily deleted the account. Other activists have faced repercussions for highlighting human rights abuses by the regime. Deleting the account and avoiding regime controlled areas of the city is perfectly rational for a family that has become so prominent that President Assad is personally aware of their existence. This was the last tweet:
Although it has since been reinstated, the tweet rate has dropped significantly. Bana’s father, Ghassan, confirmed in an interview with Al Hayat that their house had been bombed and that they were forced to flee to another location. The family remain afraid of possible retribution at the hands of forces loyal to Assad and, despite what seems to be a genuine attempt to evacuate them by a pro-regime journalist, have not managed to escape East Aleppo.
As the rebel pocket in Aleppo collapsed on the 14th December, Fatemah turned to the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, a country which helped to organise the abortive truce the night before, and may yet organise some kind of truce for civilians to exit the pocket.
Using the open source information available to us we can draw several conclusions about Bana and her Twitter account:
- Bana Alabed is a real 7 year-old child who resides in East Aleppo.
- Her Twitter and Periscope accounts have consistently posted videos from the same locations in East Aleppo.
- Her accounts are run by her mother, Fatimah.
- Fatimah has experience of journalism and appears to be very social-media savvy.
- Bana and her mother have come under sustained attack from critics using lies, misinformation and deliberate misunderstanding in order to delegitimise them.
By far the most likely scenario is that @AlabedBana is an account run by Fatemah which tells the story of her daughter, a young child in East Aleppo. This story cannot be told without including the daily horrors which affect the residents of that city. This in itself does not make @AlabedBana some kind of Jihadi plot, nor a propaganda account seeking to spread a false narrative: due to the events occurring in Aleppo, any account of daily life becomes inherently political. The account has posted more obvious political messages, as well as occasional frustrated outbursts, but for the majority of its existence it has posted the simple hopes and fears of a young girl and her mother. Bombs are falling on East Aleppo and young children are suffering, and Bana represents a microcosm of that suffering.
In the same way, the fact that Fatemah, who clearly and openly runs this account, is adept at using social-media, and posts from a particular viewpoint, does not necessarily discredit this account either: being adroit at informing the world about the plight of those in East Aleppo does nothing to detract from that suffering. Some have argued that Fatemah has used Bana in an exploitative manner, and while the mix of political statements and simplistic messages could certainly be criticised, it appears to be an entirely rational approach for a family attempting to raise awareness of the dire situation in East Aleppo.
Unless one lacks any kind of empathy, it is clear that @AlabedBana is an attempt to show the world an aspect of the suffering of real people in a real situation, including their fear of death and frustrated outbursts. Putting aside political affiliations and partisan politics, it is impossible to reject the truth that there is a small girl called Bana suffering under the fear of death because of the conflict in Aleppo, an existence shared by many other children on all sides across this conflict.