A disturbing story is circulating on social networks — especially in Arabic — and some news media that a number of premature babies died in their incubators when Syrian forces cut off electricity to hospitals during their assault on the city of Hama.
Evidence suggests it is a cruel hoax, and the pictures of the “dead babies” widely circulated online are false.
To me the story was immediately suspicious. First of all it sounded too much like the false reports of invading Iraqi troops throwing babies out of incubators in Kuwait in August 1990 — reports that were used to build public support and urgency for the 1991 Gulf War. These claims were part of an elaborate propaganda effort by the Washington PR consultancy Hill & Knowlton hired by the Kuwaiti government.
Why this matters
As the Syrian government has escalated its brutal crackdown against the uprising, people outside the country, including major news media, have become reliant on YouTube videos and eyewitness accounts collected at a distance.
Many of the videos that have emerged from Syria depict horrifying violence even if it is not always possible for news media to verify specific details. What is not in doubt is that the Syrian government has sought to restore its grip on the country with extreme violence. Many innocent people have been victims — including children, such as 13-year old Hamza al-Khatib who was tortured and killed in horrifying circumstances.
In this hazy situation created by Syria’s exclusion of international media, different parties can try to seek advantage in the propaganda war. False reports and hoaxes make it much harder to get people to take real crimes seriously.
What has been claimed
Last night, I received this image by Twitter. It can also be found on numerous Arabic-language forums, particularly based in the Gulf. Here’s one example and here is another. The accompanying texts are similar — though with changing details — to the caption on the image I received which said (my translation):
Syria | The electricity was cut today from the city of Hama, and the outage included the hospitals. Following this, the Shabiha [state militia] deliberately destroyed the electricity generators in the hospitals which led to the deaths of all the premature babies (more than 40 in a single hospital).
On its face, the report is hyperbolic and not very credible, though it appears to be believable enough that many people circulated it in good faith.
But even the most brutal regimes don’t tend to deliberately destroy generators at hospitals. Not even Saddam’s army really threw babies out of incubators. Which hospitals? If it was 40 babies in one hospital, how many in the others? Tens more? Hundreds more? And what about the picture? Are those babies dead or alive?
Moreover why haven’t any of the major human rights organizations monitoring events in Syria including Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International raised the alarm?
Claims of babies dying in incubators appear as early as 30 July
The photo and claims of the dead infants in Hama that I received began circulating on Twitter at least as early as August 4 or 5, but without any sourcing:
But tweets claiming babies died — or were at risk of dying — in incubators in cities other than Hama or hospitals other than Hama’s al-Hourani, appeared as early as 30 July, one even linking to a different image of living babies:
Can all these reports be true? Can any of them be true? Is there anything more credible to go by?
CNN and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
On 7 August, CNN carried a story headlined, “Rights group: 8 babies die after power cut to Syrian hospital”:
(CNN) — A Syrian human rights group says eight premature infants dependent on incubators died after authorities cut power to a hospital in the embattled city of Hama as part of a renewed crackdown on anti-government demonstrators calling for an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s reign.
The babies died at Hurani Hospital in the northwest Syrian city on Wednesday, Rami Abdul-Rahman, president of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Sunday. Abdul-Rahman cited information provided by a hospital employee who fled the city on Saturday.
CNN cannot independently verify the account. The Syrian government could not immediately be reached for comment.
And indeed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights website carries an Arabic-language item dated 7 August and headlined “8 infants martyred in the Syrian army’s campaign in Hama.” The item states (my translation):
Eight newborn infants died when Syrian authorities cut off electricity to a hospital in Hama in an intervention that is part of the Damascus regime’s effort to crush the anti-government protests in the city.
Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said, citing an employee of the al-Hourani Hospital who had fled Hama, that the babies died inside their incubators when the electricity supply was cut off from the hospital, in a renewal of the campaign of military oppression that the Damascus regime is engaged in to crush the protests against it.
The report does not name the hospital employee nor provide a date for the alleged incident. Oddly, right at the bottom of this item, it states:
Source: CNN Arabic
A quick search on CNN Arabic located a similar story also dated 7 August and carrying the headline “8 infants killed in in the Syrian army’s campaign in Hama.”
The first two paragraphs of the report are identical verbatim to the Syrian Observatory’s text. Notably the CNN Arabic report — unlike the CNN English report — does not carry a disclaimer that the report is unverified.
The rest of the CNN Arabic story reports on incidents in other parts of Syria.
Given that the two CNN reports and the Syrian Observatory report are all dated 7 August, what seems like a likely sequence is that the Syrian Observatory fed this unverified report to CNN Arabic, which then published it.
The Syrian Observatory then may have put the report on its website citing CNN Arabic as the source, giving it the appearance of added credibility. I wasn’t able to find an earlier report of the alleged incident on the Syrian Observatory website.
Neither the Syrian Observatory report nor CNN mentioned any details about how or why the electricity was cut off, nor that any backup generators (which all hospitals have) were then deliberately destroyed.
Moreover, they only speak about one hospital and 8 babies, nowhere near the horrifying report of “more than 40” in one hospital alone.
Neither showed any images of the type that have circulated online, although CNN’s iReport site — which allows citizens to upload their own stories — does carry the incubator picture in an item dated 5 August.
For CNN to carry the Syrian Observatory’s report without knowing that various reports of babies dying in incubators — always unverified and with crucial differences in details — were circulating for days, is the height of irresponsibility. The ‘babies in incubators’ story calls to mind the equally lurid and unsubstantiated reports of mass rape in Libya.
Other than CNN, the only major news organization to carry this story is the Associated Press which mentioned it briefly in a round up on Syria.
Where does the incubator picture come from?
The picture circulating with many of the alarmist report of dozens of dead babies in Syria, you will be glad to know, shows a bunch of babies who are alive, hopefully well, and living in Egypt.
The image apparently first appeared on the website of the Egyptian newspaper al-Badil al-Jadid in two stories on 6 April and 7 April about overcrowding and poor conditions in the maternity ward of the al-Shabti hospital in Alexandria.
Who decided to misuse this picture and claim it represented babies killed in Syria is unknown, but whoever did it is engaging in heartless and manipulative propaganda. They are also damaging the credibility of Syrians who risk their lives to get real information and footage out of the country.
Can we be sure?
Is it possible that babies in incubators have been harmed in Syria’s crackdown? Of course it is possible, but there is just no evidence for it. There are only lots of lurid claims and fake photographs and many people have disseminated them in complete good faith believing them to be real.
But those who originate such claims — and embellish them with false details and pictures — know, as the fraudsters who fabricated similar stories from Kuwait, that atrocities committed against children are guaranteed to inflame people’s emotions. Perhaps that is the goal, and to what purpose only the perpetrators know.
Some Syrian sources had recognized the photos from other contemporaneous accounts of the Shatby Pediatric Hospital scandal and were alerting people to the hoax as early as 5 August.
However, these few mentions were drowned out in the flood of alarm and concern.