To those who know about the traumas of war, it is ‘the thousand-yard stare’ — that blank look from unfocused eyes that have seen too much but cannot comprehend the horror they have witnessed.
The phrase was coined in World War II to describe the haunted faces of shell-shocked soldiers coming out of battle. An artist who captured it back then asked plaintively: ‘How much can a human stand?’
And here it is again, on the face of a five-year-old boy, an innocent pulled from the rubble of the battle-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo after an air strike by government forces, just the latest casualty in that benighted country’s blood-soaked civil war.
It has shocked the world, appalled at war being waged on children. And raises again that question from World War II — how much indeed can a human stand, especially one so small and fragile?
The little boy’s name is Omran and he lived with his family in an apartment building in the rebel-held eastern quarter of the city.
On Wednesday, as he sat at home with his mother, father, two brothers (one a baby) and 11-year-old sister — the planes came without warning.
The rebels had been winning ground, with 10,000 fighters threatening the government lines around Aleppo. The forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, flew in to force them back. Their rockets and bullets hit the building, which crumbled into an empty shell with its terrified occupants still inside.
Omran — arms, legs and CatDog cartoon T-shirt covered in dust, blood streaming from his head — was pulled out by a rescue worker, carried to an ambulance and plumped down into a seat several sizes too big for him to be driven to hospital.
He sits, bemused, shocked, passive, staring into the distance, not even able to cry. Pale, barefoot and bloodied, he is like a tiny ghost against the vivid orange of the ambulance seat.
Nobody can say for certain how many of Syria’s 18 million population have been killed and injured in the conflict. However, the scale of the humanitarian horror is not in doubt.
According to reports, at least ten million civilians, more than half the population, have been displaced. Many of these have fled abroad to neighbouring countries (above all Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan) and, increasingly, to Europe.