Lessons from Rayan and the Ukrainian well

Ghassan Charbel

Published: Updated:

Rayan the Moroccan boy changed the timelines of our days the last week. He took over our days and kept our eyes glued on our screens, stealing the limelight from all else but him. His fate seemed like a test to our humanity. People everywhere shared his father’s pain and his mother’s sorrow. Rarely has a single individual gained such an abundance of compassion and care. The image showing the mouth of the well in which Rayan fell became the sole occupation of millions: television channels could not broadcast anything else. The child’s fate became a test for media outlets too, a race of viewing rates in a sort. The intensive coverage kindled the beacons of hope in a happy ending for the boy, despite the dangerous situation he was in. Not surprisingly, the eventual news of his death were no less disappointing than his survival had been awaited. Sadness filled television screens and viewers’ hearts.

Naturally, we could not but remember the world’s preoccupation in September 2015 with the image of the Syrian boy Alan Kurdi’s body that had washed up on the Mediterranean Sea after the “death boat” his family was taking to Europe capsized. Back then, the little boy’s image made the rounds on TV channels across the globe, even prompting some countries to open their borders to Syrians fleeing the hell of war. Surely, though, we must note the difference in circumstances between falling in a deep well and dying at sea.

Rayan’s tragedy has once again reaffirmed the massive effect of the media, be it TV channels, websites, newspapers, or the race for breaking news, as if we were in the midst of a major battle. It has also proven the media’s ability to entice public opinion and collective sentiment on certain issues and change people’s priorities with its quick and captivating ways. If the media can play such a beneficial, noble role in a humanitarian issue of this kind, one can only imagine its danger if used to fuel racist or nationalist hatred or promote misleading scenarios. In our times, the media jungle provides golden opportunities for toxic sentiments, misinformation, and purposefully misleading campaigns.

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Rayan’s story did not have the hoped happy ending at curtainfall. Yet, it is important to retain the story of the child who fell in the well to better the lives of children and humanity. The truth is every child born into extreme poverty falls into a well of sorts. Children fall in wells every time they cannot go to school or must drop out, every time their capacities are lost in backward educational curricula that could not be farther away from modernity. Similarly, thousands of youth waste their lives when they fall into the well of unemployment. Even more dangerous is their slip into the well of extremism, practicing the use of guns and murder under deluded ideologies at the hands of gangs that split up states and only increase poverty and death rates. It would not be an overstatement to say that bottomless, perilous wells await any child born in the terrible region of the Middle East.

The curtain has fallen on the story of the boy in the well. The tidal waves of humanitarian sympathy have a habit of receding just as quickly as they emerged. In fact, these waves change next to nothing in the course of humanity, for the future is made by economies, arsenals, plans, maneuvers, and power dynamics that rarely stop at the fall of little states into wells they cannot get out without the help of stronger powers. It’s a price that these small states keep paying for years from their ledgers of sovereignty and freedom to write their own future.

While we were busy waiting to see Rayan’s fate, the world was awaiting another exceptional event, for which the two parties involved chose an exceptional occasion: the inauguration of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Leaving aside athletes and medals, the greater event of the Olympics was the summit held in the Chinese capital city between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. What made this meeting all the more significant was the simultaneous fanning of flames in Ukraine, worrying America and troubling Europeans, who had thought in the last few decades that the Old Continent was safe from the rattling of guns, the phantom of invasions, and the forced reshaping of areas and territories.

It is safe to say that the meeting held between the Chinese and Russian leaders has laid a solid foundation for what seems to be an anti-US axis, portending a climate redolent of the winds of the Cold War. China backed not only Putin’s stance against NATO’s expansion near his borders, but also his moving of his post-WWII European pawns. A Russian-Chinese statement demanded NATO to stop what it called its Cold War approaches, slamming the negative US influence in the Asia-Pacific region in a nod to last year’s AUKUS alliance. In return, the visiting “friend” was expected to adopt Beijing’s stance on Taiwan.

Putin has undoubtedly been successful in stirring a major crisis as part of his bid to largely overturn the position that Washington occupied after throwing the USSR into the mires of disintegration without firing a single bullet and singling out a weak post-USSR Russia as its rival. Therefore, the Chinese stop in Putin’s offensive journey is particularly important, especially now that the statement claiming that “China and Russia’s strategic choice on the international scene holds its ground” is coupled with long-term accords to supply China with Russian oil and gas.

As in the tragedy of Rayan, the media is playing a crucial role in the Ukraine crisis. Putin’s media is playing on an old, sensitive anthem directed toward his people, one that accuses the West of jumping at every opportunity to besiege, weaken, and undercut Russia. Putin has presented his country as a concerned state trying to stand up to a NATO siege project. It is highly probable that Putin, who regards the fall of the USSR as the 20st Century’s greatest geopolitical catastrophe, is spearheading a counterattack and a major revenge process. Clearly, what worried Putin was not NATO’s proximity to his doors, but rather the proximity of the attractive colored revolutions he believes are run by US embassies in violation of states’ sovereignty and the interests of others.

On the other side, the media has also mushroomed talk of an imminent Russian invasion and thousands of victims and millions of displaced people in the event that Putin chooses a full-fledged invasion.

What is certain is that the Ukrainian crisis is a perilous well. Has Putin lured the US into a well that Washington cannot descend into? Has he become a prisoner of that same well he tried to lure others into?

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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