NEW YORK — I'm almost certain I saw Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan today. I wanted to walk over and call him a war criminal and a monster, and tell everyone around us that he was the man butchering unarmed civilians in Aleppo. But after half an hour of stalking him through the fiction and film stacks, I still couldn't determine if it was really him.
I pulled up a Wikipedia page with his photo as a reference. I read that during his university days Lavrov was active in drama. This was quite befitting because Security Council meetings often feel like watching a well-produced theatrical performance. The real deliberations happen, not on the floor of the Security Council, but behind closed doors in the adjacent conference hall. Sometimes there's yelling, cursing, threats, and I've even heard of objects being thrown. Before the representatives come out, they know exactly what everyone will say, who will veto, who will act shocked upon hearing the veto, who will walk out after acting shocked upon hearing the veto. And they know what will happen to Aleppo, even though we don't.
Aleppo no longer belongs to Syria, it is now a political game between people who have likely never stepped foot in the city. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad recently called it a “Russian-American conflict,” comparing Syria to conflicts in Vietnam and Korea. For Russia, Aleppo is an opportunity to exercise its power, and they won't stop destroying it until there is nothing left, or until the Western alliance gives in, trading Aleppo for another geopolitical interest.
There are thresholds of international humanitarian law that have been crossed in this conflict that I never imagined would be contested. Wiping out villages with chemical weapons, attacking humanitarian convoys, and systematically targeting hospitals are all lines in the sand when it comes to humanitarian intervention that have been redrawn by the international community.
After the war in Bosnia, a chorus of world leaders claimed, “If we knew then what we know now,” especially when discussing the Srebrenica genocide. Russia stayed quiet on the matter, of course, as it supported Serbian forces during the war by providing weapons and vetoing just about anything that crossed the Security Council chamber. In total, Russia has vetoed three resolutions on Bosnia and five on Syria to date.
Journalist Janine di Giovanni recently recalled staying in Bosnia with other journalists as her moral responsibility to broadcast the devastation and the war crimes taking place there. It's heartbreaking to see just how much coverage the war was getting on CNN while those in power had the gall to later look us in the eyes and say: “We couldn't act; we didn't know this was happening.” It was a weak argument back then, at best, and an impossible one now, in 2016, with the ability to self-broadcast via social media.
Lavrov and Putin meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry — Photo: Kremlin
Syrians don't need CNN or other foreign media to show what's happening around them. They have pointed their camera phones at rows and rows of dead little bodies with no external wounds in the aftermath of the nerve gas attacks in 2013. They've posted videos of starved little boys with sunken eyes and protruding ribs, begging for help in Madaya. They've filmed bloodied, terrified little Omran Daqneesh in the back of an ambulance, sitting quietly and wiping the blood on his seat. These images are haunting, and they serve as touchstones for those who have been crying out for humanitarian intervention since 2011. My concern is that the West has run out of excuses to give them, and eventually will have to admit that help will never come, because their lives aren't worth saving.
CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour sat with Lavrov recently, and actually put photos of Omran Daqneesh in front of him, asking him to explain how the little boy could have been a target. I hissed at the TV: “Show him footage of systematic attacks of hospitals. Show him the dead!” Lavrov agreed that it was a sad image but said that, until eastern Aleppo gives up Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, there will be collateral damage. He also explained to her that there's just no proof of Russia attacking unarmed civilians in such a tone that made Amanpour seem ridiculous for even asking such a question. He made her laugh later; he even appeared charming. I thought about that as I followed him up to the photography section upstairs.
In the end, I left without saying anything – it didn't matter whether it was him or not. I felt completely devastated, realizing there was nothing I could say to him, including reminding him of Russia's history of supporting war crimes in my own country, because it simply wouldn't matter. We are pawns, and so are the people of Aleppo. If there was one thing I could tell them, and I say this not out of pessimism, but out of experience – don't hold hope in these peace talks or any resolutions because they are not about you anymore. To say that Aleppans should hang on to hope would be deceitful.
*Dragana Kaurin is a refugee of the Bosnian war. She was formerly with UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and UNICEF.