At the start of January, activists were working hard at a campaign on social media to bring aid to starving people trapped in the besieged town of Madaya. The town, located near Syrian’s border with Lebanon, has been sealed off from the outside world for six months by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. As a result of the siege, hundreds of Madaya’s residents could starve to death, according to the UN.
Amid the countless pictures of Madaya’s starving children, one image stands out above the rest. On the right-hand side, a beautiful, blue-eyed girl stares into the camera, whereas on the left, a series of photos supposedly show the same child, but she is starving and emaciated, a mere skeleton. The image caption compares this tiny child to the angelic beauty of the Mona Lisa. It reads: “The Syrian Mona Lisa is starving to death.” The little girl soon earned a nickname in the media, "The Syrian Mona Lisa".
The photomontage first attracted widespread attention when it was shared on January 5th by Lebanon’s Council of Ulemas. The grouping pulls together the country’s Sunni theologians and has been campaigning on behalf of Madaya’s beleaguered residents.
"The Syrian Mona Lisa is starving to death!”
The little girl appears on TV... in good health
In reality, the girl in the photo is named Marina Mazeh. She comes from a village close to the city of Tyr, in southern Lebanon. She is in no way connected to the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Madaya. Her family, shocked by the way in which the girl’s photo had been manipulated, eventually decided to speak out to the media. In a TV report, her uncle told journalists that the photo was taken after his niece had just bought some chewing gum.
It’s not the first time Marina’s photo has been manipulated. The photo, originally uploaded to Facebook three years ago, resurfaced on social media networks in January 2014. Internet users claimed it showed a Syrian refugee selling chewing gum in the Zaatari camp based in Jordan. The bogus claim was then picked up and spread by several media outlets, notably TV network al-Arabiya, which described her, once again, as the ‘Syrian Mona Lisa.’
In the report filmed by a Lebanese TV network, the girl’s family explains that they didn’t react at the time because media interest in the story quickly faded. But this time, they say they were forced to speak out, because the photomontage had left their seven-year-old daughter traumatised.
As for the photos of the emaciated child juxtaposed with Marina's picture, our team has tracked them back to a tweet that dates from February 7, 2015. The tweet indicates that the image was taken in the Ghouta region, to the east of Damascus, which has also come under siege by the Syrian regime for a period of several months. Unfortunately, we have been unable to independently verify this information.
The Council of Ulemas acknowledges its mistake and deletes the photo
The Observers also got in touch with Lebanon’s Council of Ulemas to ask why the group decided to publish the fake photomontage, when there are already several authentic images showing malnourished children in Madaya.
Abu Bakr al-Dhahabi is the spokesperson for the Council of Ulemas.
“We did a quick search online on the famine in Madaya and we found this image. So we posted it on our Facebook page in order to meet the needs of our campaign. Yes, it was a mistake. And we apologize for any wrongdoing we may have caused. That said, we didn’t put together the photomontage. We found it on Facebook and we shared it as it was.”