ALEPPO, Syria – There are few images from the Syrian war as haunting as that of Omran Daqneesh. Just over a year ago, the little boy was photographed — seemingly shell-shocked — in the back of an ambulance, covered in dust with blood on his face and clothing.
That photo and video footage of Omran, captured after his home was hit in a strike, were published around the world, making him the bloodied face of war-torn Aleppo’s children. Since then, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has recaptured the city, ousting the rebels from the eastern side.
With his wounds and bruises healed, the little boy seems much like any other 4-year-old — he likes to watch Tom and Jerry cartoons, and play with toy cars and building blocks with his brother and sister.
CNN met with Omran and his family in their home in eastern Aleppo, in a visit facilitated by the Syrian government. They owned this apartment during the war but had moved into a house to get away from the frontline.
Omran likes the apartment better, he said. When asked what he remembers about his old home, all he could say was: “The house fell on top of us.”
Omran’s father recounts the horror of that night. He pulled Omran from the rubble, he said, but another one of his sons, Ali, was killed as he took the rubbish outside. The strike flattened the home next door. Omran was introduced to the world — as he sat dazed — in the back of the ambulance, as the noise and fog of war engulfed his home and family.
Mohammed Kheir Daqneesh says he’s angry, not only because he lost one son in the strike, but because another, Omran, has been used as a political pawn, in his eyes. At the time, President Assad, in a television interview with Swiss media, proclaimed the now famous photo a fake.
But Omran’s father says he never wanted his son to become a media icon and changed the child’s identity by shaving his head and changing his name when rebels still held part of Aleppo. He has in recent months, however, allowed Omran to be filmed in interviews by Syrian and Russian media, and on this occasion by CNN.
Daqneesh said that after he saved Omran from the strike, members of the White Helmets volunteer rescue group took him to an ambulance.
It was there that activists from the Aleppo Media Center (AMC) filmed and photographed him, and posted the images online to highlight the dreadful toll of the war on Syria’s children.
“They started to film him. They began to film him before they even treated him, even though they said his injuries were severe,” Daqneesh said.
The White Helmets deny they waited for Omran to be filmed before treating him.
“We provided first aid to all members of the family,” White Helmets spokesman Ibrahim Abu Laith said in a statement.
Thankfully, the boy was only slightly wounded. An AMC spokesman says he was in extreme shock.
By the time of the strike on the home last year, the civil conflict had morphed into something of a proxy war, with international players, including Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally, and the United States, backing different sides and a complex web of rebel groups fighting for different interests.
Syrian and Russian forces pounded eastern Aleppo with regular airstrikes before the regime seized the enclave after more than four years of rebel rule. Much of the east has been destroyed, and rebels have caused destruction in the city’s west as well.
With restricted access to Syria, international media has relied heavily on activist groups, like the AMC, to record the war.
But Daqneesh claims the details of what happened to Omran were grossly exaggerated. It was his own blood that had spilled onto Omran’s face, and Omran and his sister, Rou’a, were only lightly wounded, Daqneesh said.
“The truth is one thing and they used him in a way that was not truthful and this really bothered me. The armed militia and their media used him in a way that was excessive,” he said.
He also complained that some media organizations reported that Omran and his siblings had died.
“They keep killing them and bringing them back to life. Then make liars out of each other and then go back and deny it again. This matter bothered me very, very much.”
Aleppo is now regime controlled, and the Syrian government is known to a keep tight grip on information within the country. It was unclear if Daqneesh was speaking freely or if he had been pressured by the government, or any other group.
Who’s to blame for the strike?
Daqneesh did not say which rebel groups or media he was unhappy with, but he claimed “armed men” tried to coerce him into blaming a Russian airstrike for what happened. He told CNN that he did not know who was behind the strike.
The incident on August 17 last year was widely reported as an airstrike.
The AMC and the White Helmets maintain a Russian airstrike hit Omran’s home, but they deny coercing the young boy’s family to say that.
The Syrian and Russian governments each deny any responsibility for what happened.
AMC executive director Hasan Kattan said that his group had a network connected, by walkie-talkies, to a military observation point and recorded warplanes leaving Russia’s Hmeimim air base just before Omran’s home was hit.
“One of our reporters lives near Omran’s house and he saw a warplane launching a missile,” Kattan told CNN, adding that an AMC cameramen went directly to the strike site and filmed the video of the boy.
There may never be agreement on what happened that night, but Omran plans to get on with his life.
When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he said “a metal worker,” just like his dad.