Seven-year-old Bana al-Abed's Twitter account has offered a poignant daily glimpse into the hell of life in Syria's Aleppo, so when she fell silent for 24 hours it sparked worldwide concern.
Bana and her mother’s near-daily tweets have been denounced by supporters of Bashar al-Assad’s regime — and even by the president himself — as propaganda.
But for her tens of thousands of followers, brown-eyed Bana is a tragic symbol of thousands of young lives torn apart by Syria’s war.
Her father told AFP on Tuesday that the family was safe after fleeing their home in east Aleppo, nearly three quarters of which has now been overrun by advancing government forces.
“The army got really close to our neighbourhood. We fled to another part of east Aleppo and the family is doing well,” Ghassan al-Abed told AFP.
Concern for Bana rose after there were no tweets from her account on Monday, and supporters launched a #WhereisBana hashtag to raise awareness.
She returned with a fresh tweet on Tuesday, reassuring her followers that she was alive: “Hello my friends, how are you? I am fine… I miss you.”
Since late September, Bana and her mother Fatemah have garnered more than 213,000 followers with their simple English-language updates.
“Good afternoon from #Aleppo I’m reading to forget the war,” read one of the account’s first tweets, with a picture of Bana reading at a wooden desk, sporting a thin smile and a pink bow in her hair.
Childhood ‘stolen by war’
At least 15,000 children are among the more than 300,000 people who have been killed in Syria’s five-year war.
Thousands are living under suffocating sieges with no access to food or medicine, and millions more have been forced to flee their homes.
Over the years, children have become some of the most powerful icons of the human tragedy in Syria.
In 2011, barely two months into the popular uprising against Assad, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib was detained and tortured to death by Syria’s notorious security forces, according to his family.
He was one of the earliest symbols of the brutal repression of the demonstrations that sparked the conflict.
Four years later, the image of Syrian toddler Aylan’s drenched and lifeless body on a Turkish beach became a heart-wrenching reminder of a growing refugee crisis as millions fled their war-torn country.
And earlier this year, footage of dust-caked child Omran — sitting alone in an ambulance in eastern Aleppo — sparked a global outcry.
The Syrian government’s campaign for Aleppo has reduced entire neighbourhoods to ruins, prompting comparisons with 1945 Berlin or Grozny in Chechnya.
Bana’s account has posted pictures of the destruction, with one picture showing the rubble-littered street where she lived.
“Please save us right now,” read the caption to footage she tweeted of a massive column of thick white smoke.
“I think my childhood is stolen by the war,” another tweet said.
‘Thinking of you’
The devastating tweets appear just under other posts that could be of a normal seven-year-old’s life, such as pictures of Bana scribbling in a notebook.
One photo depicts her flanked by her two brothers, reading an electronic copy of a “Harry Potter” novel.
Another shows Bana smiling next to a football, clutching a sign written by hand in felt tip pen that says: “Manchester United win please. I am supporting you in east Aleppo.”
“Please win so I forget the bombings,” reads the tweeted caption addressed to the English football club.
The mother-daughter team has earned thousands of supporters, with people tweeting messages of support and relief in response to Bana’s assurances that she is alive.
“We’re always thinking of you… lots of love and light!” read one tweet on Tuesday from the account of a housewife in the United States.
But Bana’s account has also attracted criticism from detractors of Syria’s armed opposition, including the president himself.
In an October interview with Danish broadcaster TV2, Assad alleged that footage posted by Bana was “promoted by the terrorists or their supporters”, referring to the rebels.
Some Twitter users agree: “She is a child being abused by her terrorist parents,” one tweet read on Tuesday.
But one of Bana’s supporters was quick to reply: “She is a child being bombed.”