Human rights activists are hoping to draw renewed attention to the human cost of the conflict in Syria. The project, How Many Syrians, is designed to memorialize those killed in the ongoing civil war between the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, separatist groups, and ISIS.
Over the weekend, the activists tweeted the names of the victims of a chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the Syrian government two years ago on August 21 which, according to the U.S. Government's estimates, killed more than 1,400 people. In the Twitter "reading" of names, there was a new name every few minutes:
"What we felt was missing was the actual Syrian peoples' names and photos," said Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian-American writer and one of the founders of How Many Syrians.
The project is run by Sergie Attar and three other activists based in the U.S. Since last year, they have organized readings of Syrian victims' names outside the White House and UN headquarters on the anniversaries of attacks, and published A Book of Syria's Dead which lists the names of Syrians killed during the war.
The death toll since the beginning of the conflict in 2011 has reportedly crossed 200,000. But pinning down a more precise number has been challenging. One non-profit, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), put the number of deaths they could confirm at around 210,000 in February this year, but said it was probably higher–closer to 270,000.
In January last year, the UN said it would stop updating its official death toll because it didn't have enough access on the ground to verify deaths, and couldn't accurately confirm figures from groups like SOHR. How Many Syrians uses a cross-referenced list based on reports from SOHR, the Syrian Network for Human Rights and the Violations Documenting Center in their campaigns.
But in August last year the U.N. reversed their original decision and published a new toll of 191,369, with the caveat that the figure was not entirely reliable, the Washington Post reported.
Sergie Attar said the tweeting of names was a new way to remember those who died. "We didn't realize that the Twitter feed was going to get so much attention but I think people having that on their feed, the constant reminder of names of people that you can read, who they were, where they were from and when they died, I think it's a very powerful tool and we will continue to do that," she said.
When the Syrian government launched an air strike on a marketplace in the city of Douma last Sunday, the Twitter account became a vehicle for an even more immediate reaction to a massacre:
The use of barrel bombs in particular by the Syrian government has been condemned by the UN and humanitarian groups. The bombs are metal barrels filled with shrapnel, explosives, and sometimes oil, and dropped from helicopters or military airplanes.
"I think that the least thing that needs to happen and it should happen immediately is stopping the barrel bombs. I think a no-fly zone is a must to stop the Syrian government from bombing its own people," said Sergie Attar.
The UN estimates that around 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced since 2011. There are just over 4 million registered Syrian refugees globally, according to the UN's refugee agency. Western nations have been called on by the UN to take in more refugees as the crisis shows no sign of easing.
Sergie Attar goes to the Syrian-Turkish border twice a year to do work for her non-profit, the Karam Foundation, which distributes aid to Syrian refugees. She says efforts like the book of names and the Twitter campaigns are vital to get people to engage with what can seem like an impossible situation from the outside.
"It's very hard to relate to when you're outside of because it looks so violent and so black and white. I think that Syria is suffering because of the world's inaction and indifference," she said.