Syrians harness Pokemon frenzy to depict their plight
BEIRUT, Lebanon – A sad-eyed Pikachu Pokemon Go character sits amidst the rubble on a Syrian street, while a Charizard dragon from the smash hit game is perched alongside gun-toting jihadists.
The striking montages are the work of Syrian Khaled Akil, who is one of several activists and artists using the international frenzy over Pokemon Go to draw new attention to the plight of their battle-scarred country.
In the images posted on Akil's website, characters from the wildly popular smartphone app are placed into news photographs of scenes from the conflict in Syria, which is now in its sixth year and which has killed more than 280,000 people.
One image appears to show the aftermath of bombardment, with the facades sheared from buildings and smoke rising from the blackened carcass of a car.
A child walks across the rubble strewn throughout the street, atop which sits the yellow Pikachu character, his tall ears flopping down.
In another image, a boy wheels his bicycle down a devastated street, with the turquoise-green Vaporeon character by his side.
"The idea came to me when I was reading the news and saw the news about Syria was mixed with the news about Pokemon Go," Akil told Agence France-Presse.
"I searched for photos of destruction in my city Aleppo and I imagined the Pokemon Go game in Syria and the impact of the war on these creatures," he added.
"My goal with this simple project is to shed light on what is happening in Syria," said Akil.
"Unfortunately, after five years of war, the Syrian death machine has become ordinary, everyday news."
Since its global launch, Pokemon Go has sparked a worldwide frenzy among users who have taken to the streets with their smartphones.
The free app uses satellite locations, graphics and camera capabilities to overlay cartoon monsters on real-world settings, challenging players to capture and train the creatures for battles.
'Come to save me'
But some Syrians see it as a chance to redirect attention to the conflict that began in March 2011, which has often fallen out of the headlines despite a spiralling death toll and the displacement of more than half the Syrian population.
Syrian graphic designer Saif Aldeen Tahhan posted images on his Facebook page showing users holding smartphones and seeking not Pokemon but medical care, school books or undamaged homes.
One image depicts a smartphone in front of a rubber dinghy carrying refugees at sea, with the user trying to capture a life ring.
"I wanted to draw world attention to the suffering of the Syrians in this war," the 26-year-old told AFP.
Tahhan, from Damascus province, left Syria in December 2011, shortly after the conflict began, seeking refuge first in Egypt.
In August 2014, he took to the seas like thousands of Syrian refugees, landing in Italy before continuing onto Denmark, where he now lives.
Syrian opposition activists inside the country have also sought to harness the craze over the game, posting a series of images online this week showing children holding posters of individual characters.
"I am in Kafr Nabal in Idlib province, come and save me," reads the text underneath a Pikachu on a poster held by a young boy.
Kafr Nabal is a rebel-held town in northwestern Idlib province, which is mostly held by an opposition alliance that includes Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
Towns across the province are regularly bombarded by the Syrian government and its Russian ally, with more than 20 civilians reported dead in raids in Idlib on Thursday alone.
Other images in the series created by the Syrian Revolutionary Forces activist group show children in the rebel-held towns of Kafr Zita and Kafr Nabuda in central Hama province.
And an additional montage depicts a giant Pikachu in tears, seated next to a child in the ruins of a devastated building.
"I am from Syria, come to save me!," the picture is captioned, with the hashtag #PrayForSyria.
Inside Syria, the game is accessible via a proxy, but has attracted little interest.
Players in the war-torn country also face unique obstacles, with one enthusiast telling AFP he started chasing a Pokemon in Damascus only to realise the creature was next to a car with darkened windows belonging to the intelligence services.
"I decided it was best to let it go," he said. – Rana Moussaoui, AFP/Rappler.com