Three years after the start of Syria's civil war, no one knows how many people have been killed. Not even the UN still maintains estimates. But a group of activists want to make sure the dead are remembered.
US President Barack Obama could probably hear them if he opens a window in his office - the names that endlessly pour forth through the fence and across the lawn surrounding the White House. Over the heads of tourists, past parents and children, visitors and school classes from around the world.
The tourists are in high spirits, they take pictures in front of the residence of the most powerful president in the world. But nearby a student who has set up a small PA system, reads from an iPad in a monotonous voice. He is reading the names of people who died in the Syrian civil war - an attempt to give the statistics a face, Racan Alhoch, one of the organizers, said this week. "We're going to be standing in front of the White House for 72 hours, working in shifts to read the names of 100,000 victims in Syria."
They were killed by the Assad regime, the activist said, adding that by now, three years since the beginning of the conflict, the number of victims is actually closer to 150,000.
Reading the names from a list that grows longer every day will take until Saturday. The activists have already stood in the freezing cold and biting wind for hours with nothing, not even a flimsy tent, to shield them. Racan glances at police officers placidly watching the activists from afar. "They won't allow us to set that up, so we're using gloves and hand warmers."
About 100 volunteers travelled to Washington from all over the United States to commemorate the third anniversary of a conflict. With their solemn vigil, the activists aim to give the conflict a face. "It's very important to highlight that the people who are dead in Syria are not just numbers," Racan said. "Every day, we read reports: another 100 dead, another 200 dead in Syria - these are people, they have names."
Three years after the beginning of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the tragedy that turned into a civil war has disappeared from primetime newscasts - replaced by other conflicts.
But the bloodshed continues in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and other Syrian towns and cities, said Nur, a student from Los Angeles, bundled up in a wool hat and scarf. Her family is from Damascus, and hasn't been left unscathed by the war. In fact, she said, she doesn't know a single Syrian who doesn't know somebody who has died. "Everybody I know has been touched by this crisis."
There are 20 orphans on her side of the family, she said. Others were tortured or executed, yet others imprisoned. "We don't know if they are alive."
Give the dead a name
Another activist steps up to the microphone. A group of young tourists walks by, amazed. They snap his picture before moving back to the fence around the White House, laughing. No one asks about the names. An Irish tourist turns to Racan, full of praise for the campaign. It's a fitting way to remember the dead, he said. "It takes only a couple of seconds to say: a hundred thousand have been killed," the tourist said. "But to actually say each name is admirable."
Too many people have died in the conflict, an Iraqi-American from Michigan said. He and the other bystanders are actually surprised at the death toll. "They didn't know this many people died in Syria, which is sad," Racan said. "It has been neglected from the start; with the geopolitics involved, it's too complicated for people to even take it into consideration. We need to look past the geopolitics and just think of the human beings."
A forgotten conflict?
The American public, too, increasingly wonders whether the international community is doing enough to help end the war. "Isn't it time to acknowledge that when it comes to easing the humanitarian crisis in Syria, that the president's policy has been an absolute failure?" a reporter recently asked White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Obama had long been under fire for what some have called his fainthearted stance toward Assad before he finally drew a red line on Syria. When Assad crossed that line by using chemical weapons, Obama backpedalled at the last minute, turning to the international community instead. Assad agreed to the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons by June under international supervision.
The bloodshed in Syria, however, continues unabated. It will continue until the Assad regime is ousted, according to the activists in front of the White House.
"If you have a wound, you have to stop the bleeding first," one of the activists said. "The Syrian regime is the cause of the bleeding."