(RNS) — Over the past week, much of the world was gripped by the heartbreaking story of Rayan, a 5-year-old boy who had plunged 104 feet into a well in Morocco. For five days thousands of people went to Tamorot in northern Morocco to help and pray, while around the world hundreds of millions followed closely. On Saturday evening (Feb. 5), hopes rose as he was pulled out of the deep shaft, but the jubilation was short-lived as the news broke within minutes that he had passed away.
Images of Rayan, his grieving mother and the heroic rescue effort united much of the world around what practically no one could find disagreeable: the hope that an innocent child caught in devastating circumstances could be reunited in health and safety with his worried parents.
For many of us as Rayan departed this world, we still pray for that reunion in the next life, and are moved to contribute to his grieving family in any way that we can.
For readers of Scripture, Rayan’s time in the well brought to mind the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob (peace be upon them), in the Quran, similar to that of the Bible. In the Quran, however, Joseph’s time in the well is a focal point of an entire chapter that offers comfort to those facing a trial.
Rayan, certainly, was not thrown into the Moroccan well by envious brothers, as Joseph was. Poor infrastructure seems to have been the main reason for his death, and the fact that no one was to blame made it easy to gather everyone in sympathy.
But I can’t help but wonder while watching this unfold how differently the story of Rayan would be told, or if it would be told at all, had he been a child stuck in a crater caused by an airstrike from a military drone. Or if he was a refugee who had slipped to his death in a camp.
It is hardly uncommon for a blameless child to die due to unnecessary war. Some 1,600 children died or were maimed in Afghanistan every year for two decades, according to Save the Children, which also estimates that 25 children die or are injured each day in conflicts around the world.
Cruelty to a child is one of the few things that can still elicit a pure human reaction from most of us. It’s why the mother of Emmett Till wanted to leave the casket open after her son’s brutal murder. In her own words, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my boy.” By doing so, she sparked the civil rights movement.
It’s why the image of baby Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who washed ashore at a Turkish resort, shocked the world in a way that statistics never could. It’s why the image of over 60 Palestinian children on the cover of The New York Times did more to humanize the plight of the Palestinian people than almost all the coverage of the bombardment of Gaza combined. And it’s why the image of young Jakelin Caal, who died trying to cross the border into the United States, shook so many of us to our core.
We despise the unjust death of children, but when children die in war we feel complicit in that injustice, either through our participation in harmful policies or silence about the consequences. Many of the powers directly responsible for children’s deaths are aware of our disgust and will try to thwart coverage or sympathy that may lead to direct challenges of their use of force.
We’re told to sympathize with the child who resembles Joseph. It’s far harder for us to see ourselves as the brothers who threw him into the well.
While the brothers of Joseph were driven by envy, we’re driven by greed or apathy. The reason doesn’t matter to the child. Our repentance is to do what we can for that child, and the other children who need our help.
Rayan was a beautiful, innocent child who brought out the best of his countrymen, and the purest of sentiments from around the world. How do we then reckon with the harm of so many unholy wars and man-made tragedies in which so many beautiful children die in ugly ways? What is the work we need to do so that they may live in dignity and calm?