Marwan: lost in desert at four years old ... but for how long?

This striking image from the Syria-Jordan border was much-shared and commented upon, on February 17, after it was tweeted by CNN Anchor Hala Gorani. According to her tweet, the boy was found "crossing the desert alone after being separated from family fleeing Syria".

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  1. [Tweet deleted so image not showing. Image was same as below]
  2. Gorani followed up, 30 minutes later, with the news that little Marwan had been reunited with his family.
  3. A member of the Open Newsroom community on Google+ asked us to check the image out. We didn't doubt that it was a genuine photograph, but wanted to know more about the context.
  4. In a subsequent tweet, Gorani credited the UNHCR's representative in Jordan, Andrew Harper, who posted the image 24 hours beforehand, stating that Marwan had been "temporarily separated from this family".  
  5. A tweet sent out by Harper a half hour before he posted the image of Marwan showed a group of refugees. The scene looked similar and the stated location was also the Jordanian-Syrian border. The luggage seen in the left hand side of the photograph of Marwan, meanwhile, suggested that — if the photographs were related — the boy was near the main body of refugees.
  6. With major news organisations looking at the image, and checking the back story, Guardian journalist Shiv Malik spoke to a UNHCR press officer who was on the scene. She said that the child was only a few feet behind his family:
  7. Reading Gorani's first tweet, the reader could be forgiven for thinking the boy had wandered in the desert for days. The lack of information makes it more compelling. The CNN anchor's tweet got thousands of retweets compared to a couple of hundred for Harper's original tweet, stating that Marwan was "temporarily separated". Qualifying statements are anti-viral. In an exchange with Malik, Gorani said her team spoke to the UNHCR:
  8. And it does seem that the UNHCR was the source of some confusion, with a spokesman based at its Geneva HQ suggesting to the Daily Mirror that the boy might have been lost overnight.
  9. Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said: "The journey across the desert can take one day or several weeks. "It's very dangerous because there is still fighting going on and it's the middle of winter so it can be freezing cold at night. "The journey is long and exhausting, so it's impossible for a four-year-old to cross the desert by himself. "We think Marwan may have got lost during the night. At the moment we don't know anything more."
  10. This presents a genuine dilemma. Do we trust the direct quote from the UNHCR spokesman in Geneva or the reported statement by the press officer in the field. Because she was reportedly at the scene, we rely on the press officer (and the journalist quoting her). 
  11. UNHCR representative Andrew Harper, who posted the shot that went viral, posted a new image of Marwan 24 hours later. He updated the story but gave no further information about how long the boy was lost.
  12. Journalists were asking...
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