To write a book on the ongoing war in Syria is no easy task. Chilling reports have been coming out of Syria almost every day for five years now. Sadly, we have become somewhat inured to them and they no longer shock us. The war has become a bitter reality for most of us, and yet somehow we manage to look away.
Not every journalist can break through and reach readers in a deeper place. It requires courage to bear witness to the horrors of war, and also the ability to narrate the experience in an impactive way. The writer needs to be able to not just tell, but show how a country falls apart, how people lose their beloved ones, and how friends and neighbors turn into enemies.
In The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria, Janine di Giovanni, the Middle East editor of Newsweek and contributing editor of Vanity Fair, does exactly this. Her book is not an easy read. It describes vividly what war is doing to Syria and Syrians.
Having covered many armed conflicts – from Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to Sierra Leone and Liberia – di Giovanni knows where to look for stories and how to present them. In “The Morning They Came for Us,” she lets those who are directly affected by the war tell us what they are going through.
Nada, a young activist and one of the opposition’s social media coordinators, was held for eight months by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. She was whipped, and they threatened to rape her. She was also tortured psychologically, her captors bragging that Assad had won the war, other activists had betrayed her, and her family believed her dead.
Twenty-four-year-old Hussein recalls how when he was captured by soldiers, he was tortured every night and then thrown on top of the dead bodies to sleep.
But di Giovanni does not villainize the Syrian Army. Rifaf, a soldier for the Syrian government, tells di Giovanni he wishes he were somewhere else – anywhere other than a cold room in Homs waiting to take down a sniper. When di Giovanni tells him about the tortures Hussein has gone through, he is “horrified.”
Di Giovanni shows the way war divides people. “Syrians who called themselves Syrians a few years ago were now saying they were Alawites, Christians, Sunnis, Shias, Druze,” she writes. Some, with much sadness, accept the truth. “We did not think sectarian,” says General Baba, a senior government officer, of the prewar era. “I know you don’t believe me, but it’s true.”
Some Syrians can’t bear to accept the worst about their own country and fellow citizens. Firis, a 30-year-old Alawite soldier on the Assad side who lost his right leg and right arm in a battle in Homs, insists about those he was fighting against: “They were not Syrian.” He says, “They looked different, they fought differently. I swear to you, another Syrian would not kill his brother Syrian.”
When di Giovanni talks to two Alawite businessmen in the southwestern city of Zabadani about the torture going on in Assad prisons, they dismiss it and call it “propaganda.” Maryam, a Syrian woman accompanying di Giovanni during the trip to Zabadani, later explains to her that those businessmen “really don’t believe this is happening” and “Syrians simply cannot bear that we are doing this to each other.”
Di Giovanni travels across Syria – from Damascus to Latakia, Homs, and Aleppo – to document the war. She shows us what war is: It is the scene of an old man in Aleppo standing up to his waist in trash, scavenging for something to eat. It is a playground turned into a cemetery. And at some moments, war is simply uncomfortable: unheated rooms “as cold as tombs” and “endless waiting, endless boredom.”
She forces us to take in the war through all our senses, to know not just what war looks like but what it feels and smells like: “It smells of carbine, of wood smoke, of unwashed bodies, of rubbish rotting, of the heady smell of fear.”
Being a journalist, di Giovanni also documents how this war is affecting conflict reporters: Marie Colvin died on Feb. 22, 2012, in Homs, while trying to put on her shoes and leave the scene. Steven Sotloff, a “smiling, laughing boy, who told jokes and avidly followed the basketball scores of the Miami team he loved,” was murdered in September 2014. And Nicole Tung, a “small and brave” journalist from Hong Kong, “set off with her cameras alone to front lines to look for her friend, Jim Foley.” Foley was beheaded by Islamic State in 2014.
“The Morning They Came for Us” is a must read filled with bitter realities. It is a call to the outside world not to forget what is happening in Syria.
Denise Hassanzade Ajiri is a journalist based in Istanbul.