Robin Yassin-Kassab

The Morning They Came For Us

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The_Morning_They_Came_for_UsThis review was published at the Guardian.

Reading “The Morning They Came For Us” by veteran war correspondent Janine di Giovanni is at once necessary, difficult, and elating. Giovanni’s reporting from the Syrian revolution and war is clear-eyed and engaged in the best possible sense – engaged in the human realm rather than the abstractly political.

Remembering previous wars too, her account is first-person and deeply personal. She’d once been obsessed with Bosnian crimes; in the introduction we hear warning that Syria may “engulf her”. Giovanni finds herself unable to trim her baby son’s nails for thinking of an Iraqi who’d had his ripped out. Later, accepting a cigarette pack from a student of human rights, she notes the old cigarette burns on his arms.

Her Syrian visits fell between March and December 2012. The first told, from the summer, finds an uneasy silence in central Damascus even as the suburbs burn. Class in this society is a more significant divider than religion, and the bi-national elite are spinning conspiracy theories, sunk into pool parties and denial. In these “last days of a spoilt empire that was about to implode” Giovanni delineates the different kinds of regime ‘believer’: true devotees, or those simply scared of the potential alternatives. 300 frustrated UN monitors are confined to their hotel, and war is “descending with stunning velocity”.

The book thereafter recounts the ramifications on Syrian civilians of Assad’s various scorched earth strategies. An estimated 200,000 people have disappeared into the regime gulag. Most have experienced torture. “I struggle to remember a place where torture has been so widespread and systematic,” a Human Rights Watch official tells Giovanni, who sets about particularising, humanising, some of these lost stories through interview, tales of beatings, burnings, cuttings perpetrated to the torturer’s usual refrain: “You want freedom? Is this the freedom you want?”

Medical staff are recruited to keep torturees alive enough to experience further pain, and also to torture, in precise ways that only doctors would understand. The book paints a phantasmagoric scene of physicians pulling intestines out, carefully puncturing lungs.

Giovanni remembers a Palestinian victim of Israel telling her, “Once you have been tortured, you leave the human race.” Nada, a Syrian woman, develops the thought: “How does one return to the human race after having been so brutalised?”

The fear of rape is perhaps the greatest factor in making the rebellious population flee, a violence performed against women to humiliate men. Giovanni gathers victims’ experiences both as journalist and as a UNHCR researcher, and she recounts the double trauma of violation and retelling. Here the tragedy accumulates. Searching for rape survivors in Atma camp she comes across a burnt 11-year-old, his mouth “nothing more than a hole” his nose non-existent, his ears flaps of skin “stretched tight into pink crevasses”.

Truth-telling, Giovanni’s calling, must be one of the highest. She attended the aftermath of the regime’s August 2012 massacre of at least 300 civilians in Darayya, a suburb west of Damascus. Correspondent Robert Fisk, she notes, entered Darayya on the same day, embedded with the regime army, and described the rebels as the perpetrators. Giovanni went in with civilians, interviewing many locals. None of them corroborated Fisk’s story. Nor did Human Rights Watch, nor Darayya’s Local Coordination Committee. Of course, once Giovanni’s article appeared, her Syrian visa was revoked.

She’s not an ‘embedded journalist’, therefore. Though she does embed at times with Assad’s army, as well as with the Free Army. She spends time with pro-regime nuns at the convent of St. Takla in Ma’loula, and meets Fadwa Suleiman, the Alawi actress who led protests in Homs, in a Parisian café. Fadwa, still wearing her symbolically shorn hair, is “scrawny, abandoned and cold”. Wherever the location, Giovanni always understands the conditions she works under, and never exploits a blood-fresh reality in order to spin a preconceived fable.

Her method is to present sufficient information for the reader to draw their own conclusions – the connection, for instance, between rising jihadism and soldiers shooting men dead if they refuse to declare Assad’s divinity.

Such reporters as Giovanni – individuals heroic or deranged enough not only to visit but also to live (and often die) through wars not their own – are an elevated species. These are the Marie Colvins, Paul Conroys, Ali Mustafas of journalism, reporters motivated by committment to the act of witnessing. There are memories here too of Steve Sotloff and Kayla Mueller, both murdered by ISIS.

Sometimes Giovanni sees so clearly the atmospherics become surreal. As Aleppo, a 7000-year-old city, vanishes before her, she considers the elasticity of memory in war, the “sense of timelessness, of lost time.” A man wades up to his waist in rubbish, purpled corpses bob in the river, ruined buses shield streets from snipers. “You get used to hallucinations appearing in broad daylight.”

There are slight imprecisions too, the occasional unhelpful intrusion of journalistic shorthand. The anti-regime movement of the late 1970s was more inclusive than just “Sunni Muslim groups”, though that was all that was left after the regime’s harsh repression. It’s important to see the traditional radicalise-the-opposition strategy in order to understand present events. And ‘the Alawite triangle’ is unfortunate, Iraq war-influenced nomenclature for the coastal area. But these are quibbles.

Giovanni’s book doesn’t do analysis or make policy recommendations. It simply observes, and is much the stronger for it.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 1, 2016 at 11:34 am

Posted in book review, Syria

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  1. Wow. Great review. I feel that I should read this book, but am terrified too. But perhaps that’s the point? Bronte


    June 1, 2016 at 1:06 pm

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