Books of The Times
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
The title of Janine di Giovanni’s devastating new book, “The Morning They Came for Us,” refers to those terrible moments in ordinary Syrians’ lives when the war in their country becomes personal. Those moments when there is a knock on the door and the police or intelligence services take a family member away. Those moments when a government-delivered barrel bomb falls on your home, your school, your hospital, and daily life is forever ruptured.
“The water stops, taps run dry, banks go, and a sniper kills your brother,” she writes. Garbage is everywhere because there are no longer any functioning city services, and entire neighborhoods are turned into fields of rubble. Victorian diseases like polio, typhoid and cholera resurface. Children wear rubber sandals in the winter cold because they do not have shoes. People are forced to do without “toothpaste, money, vitamins, birth-control pills, X-rays, chemotherapy, insulin, painkillers.”
In the five years since the Assad regime cracked down on peaceful antigovernment protests and the conflict escalated into full-blown civil war, more than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and some 12 million people — more than half the country’s prewar population — have been displaced, including five million who have fled to neighboring countries and to Europe in what the United Nations calls the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
In “The Morning They Came for Us,” Ms. di Giovanni gives us a visceral understanding of what it is like to live in wartime Syria, recounting some of the individual stories behind the numbing statistics: students who were whisked away by the police and interrogated and tortured; children who died from common infections because medicine and doctors were unavailable; women who were raped by soldiers at checkpoints and in jail; families who fled besieged cities like Homs, only to return because there was no place else to go.
The fact that much of the book’s on-the-ground reporting is confined to the early stages of the war only serves to remind the reader that the horrors she witnessed would escalate in the years to come — with still no end in sight.
Janine di Giovanni
Ms. di Giovanni introduces us to a baker named Mohammed, who received messages from the government that he would be kidnapped and killed if he did not stop manning the bread factory that helped feed an opposition-held neighborhood in Aleppo. And to Nada, who brought sandwiches and medical supplies to fellow students on the front lines, and who later helped spread the opposition’s message through Facebook and Twitter. Nada was arrested at her parents’ home and held captive for eight months and three days — during which she was beaten, whipped and raped, while her jailers told her family that she was dead.
Another student, Hussein, had helped organize some of the early peaceful demonstrations that sprang up in Syria, after the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt. He was shot, taken captive by pro-Assad forces and savagely beaten and tortured. He tells Ms. di Giovanni that his abdomen was cut, his intestines were pulled out and he was then crudely sewn back up; he survived, he says, only because a pro-regime doctor, who took pity on him, declared him dead and allowed him to escape from the morgue. Ms. di Giovanni quotes a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, who says, “The Syrian government is running a virtual archipelago of torture centers scattered around the country.”
Like the work of the Belarussian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, Ms. di Giovanni’s book gives voice to ordinary people living through a dark time in history; and like Anthony Shadid’s powerful 2005 book, “Night Draws Near” (which recounted the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq), it chronicles the intimate fallout that war has on women, children and families.
A longtime reporter who covered the wars in Bosnia, Chechnya and Sierra Leone, Ms. di Giovanni writes here with urgency and anguish — determined to testify to what she has witnessed because she wants “people never to forget.” Her sorrow comes through in the writing — in the book’s staccato sentences, in its flashbacks to similar scenes of suffering in the Balkans, in its helpless empathy for people she met in Syria, like the ailing woman in a hospital who begged her to take her children away to some place safe.
Most of Ms. di Giovanni’s travels in Syria, described in detail here, were in 2012, a year into the conflict. In that spring and early summer, she notes, wealthy elites in Damascus were still in denial about the war — though explosions from the shelling could be heard during pool parties at the Dama Rose Hotel. By year’s end, the country had slipped down “the rabbit-hole of war.” The government was targeting civilian neighborhoods, and in the case of Aleppo, “opposition forces had cut off nearly all supply routes.” In that city, she writes, there were two criteria for staying alive: “hiding from the regime’s barrel bombs, and finding food.”
As the war ground on, more and more foreigners were being kidnapped. Ms. di Giovanni met the young American aid worker Kayla Mueller, who was abducted in the summer of 2013 in northern Syria and held captive as a sex slave by the Islamic State before dying in a Jordanian airstrike on Feb. 6, 2015. And she draws a heartbreaking portrait here of her friend, the journalist Steven Sotloff, who would be killed by the Islamic State in 2014. “His slangy language, his Americanism,” his “kidlike curiosity,” she writes, helped her forget “the cold, the anxiety, the gnawing fear in my stomach” in Aleppo. She could not imagine that “this smiling, laughing boy, who told jokes and avidly followed the basketball scores of the Miami team he loved,” would be beheaded by the Islamic State militants he called the “bearded guys.”
Within months, Ms. di Giovanni says she saw Syria undergo a metamorphosis — one that would grow even darker in the years to come. Opposition fighters were becoming radicalized and sectarianism had grown increasingly bitter: “Syrians who called themselves Syrians a few years ago were now saying they were Alawites, Christians, Sunnis, Shias, Druze.” Leaving Aleppo, she writes, she did her best “to take photographs inside my head, pictures that I would remember, that would show a country that no longer existed.” Her testimony is contained here in this searing and necessary book.
(via NY Times)