The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria - Janine di Giovanni
(This is one of several books I reviewed in 2016 related to the rise of ISIS and the war in Syria. See full list below.)
This is a 5-star intimate portrait of how war affects people, as well as a good chronicle of how the Syrian uprising unfolded and quickly spun out of control. I recommend it along with Reese Erlich's Inside Syria for a portrait of the early days of the uprising in 2011-2012. Giovanni has worked as both a journalist and for the UNHCR. Her career interest is the hardship of the hardship of women in war, but this book tells the tales of Syrian men and boys as well. This is not an easy book to read, of all the books on the war I've seen, this is the most vivid in the recounting the testimonies of survivors and what the author witnessed herself. I am friends with a few Syrian refugees from Homs, and her description of what (almost slowly) unfolded in Homs fits with what they have said. I retell some of the horrors below, reader beware, because the world needs to know. She is not a disinterested actor and records her own feelings as she tries to do unbiased reporting.
The author begins in Belgrade, years after the Balkans War, the latest of war-torn countries she has lived in. She is made sick by all the rape and war crime survivors who go about their lives while their perpetrators, sometimes now their neighbors, walk free, all living together in the same community--there is no real justice, everyone just wants to move on. The author has traveled all over the world and seen many wars, they all begin roughly the same. When the Arab Spring began and she heard of brutality against women she thought "we are allowing it to happen all over again," and went to Syria to report.
Giovanni has a great appreciation for Syrian history and culture, even the subtleties of the Syrian Arabic dialect. She gets written permission from Damascus to venture about, she has surprisingly few minders. She surveys a Syria that is only "Syria" by the post-WWI French Mandate and has plenty of factions. While they may have sung patriotic songs about "Syria is one" in school, regions of the area "feel" different depending on whether they are Alawite, Christian, Sunni, etc. But there are pro-Assad Sunni as well as anti-Assad Alawites; the war gets more sectarian as it goes. It seems that early on, 2011, Hezbollah or other Farsi-speaking armed groups were seen confronting protesters. Things get more sectarian as the violence continues. The Saudis are quick to put in arms, people start to get radicalized. The author never mentions that Assad released hundreds of anti-regime jihadis from jail intentionally, writing that even in 2011, before ISIS, people suspected and feared the Salafists.
The book is filled with examples and anecdotes from families the author comes across. As the war begins in 2011, Giovanni finds a Damascus in denial. People downtown are partying to the sound of shelling. Asma al-Assad is the elegant Western face that the Syrian government is keen to show the world, she was interviewed in Vogue and had friends in Western fashion and arts circles. Her popularity is part of the larger facade. Few are willing to acknowledge a war is beginning, much less that the Assad regime may be "putting down" its own people-- unless you're a member of the opposition. Giovanni interviews the fearless ones that are publicly opposed as well as the secret ones who run websites or write blogs. Some disappear publicly, some are taken from their offices. Everywhere there is the feared "Mukhabarat," Syrian intelligence forces. di Giovanni's connections are largely Western-oriented, initially it is actors, artists, and others with opportunities abroad. The denial is palpable until 2012, when things get bad enough that people begin to question what they're told-- namely that it's all foreigners doing the fighting against Assad. A large car bombing in Damascus in 2012 and the assassination of several in Assad's inner circle have people questioning, and the author meets some who want to travel to other provinces to find out what is going on. A mortician quietly tells her that he's seeing 105 dead Syrian soldiers a week, a number increasingly hard to hide; "No one likes to count the dead."
The first detailed story Giovanni tells is that of Nada, a female activist who was given up by a fellow activist while he was being tortured. She likewise is beaten mercilessly. Rape is listed as the primary reason that refugees have fled Syria, and Giovanni recounts several of the tales from survivors; males are also raped in the jails. Many of the acts were committed in prisons and in homes that were being raided by the Mukhabarat, although there are stories on both sides. With them come PTSD and large numbers of suicides. One estimate at the time put 36,000 held by the regime with another 12,000 detained by ISIS.
Giovanni details the war from a few cities: Ma'loula in the South, Homs in the North, and Aleppo. When she visits some famous sites she takes pictures knowing that these sites may never been seen again.
Ma'loula was the home of ancient Assyrian-speaking Christians. It was first attacked by the government, then retaken by Jahbat al-Nusra rebels with atrocities committed on both sides. In March 2012, the author makes her first trip to Homs where the battles began in 2011 and lasted until the opposition withdrew in 2014. She interviews people from the Baba Amr neighborhood, including boys who were tortured while their fathers were killed. There is one particularly gruesome story about a boy tortured by medical professionals, they throw him in a hospital morgue to sleep on top of corpses and the dying, among whom is his dead brother. He's rescued by a mortician who declares him dead and a nurse working with the FSA. She returns to Homs in October 2012, this time as a government-appointed embed with the Syrian army-- she is told by a press officer to report the "truth" about the foreigners fighting against Syria. She witnesses the battle from the Syrian side and the back-and-forth nature of urban warfare.
She retells what is known about the Darayya massacre in August, 2012. There were stories of FSA hostage-taking and prisoner swaps. There was a massacre of Syrian soldiers, but also stories of Farsi-speaking fighters committing atrocities. Who actually knows?
The author visits Aleppo and witnesses the siege, an outraged population, and barrel bombs. In 2006, Aleppo was an award-winning tourism spot that was having a renaissance as foreigners looked to buy property there, six years later it was hell. She interviews a FSA-supported bread maker, one of the last lifelines of food in the city. She witnesses a near-riot after the UN Security Council vote on Syria is blocked by Russia and China (2012). A man angrily berates her with news that the UN had promised that hospitals wouldn't be bombed, and yet they are. The author watched a young baby die in the hospital from an ordinary infection and it sticks with her because she is a mother herself; that has changed her view of war. She includes here own thoughts in prose "War is..."
Steve Sotloff, the journalist later beheaded by ISIS, was a long-time friend of di Giovanni's who had expressed interest in helping her own work interviewing refugees. She had also met Kayla Mueller before her capture. Later, di Giovanni would work recording the stories of women in UN refugee camps outside Syria. This book is not for the squeamish. She's still writing and editing for Newsweek, check out her website.
Other Al Qaeda and ISIS-related books reviewed in 2016, in the chronological order I recommend reading them:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria - Janine di Giovanni (5 stars)
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
Jihad Academy: The Rise of the Islamic State - Nicholas Henin (4.5 stars)
ISIS: The State of Terror - Jessica Stern and JM Berger (4 stars)
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn (3 stars)
ISIS Exposed - Erick Stackelbeck (2.5 stars)
Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow and David French (1 star)
I also highly recommend Reese Erlich's 2014 book Inside Syria for other eyewitness accounts of the Syrian uprising (4 stars).