Some people like to put together puzzles, the big ones with 500 or more pieces and an image to guide assembly. I never got too fired up about that kind of puzzle, but I realize now, at age 71 years, that I’ve been working for most of my life on a different kind of puzzle. In this puzzle, there is no guiding pattern and the pieces are fluid, but I continue to work on it because I believe that the puzzle is real. I call it, “Who are human beings and why do we do what we do to each other?” It’s the puzzle we all work on. We’re even pieces in our own and others’ puzzles.
In The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria, Janine Di Giovanni gave me two pieces for my puzzle. A Middle East Editor of Newsweek and contributing editor of Vanity Fair, Di Giovanni has spent most of her career in war zones—Afghanistan, East Timor, Iraq, Palestine, Sarajevo, Sierra Leone, and Somalia—and is the award-winning author of five other books based on her reporting from them. In the introduction to her new book, Di Giovanni wrote, “The potent emotion I felt towards the Balkan wars and their aftermath was not rational” but was instead “a terrible fever—not unlike malaria, recurring in your bloodstream for ever once you got it—that had gripped me since I had reported from Bosnia in the early 1990s.” In the wake of the Balkan wars, she “wanted people never to forget” what had happened there.
When Di Giovanni was wrapping up her work on the Balkan wars in spring 2011, the Arab Spring burst onto the world stage. She soon found herself in Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, and then “in the string of pearls of the revolutions,” from Egypt to Libya, Iraq, and finally Syria.
Her first trip to Syria was in May 2012. For nearly four years she “roamed refugee camps, safe houses, cities and towns in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Kurdistan and Iraq.” She interviewed men and women who had been imprisoned, tortured, and raped, as well as supporters of the Assad regime; was embedded at times with the Syrian Arab Army; witnessed burials; and traveled with numerous drivers, guides, and official minders—all as part of a network of reporters and photographers, including a hungry American reporter, Steven Sotloff, whom she met in a dark apartment in the evening of December 17, 2012, and gave several packets of freeze-dried food.
The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria is based on Di Giovanni’s reporting from Syria during the six-month period, June–December 2012. Throughout the book, Di Giovanni deftly interweaves commentary based on her prior reporting from the Balkans, Iraq, and other war zones. The book also includes maps; a chronology of Syria from the 3rd millennium BC to October 2015; and endnotes. An epilogue is based on her reporting from refugee camps in 2015. Acknowledging the risks that her contacts took in meeting with her (a foreign reporter) and given the seemingly ubiquitous secret police (Mukhabarat), Di Giovanni gave high priority to the safety of her contacts and honored their requests to leave their apartment or home when they asked.
Modern Syria, one of the artificial countries created by the French and British after World War I, was established as a French mandate and then gained its independence in 1946 as a parliamentary republic. A series of coups culminated in 1963 in a Ba’athist coup led by several men including Hafez Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar Hafez al-Assad. Like many of its neighbors, Syria is a multiethnic, multinational country of Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Turks, Circassians, and Greeks, as well as numerous religions, including Muslims (Sunni, Shiites, and Alawites), Druze, Yazidis, Christians, and Jews. These groups took pride in living together peacefully as “Syrians.” The civil war that erupted in 2012 set these groups against one another.
One of Di Giovanni’s themes in the book is “the velocity of war,” the speed with which it descends upon a country, whether it be Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, or Syria. In Syria, the uprising began in March 2011 in Daraa, a town in southwestern Syria, near the border with Jordan, when fifteen youth were arrested, detained, and tortured for painting anti-government graffiti on buildings. Soon, however, what had begun as peaceful protests for democracy quickly evolved into armed conflict and spread across Syria to Homs, Aleppo, Damascus (the capital), and even to the port city of Latakia, an Assad stronghold.
One of Di Giovanni’s themes in the book is “the velocity of war,” the speed with which it descends upon a country, whether it be Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, or Syria.
In her story about an upscale hotel (the Dama Rose) in Damascus during 2012, Di Giovanni illustrates both the velocity of war and the bubbles in which different Syrians lived at that time. In May 2012, when she made her first trip to Syria, the country was on the brink of war, but life in much of Damascus, including at the Dama Rose, went on normally, with pool parties, evenings at the opera, and “the bubble of parties,” even as Di Giovanni could stand on her balcony and watch “the smoke from bombing in the suburbs.” She also knew that “less than an hour away by car, assuming there were no roadblocks, people in Homs were starving to death.” By the second week in June, “people were more sombre at the pool party,” and by June 28 “the partygoers were almost non-existent, and the ones who remained were decidedly less cheerful,” and “most people were glued to their phones, texting family or friends for news or information.” The war had come to Damascus.
At first, the war involved only the Syrian army and the opposing Free Syrian Army (FSA), which was composed “largely of disgruntled officers from Assad’s forces, plus a cadre of untrained, young and inexperienced fighters,” who “were bound by a desire to live in a democratic country that was not governed by one family for forty years.” But soon Assad’s forces were joined by Hezbollah and backed by Russia, China, and Iran, while the FSA was backed by “Qatar and Turkey (and to some extent, though not completely, the US, Britain and France.)”
By then, “Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Christians who lived side by side [discovered that]—in the collapse of the police state—any sense of common purpose had dissolved,” i.e., people no longer identified themselves as Syrian but as members of a particular sect, e.g., Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Yazidi.
The war not only divided Syrians along sectarian lines, but also ended the primacy of truth, which was replaced by fake news and alternative facts. Maria Saadeh, Syria’s sole Christian parliamentarian, “refused to believe that the government had tortured, maimed and killed civilians.” She continued, “Do you think our president could put down his own people? … Gas his own people? Kill his own people? This is the work of foreign fighters. They want to change our culture.”
The war also brought widespread, systematic torture. Di Giovanni quotes the Norwegian Ole Solvang, a member of the Emergencies Team of Human Rights Watch: “The Syrian government is running a virtual archipelago of torture centres scattered around the country.” (You can see Solvang, his wife Anna Neistat, and their colleagues at work in Syria, Kosovo, and Libya in the award-winning documentary, “E-Team,” which can be streamed on Netflix.)
In war, Di Giovanni says, “every bit of normality you know” goes away—and with overwhelming speed: bombs that kill, maim, and traumatize; children wetting their bed, screaming in their sleep, and losing their hair; endless waiting, endless boredom, depression, the return of Victorian diseases (polio, typhoid, and cholera), and endless fields of garbage.
In the book’s epilogue, Di Giovanni describes her visits in 2015 with female Syrian refugees in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon.
“Along with a team of researchers, we met with these women, their children and their extended families, in the tents, shacks, garages, camps, and in some cases apartments, where they lived. The women were alone because their husbands had been killed in the fighting, or were still fighting in Syria, or were lost. Many of them had never made a single decision in their lives; some had never left the house without a male escort. Some had married as young as fourteen years old. Then they were thrust into a world so far removed from the Syrian countryside where they had lived that the transition was unendurable.”
Small wonder that such women and their children seek refuge in the United States, Canada, or countries in Europe.
What pieces of my life puzzle did I find in Di Giovanni’s book? First, I grasped the philosopher George Santayana’s declaration, “Only the dead know the end of war.” I regret having come to this point in my life, but I fear it’s true. Children will continue to learn the ways of war and come to fear cloudless days, because, as Di Giovanni says about one such day, “It was a clear day: good weather for bombing.”
Second, I know that reporters like Di Giovanni risk their lives to tell the rest of us about the victims of war, not just to inform us but also to urge us to do something to prevent and relieve the suffering of the victims. Di Giovanni writes, “And this is the worse part of it—when you realize that what separates you, someone who can leave, from someone who is trapped in Aleppo, or Homs or Douma or Darayya, is that you can walk away and go back to your home with electricity and sliced bread; then you begin to feel ashamed to be human.”