Pain of Syria’s war captured

by | Jul 18, 2016 | Book Reviews

The Morning They Came For Us
(Dispatches From Syria)
Janine Di Giovanni
New York: Liveright Publishing
206 pages, $25.95

The Morning They Came For Us is an important book with lasting consequence by author Janine Di Giovanni, award-winning (including two Amnesty International Awards) foreign correspondent and Newsweek’s Middle East editor. She expertly captures the near indescribable pain of Syria’s tragic, by now, five-year-old, brutal civil war with its immense toll of millions of innocent human lives violated, murdered, displaced and driven away. After all, Syria is a significant Middle Eastern country which until recently kept together its religiously and ethnically diverse Arab population.

Written in a conversational style with stark realism, the book is an irresistible yet gut-wrenching read stirring our conscience, of a bitter conflict erupting following the 2011 Arab Spring, with a heroic call by common Syrian citizens for a new democratic Syria replacing an authoritarian regime. President Bashar al-Assad was not about to let go of his consolidated power in the hands of the Muslim Alawite sect, a minority within the Shia and comprising just 12 percent of the Syrian population with its Sunni majority.

The author’s prior extensive experience of covering other troubled spots such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and East Timor, is surely an asset, as she penetrates Syria’s surreal reality with persistence and compassion having gained an invaluable perspective, as well as the tough endurance skills to contend with the high risks of reporting from the front lines of lethal fighting. Still, being a woman, especially a Western woman, are added liabilities. Di Giovanni tries to be fair in pointing out the atrocities committed by all concerned. However, there is a danger that too neutral an attitude protects the original overpowering aggressor, and not the victims. Assad’s superior military forces with outside help have indiscriminately attacked the rebels, civilians, residential neighborhoods, hospitals and schools, and have even dropped barrel bombs and chemical weapons.

She speaks of the grief of mothers on both sides, depicting and embracing ordinary Syrians who courageously attempt to lead normal lives in the midst of war’s chaos. This loving mother of a young son feels so keenly the suffering of children and their agonizing mothers and often lost fathers under harrowing circumstances of a deteriorated human and physical environment. As she and her two women companions caringly buy a pair of shoes for a needy child in Aleppo, mindful of the many barefoot children in Syria’s cold winter. In divided Aleppo which she describes with an eye to history as “the Leningrad of the Syrian War,” painfully watching with shocked parents and a helpless medical team the death of a sick baby in a hospital deprived of essential medications; the old man digging for food in a heap of garbage, and who wouldn’t also weep for 32-year-old desperate Carla living with her traumatized children in an unfit structure across from a bombed out church in Homs.

Throughout the book, which is mainly focused on the author’s Syrian encounters in 2012, her concern for violated women is evident. How painful it was for 25-year-old Nada, an opposition supporter in Latakia, who was raped and tortured in a Syrian prison during eight months and three days while her parents were told she was dead. The consequences for a raped woman is most critical in the Muslim world where virginity is expected at marriage, otherwise the entire family is burdened with shame in the strict honor code. As in the Bosnia war, rape is used as a humiliating weapon.

Di Giovanni extensively interviewed raped Syrian women scattered in the region in various settings, including refugee camps and safe houses. She was employed by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in parts of 2013–14 in Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, concerning the sexual vulnerability of Syrian women refugees with children, but without husbands. She notes the mass rapes of Yazidi women by ISIS (The Islamic State) fighters. Di Giovanni bemoans the United Nations’ failure in Syria, in spite of past painful mistakes elsewhere, allowing the tragic events to continue and sharing a sense of guilt that she and her fellow journalists could not make a difference. This personal reflection is revealing of her stature: “How different my life would have been had I never seen a mass grave or a truck with bodies, all dead, piled one on top of the other their skin changing from the softness of the living to the leathery skin of the dead. Or a torture cell with the incarcerated’s dying wish and last words of love to his family.”

—Dr. Israel Zoberman, founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim, is the son of Polish Holocaust survivors. He spent his early childhood in Displaced Persons Camps in Austria and Germany.