My rating: 4 stars
Janine di Giovanni has covered many wars throughout her career, and her experience writing about such a complicated subject is noticeable in The Morning They came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. This is a non-fiction book specifically about the brutality of the civil war that is tearing Syria apart. But, as she reminds readers, this is a war that shares many characteristics with other armed conflicts, like the one that took place in the former Yugoslavia.
Throughout the book, we are presented with stories from the places that the author went to in Syria and snippets from conversations she had with its inhabitants, mixed with quite important general information about the civil war. There are various mentions of sexual violence being used as a war tactic to cause fear in the population, cases of torture of opposition members by the officers loyal to the Assad regime, how children suffer immensely during the war, both physically and psychologically, and of the divisions between the different ethnicities and religions.
At first, I thought that the book should have featured right at the beginning a chapter dedicated to the inception of the war, how it all started with peaceful demonstrations (slogans, marching, chanting), which then gained a more violent nature. Such information is presented throughout the book connected with people’s stories, though, and that ends up working quite well, at least for someone who is already familiar with what happened in Syria through the news.
The author tries to be impartial throughout the book by revealing the opinions of various people and mentioning more than one account about an occurrence when it’s relevant. For example, about the attack on Darayya, she states that there are two versions about what happened. It was either a deliberate attack by the government or a situation of hostage-taking by the rebels of the Free Syrian Army.
Among the various testimonies presented is the one of Nada, who joined the opposition in 2011 during the Arab Spring, because she wanted to live in democracy. The protesters sought the end of corruption, nepotism, the secret police and unemployment. Another peaceful demonstrator, Hussein, was caught and then tortured by members of the Assad regime.
But Janine di Giovanni also spoke to Syrians who supported the regime. Ahmed, who is from a wealthy family, explained that the elite supported Assad because they believed that political changes should not be imposed by the West and that many geopolitical interests came into play. On the other hand, others were afraid of having a religious fundamentalist government. Mahmoud Diab, an imam in Ma’loula, resided in a town known for its tolerance, where Muslims and Christians lived together in peace, and he didn’t want to lose that.
The personal stories, mainly collected between 2011 and 2012, are written in a way that is both emotional and respectful to the victims of the civil war. I have to admit that I shed a few tears more than once. The author achieves a meaningful representation of the despair that people feel during a war, when it’s so difficult to get and provide healthcare treatments, and there is no food nor electricity.
“War is the destruction, the skeleton and the bare bones of someone else’s life.”
The titles of the chapters are a combination of locations and dates, but the distinction between them has more to do with the topics being covered. In the same chapter, there may be references to events that took place in different years, but that are connected (although sometimes feebly) with what happened in the period mentioned in the title.
Too many times refugees appear dehumanised in the media, as if they were no more than just numbers. The Morning They Came for Us offers a good insight into what so many people are running from.