Capturing the reality of life in the Syrian war zone

Two new books encourage us to look past the grand narratives and listen to voices on the ground.

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At a hospital in the Syrian city of Homs in March 2012, the foreign correspondent Janine di Giovanni met a man whose back had been broken by government interrogators. He told her that each time the torturers beat him with their clubs, they screamed at him, “You want freedom? OK, take this! Here is your great freedom!” The father of an 11-year-old boy whose facial features were burned away in a bomb blast echoes this sentiment. “So this is freedom?” he asked her, speaking at a tented camp for
internally displaced Syrians and looking at his disfigured son.

Five years in to the Syrian Civil War, even talk of “freedom” has become grotesque. Now that more than a quarter of a million Syrians have died and 4.5 million have fled their homeland, it can seem as though the conflict has completely outgrown its origins as an unarmed uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime – but that is no reason not to look back.

The Morning They Came for Us is partly a memoir, describing how di Giovanni was drawn into the war despite all the warnings and her instinct for emotional self-preservation, and partly a collection of reports from Syria in 2012. She made several trips into the
country, sometimes embedded with rebel groups and sometimes trailed by government minders, or travelling with friends.

Di Giovanni is responsible for some of the most poetic reportage from Syria. Reading her description of how she struggled to clip her baby son’s fingernails after meeting a man in Iraq whose nails had been ripped out, I realised that I remembered the passage vividly, although the first time I read it was three years ago, in Granta magazine. The man was a government official who collected a weekly bribe for allowing di Giovanni to use a satellite phone. He “arrived in my office and stretched out his hands, utterly unselfconscious that in place of nails were raw beds of flesh”, she writes. Months afterwards, each time she held out her baby’s fingers, “clean and pink as seashells”, she felt as though she would wretch. Her writing stays with you.

Some stories are unforgettable because they are so gruesome, such as the account of the activist who says that his guts were pulled out of his body while he was still conscious. Other passages have a subtler power. We read of the last pool parties in Damascus, in which the city’s rich kids and a troupe of beautiful Russian “Natashas” drowned out the distant boom of artillery fire with disco music. Then there is the stoic gravedigger of Aleppo who buries a smiling corpse: is the martyr’s mouth twisted from shock, or is he smiling because he is on his way to heaven, the mourners wonder. “What we know is that he is leaving Aleppo,” the gravedigger says quietly.

Di Giovanni speaks to opposition activists and pro-government fighters, as well as fellow journalists covering the conflict. She grows close to Steven Sotloff, a fresh, chubby, brave reporter with a passion for the Arab world and di Giovanni’s freeze-dried food packets. He calls her “Mama G”. Sotloff was the second US journalist to be beheaded by Islamic State, in September 2014.

As di Giovanni completed her book last year, a round of doomed peace negotiations was taking place in Geneva and discussions were under way for a ceasefire. The truce never happened. In her experience of conflict, di Giovanni writes, ceasefires are often “a synonym for buying time to kill more civilians”. They offer an incentive for fighters to go on the offensive as they seek to improve their positions before hostilities are halted. This observation is relevant once more. After yet another round of failed peace talks, the Syrian government – backed now by Russian air strikes – is mounting a fierce attack on opposition-held areas of Aleppo, with the intention of encircling this, the largest city in Syria, before a temporary truce is called. Yet what better option to a ceasefire is there now?

The Morning They Came for Us does not offer answers. “I have never been very good at theory,” di Giovanni writes. “But I am good at counting, and attempting to remember those who lived, who walked the earth, but who fell during the course of the violence that ripped their countries apart.” She tells us that she is writing a “book of the dead”, a reference to a man in Sarajevo who diligently recorded the names and identifying details of every person who passed through his morgue in wartime. It is a noble motivation but I was left wanting more: a sense, perhaps, of where – if anywhere – we can go from here.

Burning Country is also, in some ways, a book of the dead. The idealistic opposition figures who are featured here so often meet terrible fates. At first, their greatest enemy is Assad’s government. In September 2011, for instance, Ghaith Matar was tortured and killed after he inspired protesters to hand flowers and water to Syrian soldiers as a symbol of peaceful resistance. Within two years, the revolution turned in on itself. Razan Zaitouneh was a human rights lawyer and one of the leading lights of the non-violent resistance movement. She witnessed the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, and the hunger caused by a government siege on the area. Then, in 2013, she was abducted along with three other activists, allegedly by the Army of Islam, an opposition fighting group.

The authors offer a detailed history of Syria’s moderate opposition and a meticulous analysis of the origins of today’s violent dynamics. Their argument draws heavily on interviews, mostly conducted in 2014, with activists who describe their role in the uprising and reflect on its failures. “The price was too high,” said Ra’ed Fares when asked about the 2011 protests. He runs the media centre at Kafranbel, known across the world for its viral picture of Syrians holding a banner of condolence for the Boston bombings. The writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh accuses the left in the West of “astonishing” ignorance of Syria and its people. “We, rank-and-file Syrians, refugees, women, students, intellectuals, human rights activists, political prisoners . . . do not exist.”

Burning Country is an attempt to address this blind spot. The authors berate the Western media for “zooming out” and “oversimplifying”. Zoom in and neither the violent sectarianism nor the rise of radical Islam in Syria seems inevitable. The early opposition figures hoped to unify Syria’s multifaith population and took up arms reluctantly when Assad’s violence left them with few other options. The rise of Islamist extremism is linked to the brutality of the war that followed, they argue: in Syria, “Radicalisation is better thought of as traumatisation.” Assad and his international supporters bear the greatest responsibility for the present bloodshed, but the US and other Western powers “betrayed” the moderates with their lukewarm support and will do so again over the rise of Islamic State. Radical Islam has been used as an excuse for rehabilitating Assad’s government.

Above all, the authors are eager to point out that Syria’s moderates have not all been forcibly silenced. There are still teachers, medics, journalists, even artists, who continue working under fire, and other citizens who try desperately to survive while resisting, in their own quiet ways, the brutality of war and religious extremism. They ask readers to listen to the voices on the ground, rather than “applying the usual grand narratives”. It’s a vague request, yet I can’t help but feel that if it were taken up by a few dozen commentators and decision-makers, some good might come of it. 

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer based in Cairo

The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria by Janine di Giovanni is published by Bloomsbury (224pp, £16.99)

Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami is published by Pluto Press (262pp, £14.99)

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash