New books get published all the time but it’s not often that a book with a political and humanitarian context makes waves even before it’s release date. Janine di Giovanni is a journalist, who has been covering wars for more than two decades, but the subject of her latest book, war in Syria, makes you pause and consider the implications, even though Syria, from the geographical position on the map, is far away from England.
‘Nobody knows where this war is going. But it has to go somewhere.’ Carla
Janine travelled to Syria on many occasions, sometimes legally, with a Syrian visa stamped in her passport, and sometimes not, risking her life and crossing the borders in order to reach rebel sides of Syria. So please don’t expect a dry and impassionate account of things that took place – she describes things as they evolved before her eyes, with lost lives, fears and despair that was etched on people’s faces, many of whom refused to believe what was going on in their own country.
The book starts with events in May 2012, just over a year into Syrian revolution and Janine making her way to Damascus from Beirut, giving a historical overview of the changing geopolitical landscape after the First World War. ‘Looking at that timeline of betrayal and violence, the groundwork had already been laid for the tragedy that would evolve decades after those maps had been redrawn by colonial interlocutors’. What met her entrance into the country was the portrait of President Assad and Dunkin Donuts, ‘an awkward juxtaposition’ that spoke volumes of Western commercialism, that doesn’t bring good change with it at times and a paranoid atmosphere, with people whispering to each other in public, rather than talking normally. Within a short time, foreigners left & pool parties came to an end, as no-one wanted to be out and about after dark.
‘Let me tell you what helpless is: helpless is being a mother and not helping your kids.’ Carla
What followed were arrests, reports of rape and horrors in every corner of the country. What horrified me the most, were the stories of young women, whose lives irrevocably changed not just by the loss of loved ones & normality of life as they knew it but rapes, after which many never recover – ever. Unlike the West, where we have places to help women get over the horrors of rape and abuse, both psychologically and medically, the stigma that gets attached to Arab women stains them mentally, emotionally and physically and even escaping the country of their birth for say, Paris, doesn’t bring welcome relief. That is one of the most poignant things that Janine movingly wrote about and grabbed the fabric of my soul – despair and loss of hope for women, whose bodies become empty shells.
Reading this book, you can almost feel the despair – there is no cooking gas to make food and no electricity – imagine living a life full of deprivation in Aleppo, a life in ‘The Land of Elastic Hour’, with time becoming ‘impotent’ and your past disappearing like smoke into the air.
‘Don’t you wish you hadn’t gotten obsessed with Syria?’ Steven Sotloff
We read and watch stories of the refugees, but it’s hard to imagine the horror many of them lived through, unless you went through it yourself. Childhood lost, with kids becoming immune to the sound of firing bullets or explosions. No schooling, no playing outside with friends, hollow eyes and bare earth. People waiting needlessly, with no news, because radio and tv don’t work. Teenagers have no chance to fall in love and critically ill die slowly, because there is no medical help or medicine, with doctors often being killed, shutting the door on hope of survival of those whose health is deteriorating. In December 2012, according to the statistic in Janine’s book there were 31 (!) doctors in a city of Aleppo, with a population of one million. Just think about it for a moment or better, take a minute to analyse it! All this is excruciating to read and while the book is only under 200 pages long, it took me days to read. I read every night, before bedtime, with quietness descending on my home and my husband ruefully shaking his head, seeing what I read, before turning the lights off. Yet I couldn’t put the book down, sometimes crying silently, picturing people, who Janine was describing. Picturing this brave woman, a mother herself, risking her life to go to Syria in order to tell the story and fight for the people who remain silent not by choice.
Did you know that in 2006 Aleppo won the title of Islamic City of Culture? Historic landmarks were restored, tourists made the city their destination of choice. With regular direct flights from Paris and London, boutique hotels and delicious food, as well as artisan talents, the future looked promising, so a few years can make a hell of a difference to the life of a city and its inhabitants……
Janine also tried to tenderly preserve the memories of the old Syria, the ones before Islamists and war, in her own way, by taking pictures of monuments, knowing they might not be there next time and that is heart-breaking in its own right. Of course one can’t compare loss of human life to destruction of monuments, but seeing something, that has been standing for centuries, being bombed or intentionally destroyed, wipes part of the historical and cultural heritage out, damaging nation’s core and an opportunity to teach children about their past, so they grow up cherishing and preserving it.
The book finishes off in the spring of 2015, when it becomes unsafe for Janine to travel and a horrifying 300,000 Syrians are dead. For now, there is a fractionate peaceful pause and renewed hope, yet somehow the pain and sorrow are far from over & the number of lives lost continues to climb and thousands of people are fleeing the country. Will diplomacy fail or will the world become united to put a stop to this war ? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, I urge you to read the book and form an opinion, before you watch the next news segment on Syria, feeling tempted to switch on to something more positive.
‘Dispatches from Syria: the Morning They Came For Us’ by Janine di Giovanni, Bloomsbury Press, £16.00