The Morning They Came for Us: Di Giovanni’s war reports

Sunday 18/12/2016

As the Islamic State (ISIS) recaptured Palmyra and government forces fight for Aleppo, the need to understand the crisis in each part of Syria is crucial. In her book The Morning They Came for Us journalist Janine di Giovanni describes her observations and experiences gleaned from talking to victims, rebels, reporters and ordinary Syrians from March to December 2012.
Reporting on war for more than two decades, di Giovanni has written seven books and is a frequent foreign policy analyst on British, French and US television. She is also a foreign affairs policy analyst at the Geneva Centre for Security Studies.
Di Giovanni dedicates each chapter of her latest book to a different part of Syria, with the exception of Damascus to which she has dedicated one and a half chapters. Her facts and descrip­tion are succinct and vital to understanding the dynamics of each city in different months.
At the start of her visit, she at­tended operas, pool parties and weddings. Towards the end, those places of leisure disappeared and all that was left were children searching for their parents under rubble or for food in garbage bins. Syria was drastically transformed in those ten months.
The book provides a microscop­ic look at war, revealing stories of individuals on the ground based on interviews. Di Giovanni’s com­passion is shown throughout but she also expresses scepticism of how true at least one of the stories was.
She makes links between her experiences reporting on the Iraq war and Syrian crisis, highlight­ing the similar consequences of attempts to oust a dictator in a Middle Eastern country.
The book goes beyond the head­lines, facts and death tolls. Di Gio­vanni describes the emotions of victims that is often overlooked. In one chapter, she explains that people do not recognise the friends they once knew as their features have changed so drasti­cally due to the misery they have experienced.
In the final chapter, she describes the emotional and mental pain of war that seems unimportant in comparison to the physical pain, writing: “War means endless waiting, endless boredom. There is no electricity, so no television. You can’t read. You can’t see friends. You grow depressed but there is no treatment for it and it makes no sense to complain — everyone is as badly off as you. It’s hard to fall in love, or rather, hard to stay in love. If you are a teenager, you seem halted in time.”
She also tells what Aleppo could have been. Only in 2006, the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation awarded Aleppo the title of Islamic City of Culture. Historic landmarks were restored and tourism increased.
Aleppo was going to be the new Marrakech, an exotic destination with pleasant weather, boutique hotels, interesting restaurants and direct flights from Paris or London,” di Giovanni writes. “An exotic, Eastern city with beguiling buildings made from gold-coloured stone.”
The book does not describe much not heard previously; the effects of war on emotions are the same in all conflicts. How­ever, The Morning They Came for Us provides an easily digestible introduction to the basics of the conflict, such as different sects within religion and how they live together.
The Morning They Came for Us serves an important reminder that real people are suffering in Syria and is a desperate call to help resolve the crisis.
The Morning They Came for Us by Janine di Giovanni, Blooms­bury, 224 pages.