Far from being a simple document of war, a catalogue of horror and intrigue, di Giovanni’s The Morning They Came for Us is both a searing indictment of the failures of the international community in Syria and essential reading for all those who want to understand the reasons ordinary men, women and children risk the perilous crossing to Europe. Taking the form of a journal, the book follows di Giovanni as she witnesses the unravelling of the situation in Syria.
Through her prose, the intricacies of the conflict are seen to develop out of pre-existing contradictions and underlying tensions in the region. While this penetrating analysis offers no solution to the volatile morass in which an entire society is caught, her palpable empathy for the plight of the Syrian people, together with her frequent references to the suffering of innocent children, implore the international community to try harder. If newspapers often inure us to the brutality of foreign warfare, with cold death-tolls and barren columns, di Giovanni here restores the human face to the cost of the machinations of the few.
Making use of an extensive network of contacts and friends within the country, we are introduced to the characters playing their part, willingly or not, in this tragedy. Her descriptions are supremely evocative. Whether it be the boredom and fatigue which plague soldiers during the frequent pauses in piecemeal urban operations, or the dark nights spent as a near-fugitive in a civilian’s apartment, each of her experiences is rendered vividly, with an eye for detail and a determined will to tell the stories of those with no voice. The emotional blows carry the force of a sledgehammer; in part due to the immediacy rendered by her economic and masterful use of the historic present tense.
The different sections of the book correspond, at least formally, to certain dates; that said, the stories interweave, extend further back or reflect on what is to come. This is no flaw; instead it represents the caprices of memory and the tangled web of apparently circumstantial events far more accurately than a dissected blow-by-blow account ever could.
Of the many images in this book which suture themselves to the mind’s eye, one in particular ought to occupy the mind of any European citizen. It is of a woman brought to the ER of a hospital in Aleppo, suffering from convulsions. As she sees Western journalists look on, she screams ‘If I die, take my children! […] Take them with you!’
All this makes di Giovanni’s Dispatches a unique and timely testament of a world in tatters. It demands to be read.
The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria by Janine di Giovanni
Photo credit: Christiaan Triebert