The Morning They Came For Us – Dispatches from Syria (Janine Di Giovanni)

Giovanni“Now, several years on and with hundreds of thousands dead, something has changed irrevocably in his country. It will not return to what it was, not now, not ever. How can Syria ever be what it once was? It has been burnt alive by hatred.”

I was initially sceptical about this book & had no hitherto experience of it’s author. My suspicion was motivated only once I had brought the book & had a quick glance at who was recommending it on the jacket along with Giovanni’s sprawling CV, which had some pretty unsavoury institutions mentioned.I also began reading this book less than a week after finishing Francesca Borri’s harrowing opus Syrian Dust, & was lulled into the presumption that this book may well constitute the glib, media-preened arm-chair reportage that Borri harangued so vehemently in her work. Thankfully i was completely mistaken. This is a very powerful piece of work, with hugely important investigation & documentation throughout. Syrian Dust has more rancour, bluntness, anger & is obstinately front-line. The Morning They Came For Us is less immediate, more composed & far broader in subject & spotlight. I think both books are equally important & strongly recommend reading them both as they each possess exceptional reportage & insight into this disaster.

Some of this books greatest coverage is the direct-disclosure of those functioning in or for the Assad regime, a detail that was absent from Syrian Dust. Whilst reporting from front-line government troop positions in Homs, Giovanni tragically observes young soldiers that have been tossed into the meat-grinder. Pressing a commander on the legitimacy of some opposition fighters democratic objectives she is told  “i’m not really a political guy. I do what I am told”. On the gruelling, squandering futility of the conflict the commander attests that – “hours, days maybe to take one building.” we get one inch, they take back one inch. They get one inch, we take it back.”. It’s a very strong segment on the pointlessness & disposability of those dragged into other idiots wars & superfluous pugnacity. Very precious reading also emerges from chapters that cover the affluent Syrians, particularly in the inchoate stages of the war, before it’s intensification, are incredible & revolting. She describes a -”pool party at my hotel on Thursday in early summer 2012 that seemed to betoken the last days of a spoilt empire that was about to implode” with Russian prostitutes & manicured bikini-clad revellers schmoozing to pop music whilst smoke from distant shelling coils in the backdrop. A wealthy sexagenarian businessman protests that “we don’t want our world to change” & that “last week we had a party of twenty people on our balcony. We were all relaxing smoking shisha. We heard gun shots in the background – but it seemed a long way off”.

The strength of her reportage & witness accounts aside, the book is tremendously well written, with a subtle, almost barely apparent prose. Giovanni’s experience & maturity of war-journalism, which encompasses Somalia, Liberia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Bosnia, East Timor, Chechnya & more even, has her conjuring recursive dilemmas from previously undergone conflicts. The same wasteful misery rived anew by the latest spate of military belligerence, overture stages with normality slipping into chaos & emergency.

Another very disturbing section early in the book focuses explicitly on torture & rape as a weapon of war. Heavy reading indeed, but a subject that needs attention. It’s an astonishing collection of events, dialogue, analysis & emotion. Giovanni seems less-shredded than her counterparts by her experiences, though tracts on sensations of shame & guilt are scribed in multiple instances. She also writes frequently about cultural & historical loss in the Middle East from the ravaging attrition of war. Shortly after ISIS stormed Mosul, she writes from Iraq – “ I felt an overriding emotion that entire swathes of the map of the Middle East had been lost. I kept feeling a dull, unending sense of depletion, damage, injury”.

A truly brilliant book on a disastrous calamity from a great journalist.


Author: Janine Di Giovanni

Publisher: Bloomsbury