The worst wars are where a regime turns on its people and/or outsiders jump in to make their point. Syria is a classic case.
Protests for rights transformed into a civil war after repression, escalated into a proxy regional conflict and then a regressive Islamist outfit further complicated matters. This formulation may explain the cause but scarcely touches on the harrowing conditions for people caught in it.
The Syrian conflict this month completed five years but it has not received the level of attention that Afghanistan or Iraq have despite both being as unsafe for journalists. This deficiency has been remedied here by feisty journalist Janine Di Giovanni, who has always been unfazed at braving tough, unforgiving locales to find stories that must be brought to the world’s attention.
Having reported from the Palestinian territories during the first Intifada, Bosnia including besieged Sarajevo, Grozny as the Russian army returned among other “hot spots” as well as various parts of the Middle East as the Arab Spring began, there was no way she would pass over Syria.
The impulse to cover Syria, as she tells us in the introduction to this – her 7th book – came while she was in Belgrade in 2011 for a project to trace Bosnian conflict’s remaining war criminals, particularly Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, since “the potent emotion I felt towards the Balkan wars and their aftermath was not rational”.
By the time he was caught (May 2011), she was covering the Arab Spring and it seemed she could “transfer my obsession from the Balkans to Syria, which was the last in the chain, in the string of pearls of the revolution”. It had begun peacefully and had not, as now, “spiralled into a gruesome, brutal, a seemingly forever war” but there were pointers enough as she travelled through the country during 2012.
“... I tried not to draw comparisons with Bosnia. But it was difficult not to do so. There were the same floods of refugees, the same burnt-out villages and the same women driven out in terror, because paramilitaries were on the march and they feared being raped.”
Di Giovanni, currently the Middle East editor of Newsweek, has however always skipped political/geo-political reasons and actions for her “trademark” which “has always been to write about the human cost of war, to attempt to give war a human face, and to work in conflict zones that the world’s press has forgotten”.
And her travels, stretching from Damascus to Homa to Latakia to Aleppo, sees her come across many unsettling and heartbreaking stories to tell - women suffering deep trauma and withdrawal after being tortured and raped during interrogation, children helpless before the casual, incomprehensible brutality, and many yet to come to terms with the disruption to normal life and livelihood.
Equally poignant are the tales of the doctor who has to see a young baby suffering nothing more serious than a respiratory infection die due to absence of medicine, a baker trying to keep up production, conscript soldiers inching ahead through a shattered city, and a phlegmatic gravedigger. And then common but difficult was children asking when things will improve. The issue was the Syria she saw in 2012 (she was never allowed in subsequently) was a far cry from Afghanistan violently unsettled since the mid-1970s, or Iraq, deprived by sanctions since 1990 and then seeing internecine conflict since 2003. It wasn’t by any means perfect, but more (relatively) open, liberal and affluent than the other two. And then, all changed.
“For ordinary people, war starts with a jolt: one day you are busy with dentist appointments or arranging ballet lessons for your daughter, and then the curtain drops. One moment the daily routine grinds on; ATMs work and mobile phones function. Then, suddenly, everything stops. “Barricades go up.
Soldiers are recruited and neighbours work to form their own defences. Ministers are assassinated and the country falls into chaos. Fathers disappear. The banks close and money and culture and life as people knew it vanishes.” That is the real tragedy of Syria – and of what war does to society now.