Janine di Giovanni’s reports of life under the Assad regime during the civil war are nightmarish, but unflinching
The Observer, Sunday 28 February 2016
When I first visited Syria, about 20 years ago, it was outwardly calm but with an atmosphere of underlying unease. After I gave a lecture at a university in Homs, I met a group of postgraduate students for coffee and was bombarded with questions about everyday life in a western secular society. I thought I’d been careful to avoid politics but when I got back to Damascus I discovered I’d been banned from speaking at the university there. A mukhabarat informer had been in the coffee shop.
A few years later, when I chaired an English PEN committee that campaigned on behalf of imprisoned writers, I heard first-hand about the torture that went on in the country’s prisons. One of the most notorious jails was close to Palmyra, where opponents of the government had their joints ripped apart on a horrific instrument of torture called the “German chair”. I used to wonder what would happen when decades of this brutal repression became intolerable and ordinary Syrians rose against Assad.
The answer turned out to be an extraordinarily savage civil war. It is a story that encompasses a massive refugee crisis and a whole series of war crimes, including rape of the regime’s opponents, male and female alike, and the use of chemical weapons. Now Russia’s entry into the conflict appears to have turned the odds in President Assad’s favour, while causing significant civilian casualties.
What life is like for ordinary Syrians who have stayed behind is the subject of Janine di Giovanni’s heartbreaking book. It is an account of her travels in Syria during a six-month period in 2012. Wealthy Damascenes are still in denial, gathering around the pool at Di Giovanni’s hotel to drink beer while smoke rises from shelling in the suburbs.
She cuts from this scene to Latakia, a coastal city close to the birthplace of Hafez al-Assad, the president’s father, who held the country in a stranglehold for almost 30 years. A young woman called Nada, who carried medical supplies to opposition fighters and broadcast reports calling for a democratic Syria, describes how she received a panicked phone call from a friend, telling her he had been arrested. “Can you get here right away?” he begged. “They want to talk to you, too.”
It was a pre-arranged signal, giving Nada time to run, but she had nowhere to go. She destroyed anything that might incriminate her but it made no difference when the knock came in the early morning, two days later. Nada spent the next eight months being tortured and made to listen as other prisoners were stripped, beaten and forced to drink urine. She was also raped, something confirmed by one of her friends, although Nada herself is unable to talk about it.
Di Giovanni confronts the nightmarish subject of sexual violence as a means of terrorising prisoners early in this extremely harrowing book. Her account of rapes in Assad’s prisons is unsensational but unsparing, a tone she maintains when she meets Hussein, a student from Homs. Hussein was never a fighter but that didn’t stop him being arrested and his story about being tortured by men who described themselves as doctors is too graphic to repeat. He survived only because another doctor took pity on him, certifying him dead so he would be taken to the morgue, where a nurse helped him escape.
Di Giovanni has reported on many conflicts. “I swore to myself, after Bosnia, that I would never live through another war that would consume me,” she writes. But she cannot bear the feeling of standing by and doing nothing, even if the best she can do is to make a record of suffering. This is no small thing: it is individual stories, rather than victims counted in the millions, that reveal the terrible cost of leaving dictators in place for the sake of “stability”.
The Morning They Came for Us is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)