Tumbling down the rabbit hole of war

Foreign correspondent Janine Di Giovanni travelled to Syria in 2012 because she wanted to see that nation – initially filled with hope after the Arab Spring – “before it tumbled down the rabbit-hole of war.” Di Giovanni’s experience reporting on previous conflicts in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia, Afghanistan and Iraq made her aware of how quickly promising beginnings could spiral out of control – in Syria’s case, “with stunning velocity.”

While in Syria, Di Giovanni talked with as many people as she could, no matter their backgrounds or denominations. She writes, “I wanted to see how Assad’s supporters told the story of what was happening to their country. And I wanted testimonies from those who suffered under the regime.” She put herself in grave danger as she traveled the country, interviewing victims of rape and torture on both sides of the conflict. Their harrowing stories are so shocking as to be almost beyond belief to Western readers. But they are the daily fallout of war for Syrians.

Di Giovanni’s interviews with mothers of sons who as soldiers were tortured, maimed or killed reveals a common thread. Every soldier was some mother’s son. For the grieving mothers, “politics matter less than raw pain, inconsolable loss.”

During visits to Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches on the Sundays Di Giovanni was in Damascus, she smelled the aroma of beeswax and saw the fear on the worshippers’ faces as they kneeled and prayed. “Fear mixed with faith,” she observes. After mass, some of the parishioners approached her and asked her what would happen to them in the future – “Will we be wiped out? Do other Christians think of us? Where will we go? Will the United States save us?” Fears of being driven out of Syria by a Muslim fundamentalist regime hounded these Christians, who didn’t want their lives to repeat the pattern of the 1915 massacre of Armenians in Turkey.

Beautiful stories of heroism are found throughout Di Giovanni’s dispatches. One of the most poignant is that of Mohammed, a baker who worked in Aleppo’s only “opposition bakery” – a bakery that wasn’t run by the Syrian government and was located in an opposition neighbourhood. Despite threats from Assad’s government that he would be kidnapped, tortured and killed if he kept running the bakery, Mohammed hadn’t listened. He said he wasn’t afraid.

Faithfully each day, Mohammed showed up at the bakery where he and a few others made about 17,000 bags of bread, each bag containing 14 loaves of flat bread. Mohammed reflected that “this bread was keeping Aleppo alive.”

Di Giovanni paints a sombre picture of war. Barrel bombs dropped on cities and civilians created horrific carnage and vast destruction to infrastructure and buildings. Empty shell casings littered the streets. Smoke rose from bombs. “The dirt, filth, fear and nausea” were daily experiences. She adds, “War is the destruction, the skeleton and the bare bones of someone else’s life.” In an epilogue written in March 2015 just before her book went to press, Di Giovanni noted how warfare and terror wrought by ISIS had irrevocably changed things in the nation and that Syria “has been burnt alive by hatred.”

Still, Di Giovanni notes surprisingly that during war good and pleasant things can happen: “The camaraderie that exists, the intimacy between human beings, the fact that sometimes barriers are broken down and a level of communication occurs that could never thrive in peacetime. People say things and do things that are profound and genuine.”

Recently Canada has welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees and, hopefully, many more will arrive in the near future. Perhaps you and your church community are sponsoring Syrian refugees. Reading The Morning You Came for Us, though difficult to absorb, may be one way you can begin to understand some of the realities that your Syrian newcomer friends, their families and nation have faced.

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