Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: Reading this book by the war correspondent Janine di Giovanni is at once necessary, difficult and elating. Her reporting from the Syrian revolution and war is clear-eyed and engaged in the best sense – engaged in the human realm rather than the abstractly political.
Giovanni’s account is deeply personal. She was once obsessed with Bosnian crimes; in the introduction, she says that Syria may similarly “engulf her”. She finds herself unable to trim her baby son’s nails for thinking of an Iraqi who’d had his ripped out. Later, accepting a cigarette pack from a student of human rights, she notes the old cigarette burns on his arms.
Her Syrian visits fell between March and December 2012. During the first, she describes an uneasy silence in central Damascus even as the suburbs burned. Class in this society is a more significant divider than religion, and the bi-national elite are in denial, spinning conspiracy theories and attending pool parties. In these “last days of a spoilt empire that was about to implode”, Giovanni delineates the two different kinds of regime “believer” – true devotees, and those simply scared of the alternatives. A few hundred frustrated UN monitors are confined to their hotel, and war is “descending with stunning velocity”.
The book continues by recounting the ramifications for Syrian civilians of Assad’s various scorched earth strategies. An estimated 200,000 people disappeared into the regime gulag. Most have experienced torture. “I struggle to remember a place where torture has been so widespread and systematic,” a Human Rights Watch official tells Giovanni, who sets about uncovering some of the individual stories, by means of interviews and recollections of beatings, burnings and cuttings, perpetrated to the torturer’s usual refrain: “You want freedom? Is this the freedom you want?” [Continue reading…]