books, Reading, Women Writers

“The Morning They Came for Us” by Janine di Giovanni

“Naya, Carla’s twelve-year-old, looked hunched and ancient. She said to no one in particular: ‘Nobody knows where this war is going. But it has to go somewhere.'”


Janine di Giovanni is a long-time war correspondent bravely, brazenly, willfully entering intense conflicts in order to understand and humanize them. Since 2012 di Giovanni has spent untold hours in Syria, trying to unfurl the tangled morass of players in this horrific war. Di Giovanni’s role is not to assign blame or to argue sides; instead, she seeks, and succeeds, to shed light on the seeds of this conflict and to communicate the harrowing human costs of war.

“Looking at [the] timeline of betrayal and violence, the groundwork had already been laid for the tragedy that would evolve decades after […] maps had been redrawn by colonial interlocutors. It seemed forcefully inevitable.”

Despite Syria’s constant presence in the news, it seems (at least for me) that a basic understanding of how this conflict came about and how it is playing out on the ground is lacking in popular discourse. Di Giovanni ably begins to fill that gap, though by no means bridges it entirely, in this short book.

“Wartime looks like this. This steely greyness of the city. The clouds are so low, but not low enough to hide government helicopters carrying barrel bombs, which usually appear at the same time each day, in the mornings and late afternoons, circling for a while at altitudes of 13,000-16,000 feet, little more than tiny dots in the sky, before dropping their payloads.

What does war sound like? The whistling sound of the bombs falling can only be heard seconds before impact – enough time to know that you are about to die, but not enough time to flee.

What does the war in Aleppo smell of? It smells of carbine, of wood smoke, of unwashed bodies, of rubbish rotting, of the heady smell of fear. The rubble on the street – the broken glass, the splintered wood that was once somebody’s home. On every corner there is a destroyed building that may or may not have bodies still buried underneath. Your old school is gone; so are the mosque, your grandmother’s house, and your office. Your memories are smashed.”

Janine di Giovanni’s writing is straightforward and clean. She injects herself just enough to make the story personal without diverting the reader’s attention away from the conflict at its heart. I think that this book is a necessary and easily accessible read for anyone on the outside who hopes to gain a better understanding of the seemingly unending struggle in Syria and of the ground-level effects of modern war.


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