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  New York Times Review

THESE DAYS, WHEN politicians bring up the Middle East, they collapse a decade's worth of occupation, civil war and revolution into a single, ineffable horror: the Islamic State. The idea is that we've never seen a group so horrific, so threatening to global stability - which is fueling calls for world powers to ally with, or acquiesce to, Syria's Bashar al-Assad as a lesser evil in the war against ISIS. But look beyond this narrow counterterrorism prism and you see the devastating truth: a regime that is willing to rape, torture, starve and gas as many of its citizens as necessary to secure its rule - and in the process, sow such apocalyptic chaos as to help spawn a global refugee crisis and the rise of ISIS. This is the searing lesson of Janine di Giovanni's heartbreaking "The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches From Syria." Di Giovanni, a veteran foreign correspondent, visited Syria repeatedly in 2012, meeting with civilian activists and doctors, regime soldiers and pro-Assad nuns, and has written a moving portrait of a country divided by and under siege from its own president. We meet Nada, a young woman who grew up near Qardaha, the hometown of the Assad family, and joined the revolution because she "wanted the chance to live in a democracy," she tells the author. "As you do." She was soon arrested by the secret police and thrown into prison, where she was beaten and whipped. Sometimes, when she asked for water, authorities would order a male prisoner to urinate in a bottle and try to force her to drink. In the end, she was raped. It's just one example of the regime's use of sexual violence as a tool of interrogation and punishment that di Giovanni documents in a series of harrowing passages. She describes the case of a young woman arrested for putting up revolutionary posters, who was blindfolded, tied to a chair and told she would be passed from man to man. She reproduces the transcript of a captured shabiha, a regime mercenary, whose stated aim was to "quash the revolution" and who admits to breaking into a school and raping women "for six continuous hours." And later, his men discovered a woman in a house. "We were four to rape her," he said, "and she committed suicide following her rape." In Aleppo, di Giovanni meets the lone baker in rebel-held territory, who says that regime agents attempted to bribe him to stop making bread in an effort to starve the population (he refused). She interviews a young man from Homs whose torture included burnings and cuts to his penis. The abuse and privations are so systematic that they seem impossible to explain away. And yet in upper-class enclaves of Damascus, di Giovanni attends surreal champagne-soaked parties, where rich Syrians are convinced that tales of regime crimes are the propaganda of terrorists and "foreign interventionists." The power with which di Giovanni delivers these scenes is blunted by overwrought prose, and as an impressionistic memoir, there's little in the way of historical context or analysis. But that's not the book's purpose. Instead, it's a haunting reminder of what the Syrian revolution, ultimately, is about. "Every time they hit me," a man, paralyzed from torture, tells di Giovanni, "they screamed at me: 'You want freedom! O.K., take this! Here is your great freedom!'" Amid our obsession with ISIS, these tales are worth remembering. Syrians, on the other hand, need no such reminders. In March, during a partial cease-fire, Syrians flooded ruined cities countrywide for the first mass protests in years, chanting the same demand they've made since the beginning: "The people want the downfall of the regime." ANAND GOPAL is the author of "No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes."

  Library Journal Review

Journalist di Giovanni (Middle East editor, Newsweek) has experience in the Middle East and other war-torn regions and traveled to Syria in 2012 after covering the Balkan Wars in the 1990s. Over the final six months of the year, she observes the transformation of the 2011 peaceful demonstrations demanding greater freedom to civil war. Visiting various towns and presenting individuals with different roles, the author shows how increased fighting with more powerful weapons destroyed villages and urban neighborhoods and killed fighters and civilians alike. Government forces arrested rebels and noncombatants, and jails were often torture sites. Di Giovanni emphasizes the horror and brutality of civil war, especially the widespread sexual violence. As both government and rebel forces became more extreme and vicious, Syrians of all political loyalties mourned the loss of the tolerant and cosmopolitan community they once shared. Still shaken by the unchecked cruelty that tore apart Yugoslavia, the author decries the failure of the international community to prevent this humanitarian crisis. VERDICT Di Giovanni presents a devastating picture of the horrors of civil war and the disintegration of Syrian society. Her vivid depictions of suffering may be overwhelming for some readers. [See Prepub Alert, 11/2/15.]-Elizabeth Hayford, formerly with Associated Coll. of the Midwest, Evanston, IL © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

  Booklist Review

*Starred Review* At a hotel in Damascus in early summer 2012, a pool party was held while smoke curled in the distance from bombing in the suburbs. It was journalist di Giovanni's first trip to the city, but she would return to Syria many times in the following years for various publications, including the New York Times and Vanity Fair, to report on a country embroiled in civil war. With a potent mix of sensitivity and outrage, di Giovanni relates firsthand accounts of deprivation and suffering from the people caught up in the conflict. From interviews held in those early days, when the trappings of an old, glamorous lifestyle continued in Damascus despite the impending threat, to later testimony taken in the starving towns caught up in ongoing skirmishes, di Giovanni found that many of the people with whom she talked couldn't believe what was happening around them. But their stories reveal in harrowing detail the horrific nature of the war. The expert perspective of this seasoned war correspondent proves invaluable to understanding Syria today.--Thoreson, Bridget Copyright 2016 Booklist

  Kirkus Review

Newsweek Middle East editor di Giovanni (Ghosts by Daylight: A Modern-Day War Correspondent's Memoir of Love, Loss, and Redemption, 2013) dives headfirst into the nightmarish shadow world of modern Syria. At the beginning, the author relates how a diplomat friend told her "not to start working in Syria. He said it would engulf me as Bosnia had done, and he suggested gently that this was probably not a good thing emotionally. Even so, I went." Throughout the story, di Giovanni's quest seems almost suicidal, but the fruits of her labor are astonishing. She profiles ordinary Syrians struggling to survive while also chronicling her own death-defying journey. Locals guided her through ruined churches, bomb-addled tenements, and dubious border crossings. Even as Western readers have gradually begun to understand the complexities of the Syrian conflict, di Giovanni brings daily life into focus. "What does war sound like?" she asks. "The whistling sound of the bombs falling can only be heard seconds before impactenough 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, or rubbish rotting, of the heady smell of fear." In her gutsy and sensitive narrative, the author offers the surreal imagery of a place without reason. During her first drive to Damascus, she stopped at a roadside Dunkin' Donuts serving only cheese sandwiches. Later, a physician took a break from his dying patients to play a lonely game of foosball on the hospital roof. Di Giovanni interweaves biblical references and anecdotes about her own motherhood into the story, which may strike some readers as forced or even melodramatic. But the author is a master of war reporting, especially its civilian side. Thanks to her bitter sacrifice, Western readers may begin to appreciate the chaos that Syrian refugees continue to flee. This brilliant, necessary book will hopefully do for Syria what Herr's Dispatches (1977) did for Vietnam. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Summary
Doing for Syria what Imperial Life in the Emerald City did for the war in Iraq, The Morning They Came for Us bears witness to one of the most brutal, internecine conflicts in recent history. Drawing from years of experience covering Syria for Vanity Fair, Newsweek, and the front pages of the New York Times, award-winning journalist Janine di Giovanni gives us a tour de force of war reportage, all told through the perspective of ordinary people--among them a doctor, a nun, a musician, and a student. What emerges is an extraordinary picture of the devastating human consequences of armed conflict, one that charts an apocalyptic but at times tender story of life in a jihadist war zone. Recalling celebrated works by Ryszard Kapus´cin´ski, Philip Gourevitch, and Anne Applebaum, The Morning They Came for Us, through its unflinching account of a nation on the brink of disintegration, becomes an unforgettable testament to resilience in the face of nihilistic human debasement.
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