The mechanic, blinded in one eye by shrapnel, spent three days searching for his family in the destroyed buildings and broken streets of Darayya. Finally he found his father’s body in a farmhouse, alongside those of three boys, already starting to decay. ‘Can you tell me why they would kill an old man?’ he asked, before adding: ‘This is not my Syria. When I see the sorrow that happens in our towns, all I think is — this is not my Syria.’
Yet it is. Indeed, one mystery of the darkness that has descended on Syria is that so many gut-wrenching depravities could befall a place of such bewitching beauty, history and apparent tolerance. Even now, after so much blood spilt and so many lives destroyed, there seems something unreal about how demands for democracy ended up in such a sordid maelstrom of death, devastation and sectarian horrors.
The veteran war correspondent Janine di Giovanni does not solve the conundrum. But her elegant dispatches from six months in 2012 offer a snapshot of the time when naive hopes spiralled into nightmare. The wealthy enjoy opera and drinks by Damascus pools as smoke from shelling rises nearby, insisting that their president would never kill his own people. Yet a student protestor rounded up by government goons tells of terrible torture, doctors even slicing open his body and forcing him to sleep on corpses. ‘One night they tossed him on top of a body and when he turned his head, he saw his dead brother,’ she writes.
Di Giovanni, who covered the Balkan conflict with distinction, does not hide emotions as she explores the use of rape in war once again and her stories, such as that of a shattered young woman detained after publicising protests on social media, are deeply disturbing. Nada was warned that the police wanted her, yet she had nowhere to run. So she was beaten and stripped, then returned to a cell too small to stretch out in despite her tiny frame. Male prisoners were made to urinate before her, then guards forced her to drink. She had to watch a man sodomised and was herself raped; the experiences left her unable even to say the word.
Less satisfying is Syria Burning by another veteran reporter, Charles Glass, who made headlines himself when held hostage in Lebanon 29 years ago. His short book aims to set the catastrophe in historical context, finding illuminating parallels with the 1925 revolt against the French mandate. ‘The French, like the Assads today, held on,’ he says, adding that they finally left — ‘as I suspect the Assads will, but that took France another 20 years.’
Glass’s experience covering the region for three decades shows in revealing nuggets underscoring the bestial stupidity of conflict. One friend has his summer villa destroyed after rebels break in to fire at an army base. A moderate mufti weeps as he tells of his 22-year-old son being killed after condemnation of the cleric’s conciliatory approach to Christians is broadcast in Britain and Saudi Arabia. A section on the tragedy of Aleppo, an urban model of social cohesion and diversity, is especially strong.
What weakens the book is Glass’s presentation of democracy protestors and moderate forces largely as the pawns of foreign powers. Certainly this has become a gruesome proxy war, yet the author seems far harder on the West, Turkey and their allies than on Russia and Iran. He sees the struggle as another American power-grab against a country that refused to be a satellite state. ‘George W. Bush was eyeing Syria when he left the White House and, as in so much else, the Obama administration has taken the policy further,’ he argues.
The result of this myopic perspective is that Glass is much too soft on a murderously cruel regime and its brutal allies. More informative is The Battle for Home, an understated gem of a book by an architect from Homs called Marwa al-Sabouni. She seeks to explain the war that has ripped her country apart through the prism of the built environment — and in doing so, provides intriguing insights alongside chilling personal anecdotes of how fighting and sectarianism tore tolerance to shreds.
‘How do modern and hitherto progressive communities collapse from a state of civilisation to a nightmare of animal carnage?’ asks al-Sabouni. She does not fully answer her own question, but finds pointers as she explores her home town’s fate. Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, became famous first for its role in the revolution, then for the vicious struggle between government forces and its besieged rebels. Her eyewitness account is strengthened by her husband coming from the suburb of Baba Amr — ‘a metonym for either unprecedented courage or high treason, depending upon whose side you are on’.
She offers gripping details of life trapped in hell: her husband briefly jailed; giggling children blown apart by mortar attacks targeting schools; families returning to bombed areas finding homes untouched only to see them looted before their eyes. Then there is the saga of trying to get her doctorate as regime stooges try to stop the award. Yet the power of this work comes in her analysis of how a desperate desire for home-ownership combined with corruption and flawed development to create conditions ripe for conflict and instability.
Architecture did not cause the war, of course, yet al-Sabouni argues that it had a crucial contributory role in the barbarism. Certainly she is right to state that a healthy society does not collapse however much pressure comes from abroad, and healthy communities do not descend into savagery however ruthless their rulers. ‘The fabric of our cities is reflected in the fabric of our souls,’ she concludes. ‘It is my hope that we have learned from our suffering.’ A simple hope shared far beyond her once-beautiful nation’s borders.