The title of Janine di Giovanni’s devastating new book, “The Morning They Came for Us,” refers to those terrible moments in ordinary Syrians’ lives when the war in their country becomes personal. Those moments when there is a knock on the door and the police or intelligence services take a family member away. Those moments when a government-delivered barrel bomb falls on your home, your school, your hospital, and daily life is forever ruptured.
“The water stops, taps run dry, banks go, and a sniper kills your brother,” she writes. Garbage is everywhere because there are no longer any functioning city services, and entire neighborhoods are turned into fields of rubble. Victorian diseases like polio, typhoid and cholera resurface. Children wear rubber sandals in the winter cold because they do not have shoes. People are forced to do without “toothpaste, money, vitamins, birth-control pills, X-rays, chemotherapy, insulin, painkillers.”
In the five years since the Assad regime cracked down on peaceful antigovernment protests and the conflict escalated into full-blown civil war, more than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and some 12 million people — more than half the country’s prewar population — have been displaced, including five million who have fled to neighboring countries and to Europe in what the United Nations calls the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
In “The Morning They Came for Us,” Ms. di Giovanni gives us a visceral understanding of what it is like to live in wartime Syria, recounting some of the individual stories behind the numbing statistics: students who were whisked away by the police and interrogated and tortured; children who died from common infections because medicine and doctors were unavailable; women who were raped by soldiers at checkpoints and in jail; families who fled besieged cities like Homs, only to return because there was no place else to go.
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