A look at what's behind the sudden strain in relations and why lawmakers can't agree on just how big of a threat Iran now poses to the U.S.
Guest Host: Susan Page
It has been five years since civil war erupted in Syria. Hundreds of thousands have been killed. More than four million refugees have fled into neighboring countries — creating a crisis that has engulfed Europe. Janine di Giovanni, the Middle East editor for Newsweek, was embedded with the Syrian army. She says reporting on the war in Syria is unlike any other conflict she’s ever covered. And she has reported from dozens of war zones, including Bosnia, Iraq, and Somalia. Guest host Susan Page talks with di Giovanni about the brutal reality of the daily lives of Syrians.
- Janine di Giovanni Middle East editor, Newsweek; contributing editor, Vanity Fair; author, "Ghosts by Daylight" and "Madness Visible"
Janine di Giovanni's TED Talk (2012)
Read An Excerpt
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. The news from Syria keeps getting worse. Airstrikes killed at least two dozen people in a refugee camp last week. This followed reports that airstrikes and shelling hit medical facilities in the besieged city of Aleppo. Janine di Giovanni, the Middle East editor for "Newsweek" has been covering the lives of people living in Syria.
MS. SUSAN PAGEA new book of her reporting is titled "The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria." She joins me in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. JANINE DI GIOVANNIGood morning. Thank you.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. Our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Find us on Facebook or Twitter. You have been a war correspondent for decades. Where have you reported from?
DI GIOVANNII started as a very young reporter in the first intifada in Palestine, the first uprising. From there, I went to Bosnia and lived in Sarajevo during the siege, reporting in Bosnia, then Kosovo, Chechnya, East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Congo. What have I missed? Iraq, Afghanistan, all of the Arab Spring and so basically Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and finally, Syria.
PAGESo this has been your life's work.
DI GIOVANNIYes. It is.
PAGEWhat drew you initially to cover wars?
DI GIOVANNIJustice. I had no intention of becoming a journalist. I was set to be an academic. I had finished my master's degree in comparative literature and I was accepted at a writer's program called The Iowa Writer's Workshop.
PAGEA very famous writer's program.
DI GIOVANNIIt is, but I think I was too young and I did -- I felt that I didn't know enough about the world to write fiction. I needed to live. A 24-year-old, I think, writing a novel doesn't really have any right to. So one day -- and it was pure coincidence, I picked up the newspaper and there was a photograph of a Palestinian teenager being buried alive by an Israeli soldier. And in my cocoon little world of academia, I had no idea that the first intifada or uprising was happening.
DI GIOVANNISo to make a long story short, I got on a plane. I met a human rights lawyer, a Jewish human rights lawyer called Felicia Langer, who was, at that point, one of the only people defending Palestinians in military court. And she took me under her wing and she basically said something to me that changed my life forever, which was if you have the ability to give a voice to people who don't have a voice, then you have an obligation.
DI GIOVANNIAnd that was that. I stayed there for three years on and off and I wrote a book. And then, I went to Bosnia and Bosnia changed my life forever.
PAGEWe want to talk about the ways in which some wars are similar, but there are also ways in which different conflicts are different, distinct, unique. You say covering Syria has been different from covering all those other places you mentioned. How is it different?
DI GIOVANNIAbsolutely. Well, Susan, I mean, Syria, first of all, for reporters, we now live in an age where we're targeted. We always were targeted. You know, you could get hit by an Israeli rubber bullet while covering demonstrations or you could in Bosnia. We were living with the population so we could easily have gotten targeted by snipers or shelling. But Syria is now about getting kidnapped and killed. Two of my colleagues, Jim Foley and Steve Sotloff were murdered by ISIS.
DI GIOVANNIThen, there's just the sheer problem that we can't get there. You can get a government visa and go on the Damascus side and then they will take you to see their Aleppo and their Palmyra, but this is -- you're minded by them so you're under their thumb and those visas are very hard to get. They won't give them to people like me. I had them initially and then they withdrew my right to go there.
DI GIOVANNISo we have to cross over illegally from Turkey and most of those checkpoints are manned by ISIS or jihadists so it's incredibly dangerous.
PAGEYou mentioned Steve Sotloff and James Foley, both figures we've often talked about on "The Diane Rehm Show." Do you feel that you were in the sort of danger that they were in, that you could've been kidnapped and killed?
DI GIOVANNIAbsolutely. I mean, we're doing the same kind of work. I mean, any journalist that goes onto the opposition side and is working in Aleppo or Idlib puts themselves at great risk of kidnapping. Now, there was kidnapping during the Lebanese civil war in the '80s, but nowhere near this kind of dimension where journalists are really thought of as cattle, you know, to be bought and sold and traded. And, of course, there is this terrible dimension where some governments do pay for the hostages, such as the French or the Italians, even though they don't admit it. They do.
DI GIOVANNIAnd the Americans and the Brits do not. So, you know, when we go, we're usually, you know, we're very award or one should be and that's why there's so many young journalists who write to me and say, I want to be a war reporter. I want to go to Syria. And I just say, this is not the war to cut your teeth on. In fact, it's not a war for experienced reporters. And the sadness of this, which is really heartbreaking for me, we need to be on the ground. We need eyes and ears there.
DI GIOVANNILast week, the bombing of al-Quds hospital in Aleppo, that's a hospital where I've worked in a lot and where I write about in my book. They killed the only pediatrician in Aleppo. And I know that's hard for people, listeners to believe because here in America, we have such a wealth of choice of doctors to go to or -- but if you're living in a besieged area, you've got to understand that you have virtually nothing. So to kill the last pediatrician is like extinguishing a hope.
PAGEAnd, of course, not being -- you can do reporting by phone, by Skype, by email, but there's a difference quality to reporting, as you say, that's on the ground, and particularly for the kind of reporting that you're trying to do because in your book, "The Morning They Came For Us," you don't write about the Geneva talks. You don't write about the debate in this country over what the United States should do or not do in Syria.
PAGEYou're writing about the daily lives of individuals who are caught in this terrible conflict.
DI GIOVANNIAbsolutely. I mean, I do follow the Geneva talks, although I think they're increasingly worthless, and I do follow what the American policy is because I think, ultimately, America will be the most influential player in the region, if anything does happen, if there's any intervention. But really, what I've always focused on throughout my 25 years doing this is to give people a voice. And I think that they -- it would be arrogant of me to write a book about what we should do in Syria or what the war is about from my Western perspective.
DI GIOVANNIIt's their story and so I wanted them to tell it.
PAGESo let's talk about one of the individuals you write about, Nada, one of the Syrians that you profile. In fact, it's the title of the -- the title of your book became her story. Why don't you read for us the introduction that you give to Nada.
DI GIOVANNI"Latakia, Thursday, the 14th of June, 2012. While I was lying on the floor, they stood over me, kicking me in the teeth and punching me and using their hands and feet. One man put his military boot in my mouth. I lay there hiding my face as they kicked and thought, they're using my body to practice their judo moves. And the entire time they were beating me, they kept saying, you want freedom? Here's your freedom. Every time they said freedom, they kicked or punched harder.
DI GIOVANNIThen, suddenly, the mood changed. It got darker. They started saying, if I did not talk, they would rape me. The morning they came for her, Nada was still in her pajamas. The air was cool from the night before so she judged it to be around 6:00 AM. She heard the muezzin call out for morning prayer and heard her father, a welder, who always got up in the early light to pray. For a moment, just when Nada opened her eyes, she tried to forget what the day might bring, imagining that her life was normal as it always had been before 2011, before the uprising.
DI GIOVANNITwo days earlier, Nada had received a strange phone call. The number didn't register on her caller ID. She stared at the monitor on her phone, then pressed the green button to accept the call. 'It's me,' the voice said. 'I'm in prison.' She recognized the voice. It was a close friend, a colleague, someone who also called himself an activist like her. He had been picked up by the Syrian state security and taken to the central prison.
DI GIOVANNI'Why are you calling me,' Nada asked, sitting on the floor. 'Can you get here right away?' He begged. 'Can you come to the police station? They want to talk to you.' It was a signal they had practiced since the war started. It meant the police had caught him. He was probably being beaten and was told to hand over the names of any fellow activists who were working against the Assad regime. Maybe they has smashed the bottom of his feet with a club or attacked his testicles to wires and turned on the electricity.
DI GIOVANNIMaybe they had held his head underwater until he thought his lungs would burst. Nada tried not to think of him, vulnerable, exposed, in pain. Whatever had happened, he had cracked and given up her name, but he had done her a favor by calling. It meant she had time to run. She pressed the red button, ended the call and drew herself into a small tight ball. She had nowhere to run. All she could do was wait."
PAGEThat's Janine di Giovanni reading from her new book, "The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria." We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll take your calls and questions. Our toll-free line, 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. In the studio with me, Janine di Giovanni. She's the author of "The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria." She is the Middle East editor for Newsweek, she's a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. She's the author of some previous books, "Ghosts by Daylight" and "Madness Visible."
PAGEYou know, you were just reading an excerpt, a passage from your new book about Nada, and in it, when she is being beaten, they -- the people who are beating her say, you want freedom, here's your freedom. And that is a phrase that the Syrians that you talk to say they were taunted with over and over again. What does that mean?
DI GIOVANNIWell the uprising, which started in 2011, was partially fueled by the other Arab spring uprisings, which were about freeing themselves from dictatorships or regimes that had lasted for decades and that people wanted democracy or a form of democracy or the right to vote or to have institutions that were democratic. So in a sense what the security forces, as they were beating her or torturing other people in the book, is -- are saying is this is what you're going to get, we're going to punish you, you cannot -- you cannot step out of line without being brutally punished.
DI GIOVANNIAnd I think that the whole attack against civilians, which is really what this war is about, it's a slow-motion genocide, it's a way of showing civilians look, you're going to support the opposition, this is what you're going to get, we're going to raze your village. And very similar to what they did in Sierra Leone, when they cut off the arms of people, of civilians, it was a way of saying you are a grotesque reminder of what we can do, our power and how we can torture you, mutilate you, make your life a living hell if you don't do what we want you to do.
PAGEYou know, you write about interviewing a young woman who had participated in Sierra Leone in cutting off people's hands. You called her -- or she was called Queen Cut Hands because she was the queen of cutting hands, is that why?
DI GIOVANNINo, in Sierra Leone, a lot of the child soldiers had nom de guerres, and hers was Queen Cut Hands because she was so skilled at cutting off hands. And what they would do is they'd say, do you want long sleeves, or short sleeves, and they would either cut you off at the wrist for long sleeves and short sleeves at the elbow. I saw a baby, six-month-old, with amputated arms, and she was in a -- it was one of the most chilling -- I'm getting the chills thinking about her now because I really felt like I was in the presence of evil.
DI GIOVANNIShe was in a rehabilitation center run by Jesuit priests, and they were trying to rehabilitate child soldiers, but the glee that she talked about, mutilating people and her ability to do it was so chilling. And of course with child soldiers, the whole trick is to get them before the age of eight or nine, before their consciences are fully developed so that they're able to perform these hideous acts.
PAGEAs a journalist, how do you go about interviewing someone like that? Because the best interviews involve making some sort of connection with the person you're interviewing.
DI GIOVANNIIt takes a long time. I'm not -- you know, usually I go for long periods of time. I sit on the floor. I talk to people. I don't -- I listen, really. I don't push them. I've learned long ago that if people don't want to talk to you, there is no point of pushing them. When people are ready to talk, they will talk to you, and if they have something to say, they'll say it.
DI GIOVANNIIn the case of rape victims, it's very, very hard. And I was lucky that I was trained during the war in Kosovo by a staff member of Human Rights Watch, and I was working on a very long project of interviewing actually an entire village of women in Kosovo of women that had been raped and who didn't -- could not admit it because if they did, their husbands would never touch them again, or they'd never get married if they were unmarried.
DI GIOVANNII spent a year working for the UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency on the Syria crisis, nearly a year. And that, you know, in that we had to interview hundreds of women, Syrian women, about their experiences. Some had been sexually abused. And what I think I've learned is that you just -- you have to listen, and you have to respect people, and you have to have empathy and compassion.
DI GIOVANNIBut at the same time, you have to know when to stop. You can't push people. You know, in first aid classes they always teach us if someone has a piece of shrapnel in their body, you can't pull it out because if you do, they could bleed to death. You have to wrap it and contain it. And I think in a way it's a terrible image, but it's the image I think of when interviewing people. You can't yank things out of them. You have to -- you have to let it come gently and let them talk and sustain and staunch the bleeding.
PAGEWhen you look at the conflict in Syria, is rape being used as just another weapon of war?
DI GIOVANNIYou know, very early on I was concerned because there were some women's groups that were saying it was -- that the rape was systematic and extremely widespread. And so I went for Vanity Fair to actually do an investigation. And what I found is that it wasn't being used the way rape had been used in Bosnia or Rwanda, which was very much a tool to dilute the gene pools. Bosnian Muslim women were raped so that they would get pregnant and that they would give birth to half-Serbian, Bosnian Serbian babies. And the same in Rwanda with the Hutus and the Tutsis. This was not what I found. My findings in Syria, my findings were more based on -- it was used as a -- things had happened in detention centers to men and women, at checkpoints, randomly, or when the shabiha, who are the paramilitaries, would raze a village and use it as an opportunistic chance to rape women.
DI GIOVANNIIt's also used as a tool of making people afraid because there's no better way to clear out a village than to have the word coming, you know, that the paramilitary or the military are coming, and you want to protect your daughters and your wife, so you get the hell out.
PAGELet's go to the phones, let our listeners answer -- ask their questions, make their comments. Michelle's calling us from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Michelle, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MICHELLEThanks so much for taking my call, ladies. I watched the documentary, that Jim -- the James Foley documentary, and it was mind-blowing what you reporters go through on the front lines like that. And my question is, the people who were friends and allies, the Syrians who began when -- when he began reporting were friends and allies and informants, but later as the war continued distrusted -- the same people distrusted him. And I just wondered if you had those experiences where you had an ally or a friend or informant who, once the war went on, they just had distrust of everybody.
DI GIOVANNIYes, it's a good point because in the -- again, Susan asked earlier how this was has been different for me from other wars. I'm very suspicious, and I never was like that in Bosnia or Kosovo or Africa. I mean, when I have a trusted source or a fixer, we call them fixers, people that work for us on the ground, and they're people that -- say are drivers or the people that guide us around places like Aleppo or Homs, I trusted them entirely because my life was in their hands.
DI GIOVANNIIt's -- you know, several people that have been kidnapped have been sold by their drivers or their fixers. And I'm not saying that all the people working on the ground are doing that, but it's just a much more opportunistic war with the addition of ISIS and the other jihadi groups, which are bargaining to kidnap journalists. So it's a much trickier situation.
PAGEMichelle, thanks so much for your call. I wonder, what's the impact of it being so difficult for journalists to report from Syria? Is there an impact in terms of the attention that it gets in this country, for instance?
DI GIOVANNIAbsolutely. I was looking through the Washington Post and the New York Times today, and there's really nothing on Syria. There's some stories on Syrian refugees in Sweden or in Canada, but, you know, during the Bosnian war, we fought to keep it -- the story in the papers, and we really had to fight against some big stories, the Clinton administration, in Britain Princess Diana and Prince Charles. It sounds ridiculous, but really that's what I was up against.
DI GIOVANNIBut we still managed because there were a group of us who stayed in Sarajevo and really fought to keep it in the public attention. And now I'm trying to do the same, but it's harder and harder for me to go in and out, and I -- you know, I'm still committed to it. But it makes it much more difficult. We have to rely on our sources on the ground, who are incredibly brave and dedicated people. But it's dangerous for them.
DI GIOVANNIAnd of course, you know, this is an overall theme that journalists talk about all the time. Are we going to have to rely more and more on local reporters that we train to do the job for field correspondents like myself that used to -- I mean, it's always been a dangerous profession, but it was more or less that could rock up to a place, to a front line, and we could work. Now you really -- it's a whole different set of bargaining tools.
PAGEDo you think this is a template for conflicts to follow? Do you think rebels, government under siege will see this as an example, as a helpful thing, to keep journalists out?
DI GIOVANNIWell, I'm seeing in my own personal experience as Middle East editor of Newsweek that it's harder and harder for me to get places. You know, Yemen is really hard to get to. Iran, I got a visa after 15 years of waiting and finally went in February. Egypt is difficult to work in. I was just in Egypt 10 days ago, and, you know, the Al-Jazeera reporters were in prison there for meeting with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood. So it's much more -- journalists, especially field workers like myself, as really under siege, in a sense, of how we can do on-the-ground reporting, which is so vital. It's so important to have.
PAGEYou know, there's a long history of women as war correspondents. Some people not realize that. Is it an advantage, do you think, or a disadvantage to be female in a war zone?
DI GIOVANNIYou know, I -- this is a question I've always -- I've changed my mind about it, to be honest. Before I was a mother, I would say there's absolutely no difference, that, you know, I don't like when people say women go to hospitals and orphanages, and men do the bang-bang. I -- it's true that I -- but I don't like to do the talking about weapons and guns because frankly I think it's boring. I think it's much more interesting, and it's much more accessible for readers and listeners to know about the lives of people.
DI GIOVANNIIt is, since I've had my son, who is 12 now, and, you know, most of the women who were my role models never married, never had kids. I made a really conscious decision that I wanted to be a mother. And it's a part of my life, it's the most important part of my life, and it's very, very, very difficult. Every working mother juggles. You know, I'm not alone in this. Every women in the world who works and has kids has to do a juggling act. So I feel very -- I don't feel like I'm an exception.
DI GIOVANNII just think that it's something women are good at. We're better at juggling than men are. They freak out if we -- if they have, you know, more than two or three things. And we kind of make it -- we have to keep it together, so we do.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. We're talking to Janine di Giovanni about her new book, "The Morning They Came For Us." Now we have a caller who I believe is a Bosnian refugee, Farouk from Jacksonville, Florida. Hi.
FAROUKHi, how's it going?
PAGEGood now are you --- this is of course a conflict that Janine covered for years. Is that where you're from?
FAROUKYes, I'm from Bosnia. I'm from this town called (unintelligible) but -- yeah.
PAGESo did you have a comment or a question you wanted to pose?
FAROUKOh, yeah, I don't know (unintelligible) already. Yeah, I was just, I was going to say -- thank her for, like, going to Sarajevo, and I was going to ask her what was the most difficult thing she had to deal with and maybe one of her most favorite foods she's eaten over there.
PAGESo two very different questions. Start with the most favorite food when you were there.
DI GIOVANNIOf course, borek. I love borek, and I often go back to Bosnia. The most difficult thing was that I fell in love with Bosnia, and I fell in love with Sarajevo. I fell in love with the people, with their struggle, how they kept humor in the darkest hours, this Bosnian sense of humor. I fell in love with their courage, their resilience, and the reason that was so difficult was that it was so unbearably painful for me.
DI GIOVANNIIt was heartbreaking, and I never quite felt the same about any other conflict I covered until Syria. Martha Gellihorn (PH) once said you can only love one war, the rest is responsibility. And while I didn't love the war in Bosnia, I loved the place passionately. It was a love affair for me, and it really destroyed me for a long time afterwards, at what had happened to that country.
PAGEYou write in this book about some of the comparisons you draw with Bosnia. In what ways did you think these two conflicts were similar?
DI GIOVANNISlow-motion genocide, the war against civilians. I mean, I tried hard not to draw parallels, but it was impossible for me not to because it was very similar situation of civilians that were being absolutely brutalized and crushed. And the -- the kind of -- the fact that the world wasn't paying attention and the sort of deep frustration of trying to report a story that you really felt was not the focus on world attention and should be.
DI GIOVANNIAnd also the fact that as journalists we really pushed from 1992 for something to happen in Bosnia. We knew that Srebrenica was going to fall, and in 1995 it did, and there was a genocide, 8,000 men and boys were killed. We tried as best we could to prevent that as journalists, but we're not policymakers. And in Syria, there is the same sense of frustration, of trying over and over to bring this point home that, you know, these are human beings.
DI GIOVANNIThere are four million refugees, there's nine million people displaced, there's more than 270,000 people killed, and that's a low number. we've got to stop this before the bloodletting is just horrific.
PAGEWell now we have a comment on our website, it was posted by someone who identifies himself or herself as a Special Forces vet. This person writes, I hope there will be some discussion of the effect of Obama's infamous red-line comment and other conflicting signals from this administration. What impact has it had and is still having on the Syrian people? Now that's of course the president has threatened if the Syrians crossed a red line of using chemical weapons against their own people that he would act. When that moment came, he decided to seek congressional authorization, which never came.
DI GIOVANNIThank you so much for posing that question because to me there was a moment in 2013, and that was the red line moment, when this war could've been stopped, and very deliberately Obama, who I support and who I respect, flip-flopped back and forth on what not getting involved in a third major war in the Middle East, which I do understand that he was elected on a platform of pulling out of wars rather than getting into them.
DI GIOVANNIBut at the same time, the platform of the policy of nonchalance erupted with ISIS, the rise of ISIS. These guys did not come out of nowhere. They came from the ruins of Iraq. And if reporters like myself were aware of them early on in the war, they should've been more aware of them. And I think that we didn't have to let it get to the point where Mosul fell, Mosul in Northern Iraq, or where ISIS has been able to establish Raqqa as their capital and that the war has taken the turn it is.
DI GIOVANNINo, it definitely should've -- there should've been intervention. That's my belief.
PAGEAnd even this -- I remember that Saturday morning, when the president came out and said that he had decided not to move ahead with action. Were people in Syria aware of that?
DI GIOVANNII think they were. But I think like many place where people are besieged and starved and shelled and bombed constantly, they grow very cynical very quickly.
PAGEJanine di Giovanni, she's written a new book, "The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation. We'll go to the phones. We'll take some of your calls. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking about the war in Syria with the Middle East editor of Newsweek, Janine di Giovanni. She's written a new book, "The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria." And, Janine, one of the things you do in your book is give readers a sense of what this war zone feels like, smells like, looks like. And I'm hoping you'll read a passage from your book that focuses just on what it is like to be in Syria today.
DI GIOVANNIOf course. Okay. "War time looks like this, the steely grayness of the city, the clouds are so low, but 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 to 16,000 feet, little more than tiny dots in the sky, before dropping their payloads.
DI GIOVANNI"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.
DI GIOVANNI"On every corner there's a destroyed building that may or may not have bodies still buried underneath. Your old school is gone. So are the mosques, your grandmother's house and your office. Your memories are smashed. Then there are the endless fields of garbage. The rooms that are as cold as tombs, having gone unheated now for five winters, are all you know. There are so many abandoned apartments. Remember that beautiful house, what it looked like when someone lived there?
DI GIOVANNI"Your beautiful life from before is now dead. War is empty shell casings on the street, smoke from bombs rising up in mushroom clouds, and learning to determine which thud means what kind of bomb. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don't. War is the destruction, the skeleton and the bare bones of someone else's life."
PAGEJanine di Giovanni reading from her new book, "The Morning They Came For Us." You write about barrel bombs. What are barrel bombs?
DI GIOVANNIBarrel bombs are crude handmade bombs, which are filled -- dropped from helicopters. So they are very low and they're filled with -- they could be filled with glass or nails. And they're -- basically the intent of them is to cause the most destruction as possible on civilians. And they're terrifying. Even, I mean, now, what's even more terrifying though was the Russian bombardment, which began on the 30th of September. Because those are big bombs.
DI GIOVANNIAnd I've been under Russian bombardment in Chechnya, it's not fun. It's really scary. Some of the bravest people I know are called the White Helmets. They're the Syria civilians who basically said -- realized no one was coming to help them. So they're vegetable sellers, they're teachers, they're former scuba dive instructors who go together, learned how to pull bodies out of the rubble, because you have to remember, when there's a bombing what happens is your roof caves in and you get buried alive.
DI GIOVANNIAnd these guys are just super heroes and they basically go in right after the bombing, dig for hours and hours and hours and pull out children who've been buried alive in their beds, pull out babies that are still living, pull out old people, anyone that's been buried. And as a result, they get targeted. Last week when the hospital in Aleppo was bombed, five white helmets were also killed because frequently what the regime or the Russians did was when these guys went in, right after the bombing, they would send in a second bomb, simply to kill them. So this is the kind of anguish that the Syrians are going through.
PAGELet's go to Kalamazoo and talk to Ralph. Ralph, you've been really patient holding on. Thanks for holding.
RALPHYes. My question would be does she have an opinion on US policy toward Syria going forward, let's say in the presidential campaign, well, let's say now it's gonna be Trump and Clinton. Does she hear anything -- I don't know. You know, any movement about US foreign policy or US opinion about foreign policy toward Syria in regards to the presidential election?
PAGEAll right. Ralph, thanks very much for your call.
DI GIOVANNIThank you, Ralph. I'm not an American foreign policy expert. I mean, my work is really on the ground, but what I -- what we're assessing is that of course is Trump gets in his policy is going to be isolationist and he's not going to want to help a small country in the Middle East, even if it's -- even if it is destabilizing the entire region and it's become an international proxy war.
DI GIOVANNII like Clinton is going to be more hawkish, although her record in the Middle East certainly isn't good, what she did before. So, I mean, I think we're just waiting to see what's going to happen. And certainly there American elections will have a big impact on what happens in Syria.
PAGERalph, that's for calling. Let's go to San Antonio, Texas, and talk to Rick. Rick, you're on the air.
RICKHi. Good morning. I love your show. It's very informative and that's why I listen as often as I can. So thank you.
PAGEOh, great. Good to hear.
RICKAnd basically, my question was -- and I've noticed a trend of journalism basically guiding sort of, if you will, policy. And I wanted to ask your guest, is this not a dangerous trend, that it's almost like a fourth seat of government, that journalism seems to be getting more and more involved in pointing the way to what we should be paying attention to, rather than just reporting what is actually going on.
PAGERick, thanks so much for your call.
DI GIOVANNIIs that a bad thing? If your -- if the government isn't paying attention to what's on the ground, don't you need to be informed as a taxpayer and as a citizen? And actually, I don't, you know, I would hope -- I really hope we guide policy, but our intention as journalists and mine, personally, is to bear witness. All I'm doing is going on the ground and recording what's happening.
DI GIOVANNII'm not really, you know, my book, "The Morning They Came For Us," if you read it, it's not -- I'm not -- it's not my story or my views, it's their stories. I'm just trying to give a window into the world of war and what is actually happening on the ground.
PAGERick, thanks for your call. Let's go to Chapel Hill, N.C., and talk to Mohammed. Mohammed, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MOHAMMEDHi. Thank you for taking my call. I have a -- my -- I have, like, three questions, three comments/questions, however you frame it. First, it's really hard to find stories from the other side, from the government's side. I'm sure they have reasons. We would like to hear that side, too. And you don't present the other side. It's -- like, so…
DI GIOVANNIThey don't let us in. They don't let us go there.
MOHAMMEDNo, no, there are information. I want you to comment on that. Because of that I try to find information that say, by Twitter, connecting to people who actually are on the ground on Twitter. And it's inconsistent with what you're saying. There is also -- another one is you saying U.S. needs to be involved. U.S. is deeply involved. They're not openly and all-out involved. But they are deeply involved, sending money, training, all kinds of stuff. And how come you didn't comment on that?
MOHAMMEDAnd the last part I want to comment on you see the red line. The red line was never crossed by the government. In fact, the U.N. came out and said the rebels did it. So if you're a journalist and you're supposed to be impartial, how come you're here beating the war drum?
PAGENow, Mohammed, let me just ask you -- do you mind if I ask you, Mohammed, where you're from? It sounds like you have a little bit of an accent.
MOHAMMEDYes. I'm originally from Kenya.
PAGEFrom Kenya. All right. Well, Mohammed, thank you very much for your call. Now, first let's deal with this issue of who is responsible for the chemical weapons attack in Syria that was the subject of the red line comment by President Obama. Do -- was it -- did the U.N. conclude that the rebels did that?
DI GIOVANNIMe? Well, first of all, Mohammed, I want to address what you're saying about I'm not being impartial or my colleagues aren't being impartial. I think that's very unfair. We are not allowed to go to Damascus and report from the regime side. They only let journalists go who they know will tell their side of the story. I would love to go back. I did go five times. And if you read my book you'll see I do tell many stories of soldiers from the regime side. I went with them on the ground in Homs. I tell their stories, what they believe in.
DI GIOVANNII write an entire chapter on Maaloula, which is a Christian village in the regime, a government-held area. I write about the government's anti-ISIS campaign. I am in no way a supporter of the opposition since the rise of jihadists. And I've very honest about that in my book. All I'm trying to do is to point out civilian human rights violations, which is what I do.
DI GIOVANNII would dearly love to be able to get a Visa, to go to Damascus and report from the regime side. I would give anything. But there are -- they're -- they do not give them to people like me. Maybe someone is listening to this and they'll give me one. And if so, I would welcome going and telling their side of the story.
PAGEMohammed, I would just add when it comes to the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, the -- I can tell you the U.S. government believes that was not the act of the rebels, but rather an act of the Assad regime, even though it did not prompt the kind of action that President Obama had once threatened. You know, the fact is when you write, when you were embedded with the Syrian forces, you write pretty sympathetically about some of the people you met and a man called Holmes (sp?), whose brother had been killed.
PAGETalk about the pro-Assad forces that you also reflect in this book.
DI GIOVANNIThey're -- they were kids. I mean, the one thing that really struck me as I went to Homs, to the regime side, to the front line with them to see them fighting, and, you know, they believe that they are fighting against jihadism and that they're fighting to keep their country free. I mean, everyone has their beliefs. And the other thing I did is I went to the government hospitals where the young soldiers had been injured.
DI GIOVANNIAnd I met some extraordinary people who, again, you have to sit down, you have to listen to them. I -- whether or not I agree with what they're saying isn't the point. The point is that I want to give them a chance to talk, to tell me about how they were injured in battle, what they believed in when they were growing up, did they believe in Assad. And there are -- Assad has many supporters.
PAGEMohammed mentioned using Twitter to try to get information about what's happening there. How has Twitter and the rise of social media -- how has it changed the way that war correspondents work?
DI GIOVANNIWell, I think you have to use it as a supplement. You know, there's some interesting stuff that comes out on it. But you have to be very, very careful. It's not a news source. It can't be used as a primary means of getting your information. You can, you know, you can get in -- hack into some -- hack in? You can get -- tap into some very interesting people who have interesting views. But I encourage everyone to keep reading the mainstream news, which is, you know, AP, AFP, Reuters, the BBC, people that are really impartial and neutral.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're talking with Janine di Giovanni about her new book, "The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Amanda and ask her her thoughts. She's calling us from Grand Rapids, Mich.
AMANDAHi, Janine. I'm just wondering how over 25 years you have processed all that you've seen. I mean, I feel slightly traumatized just listening to you talk about (unintelligible) and babies without arms. So how do you deal with all that?
DI GIOVANNIThank you so much for that question. Well, first of all, I think I write about it, which is the biggest release for me. I feel that, you know, it is hard. And, look, I do have nightmares and I am paranoid and I do, you know, I have had -- I don't have post-traumatic stress disorder, which many of my colleagues do. And I think part of it is because I'm able to -- I feel that I believe in what I do. I really, really, really believe that what I am doing, in fact, I don't think I have a huge impact.
DI GIOVANNIBut I think it's important that people know. And that -- I once said, you know, I want people to be upset by what I write. I want them to be shaken out of complacency. I want them to understand what is happening in other parts of the world. And the final thing I'll say, 'cause we don't have a lot of time, is just that it's made me so grateful for the life I have. When I left Bosnia, for years I just -- to take a shower, it was a huge thing for me because there was no water in Sarajevo during the siege.
DI GIOVANNIAnd I'm so grateful that I have a roof over my head, that I have medical care, that I'm not a refugee. And I feel very, very honored that people have let me into their lives. So that's what's kept me going all this time.
PAGEYou know, you've described life in Syria as being frozen. What does that mean?
DI GIOVANNIWell, if war starts everything in your life stops. If you're a student and you're pursuing a degree, it stops because the university closes down. Worse, it's probably bombed, so your credits, your documents, everything is destroyed. And I've seen this endlessly with my friends who were studying during war time. You lose all your documents so you can't finish your degree. Your -- let's say you were going to get married before the war started, that stops. Your family is completely -- war destroys the fabric of society.
DI GIOVANNISo recently I asked a friend of mine in Aleppo, what do you miss the most. And he said, I miss my family getting together watching the football games on TV. That kind of thing ends because you can't get to your family because there's shelling or bombing or they're killed or they've left the country. Every aspect of your life stops. Children aren't in school. Or they're in, you know, handmade schools, which, you know, home schooling. But it's -- everything is frozen. Your life is on hold until the war stops.
PAGEHere's an email from Steven. He asks, "Have you learned Arabic or Hebrew or other languages?"
DI GIOVANNIYeah, I, I mean, I speak French because I live in France. I've worked in the Arab world for long enough that I can understand, but I'm certainly not in any way fluent. And I wish I could speak Hebrew, but really, to be honest, I've relied very heavily on the -- my wonderful people on the ground, who over 25 years, wherever I am, if it's in the Congo or in Sierra Leone, have helped me. But yes, I wish I could speak 25 languages.
PAGEHere's one last question. It's an email from Berkeley, who writes us from Scranton, Penn. "How has speaking with child soldiers and seeing the rape and mutilation in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and now Syria affected how you raise your son? How do you explain these atrocities to him?"
DI GIOVANNIWell, I try -- I want him to be compassionate. I want him to be empathetic. I want him to be good person. I don't want him to grow up thinking that he and, you know, the only thing in the world that matters is him or his Game Boy. I want him to understand how fortunate he is, that- just that he has -- I always say this to him, a roof over his head, food on the table, his parents alive, not killed during war.
DI GIOVANNIOver the years, I can't tell you how many orphan kids I've picked up in refugee camps or in, you know, in war zones. And I -- just like the urge to bring them home with me has been so strong. And I always wanted to kind of have 10 kids at home that I adopted from different war zones. I haven't been able to do that for various financial or whatever reasons. But I think, if anything, what it's taught him is that he's fortunate.
PAGEWe've been talking this hour with Janine di Giovanni. She's the Middle East editor of Newsweek, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, and she has a new book out. It's called, "The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria." Thanks so much for joining us this hour.
DI GIOVANNIThank you, Susan. Thank you so much.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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