Authors: Janine di Giovanni
THEY CAME FOR US
THEY CAME FOR US
Dispatches from Syria
Janine di Giovanni
In memory of my beloved brother, Joseph, who died suddenly on 11 August 2015
âOnly the dead know the end of war.'
âIn such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking peopleÂ .Â .Â .Â not to be on the side of the executioners.'
A People's History of the United States
âWars have no memory, and nobody has the courage to understand them until there are no voices left to tell what happened, until the moment comes when we no longer recognize them and they return, with another face and another name, to devour what they left behind.'
Carlos Ruiz ZafÃ³n,
The Shadow of the Wind
It was the winter of 2011, and I was in Belgrade. The war that had destroyed Yugoslavia had been over for many years, but I was working on a project tracing war criminals. It was an intractable task, but the potent emotion I felt towards the Balkan wars and their aftermath was not rational.
It was a terrible feverÂ â not unlike malaria, recurring in your bloodstream for ever once you got itÂ â that had gripped me since I had reported from Bosnia in the early 1990s. The men who had caused such evil and such harm, who had burnt villages and bombed schools and hospitals, who had mutilated children and raped women en masse, were still living in villages, going fishing at weekends and having picnics with their grandchildren. It made me feel physically ill thinking about them living unreservedly while their victims were dead; and I would trail the events that led to the downfall of that sorrowful country. In Sarajevo one year, I spent days, which turned into weeks, with the man who ran the morgue during the war. He had not only arranged the bodies and prepared them for burial but he also diligently kept notebooks with every name, every detail of their time and their cause of death (bullets, shrapnel, explosion). He called it
The Book of the Dead
. One morning, he arrived at the morgue and found his only son, a young front-line soldier, laid out on the slab.
He survived and grew old, and when I found him two decades after the war ended, we went through the books carefully. But his partner at the morgue, a less robust man, had killed himself years before.
I wanted my fever to break, but it never did. Throughout the new millennium, criminals from the Balkan wars, rapists and murderers, went unpunished. I talked to women who had been kept in camps and violated sometimes a dozen times a day; women who were forced to carry their rapists' children. Yet post-war, owing to the division of the country, and the fact that no one really knew who their neighbours were any more, these women had to face their rapists daily, passing them in the local shops or on the street, at the schools where they took their children. It was the victims, not the perpetrators, who dropped their eyes in shame when they passed one another.
But some of them met their fate. Radovan Karadzic, the psychiatrist, football fanatic, poet and leader of the Bosnian Serbs, who led the puppet regime for Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia, had been caught while riding on a bus in 2008. He had been in disguise, and had been in hiding since the war ended in 1995, living under a false name and posing as a New Age healer. Karadzic is, at this time of writing, being tried for alleged war crimes but no verdict has been reached.
Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia throughout these wars, had been carted off to The Hague in his bedroom slippers by helicopter in 2001. The day it happened I was also in Belgrade, but I drove all night to get to Sarajevo, the city he had hated and almost destroyed, to witness the reaction of
the people. I expected to find jubilation that Milosevic was getting his just deserts, but instead I found weariness. My friendsÂ â former soldiers, lawyers, students, doctors, mothers, teachersÂ â were too tired to celebrate, to think that this meant something in terms of retribution. Everyone just wanted to forget about the war that had devoured them alive.
I felt the greatest revenge was that the man who had caused such pain to his own people would sit in a jail cell in The Hague for the rest of his life, but Milosevic did not, in fact, face justice. He was found dead in his cell in 2006, under mysterious circumstances. Some said suicide; some said his devoted followers had slipped him a pill which made his heart quicken and burst; some say he died of heartbreak. The fact was, this wicked man had died before justice had been served.
Still at large on that winter afternoon in January 2011, while I sat in a freezing cafÃ© in New Belgrade talking to men who had once fought alongside him, was Ratko Mladic, the general who had led his men on a rampage and who had headed the assault on Srebrenica. He was sleeping soundly in some village in Serbia, protected by his followers, while the families of the 8,000 men and boys killed in Srebrenica had to live with their ghosts, their memories of their loved ones fading more and more into the distance every day. At the moment, he stands accused of war crimesÂ â no verdict has been reached as the trial has not yet concluded.
I was not a criminal investigator, and I knew that I would not be the one to march up to Mladic and put the handcuffs on him before he was arrested, but in some ways, I had much more freedom than police. I could sit in cafÃ©s where
Mladic's followers gathered to drink their morning tea, and ask where he had last been seen. I could sit by the grave of his daughter, who had tragically killed herself during the war, and ask the woman who kept the graves when she had last seen him; what his mood was; how he appeared physically. I could try to put myself in his mindset. In building up a portrait of the tormented Mladic, I wanted also to make him immortal: as immortal as those it is claimed he had murdered (though he denies murder).
In short, I wanted people never to forget.
While I was in the middle of compiling notes of interviews with his old school friends, his soldiers, his cadres and his loyalists, the Arab Spring beganÂ â first the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, then Egypt. I was watching Tahrir Square in full meltdown on television, flicking from station to station, the images of the crowds growing larger and larger, and waiting out the countdown for the end of the reign of Hosni Mubarak. I had started my working life in the Middle East as a young postgraduate student two decades earlier, and it had drawn me in, by the heart and the guts, as much as Bosnia had.
I finished my work and by the time Mladic was caught, in May 2011, I was in Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and finally Syria. It seemed I could transfer my obsession from the Balkans to Syria, which was the last in the chain, in the string of pearls of the revolutions. Syria began as a peaceful one, but, as I write this four years in, the revolution has since spiralled into a gruesome, a brutal, a seemingly forever war.
As I roamed across the country, moving from one side to the other, sometimes legally (with a Syrian regime visa
stamped in my passport) and sometimes illegally (crossing various borders to reach rebel sides of Syria), I tried not to draw comparisons with Bosnia. But it was difficult not to do so. There were the same floods of refugees, the same burnt-out villages, and the same women driven out in terror, because paramilitaries were on the march and they feared being raped. After all the lessons we had learnt from the brutality of the wars in the 1990sÂ â Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, ChechnyaÂ â we were allowing it to happen again.
A friend, LR, a diplomat who had shared with me many experiences of post-war Bosnia and the lessons that had not been learnt, who told me once not to take a job in a certain part of the world, âbecause you will be angry all the time and it is an anger that you will never be able to reconcile', warned me 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.
On an early morning in May 2012, one year into the Syrian revolution, I made my first trip to Damascus. It was a suffocating, early summer day with a hazy, opaque light. I arrived from Beirut in a local taxi, which I had hired for slightly less than 100 dollars, paid in cash. The driver picked me up on the road to Damascus and made a joke about St Paul's Damascene conversion, as he loaded my bags into the boot of the car. Then we drove into another country, leaving behind Beirut with its modern beach clubs and crowded Thursday hairdressers and balmy restaurants and noisy clubs, and drove to another land, one that was teetering on the edge of war.
In the New Testament, it says that St Paul was on this same road sometime in the first century AD, when an event occurred. I am not sure, and neither are historians or religious fanatics, whether he heard a voice or was given a sign from God, or whether he just had a sharp and painful understanding that his life was not on the right track. At any rate, a mystic conversion occurred. Paul ceased persecuting the early Christians and instead became a loyal follower of Jesus. His life changed for ever.