Ground level reporting of war is one of the most valuable forms of journalism, in that it tells you what’s happening rather than what people say is happening. It’s especially valuable in such instances as the Syrian civil war, a confusing tangle of fations, armies and competing political visions.
Rania Abouzeid (center) in Idlib, Syria
So I recommend “No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria,” Rania Abouzeid’s vivid and epic account of the conflict. “No Turning Back” is a saga told through the intersecting lives of four protagonists along with some thirty other friends and enemies, neighbors and strangers, killers and victims who have hurtled through a war that seems without end.
Abouzeid’s achievement is to bring to light the pain and carnage of her Syrian cast of characters, mostly on the rebel side of the conflict. The war began with euphoric hopes–demonstrations in the style of the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt. Peaceful protestors were quickly attacked and meant to be put down by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. The uprising then ga e birth to a helter-skelter rebellion of nominal allies that were as adept as fighting cruelly among themselves as they were battling a savage regime.
Along the way, Abouzeid underscores the competing hopes and ambitions among the alphabet of rebel Syrian organizations fighting the Syrian regime: do-it-yourself village insurgents, militias backed by all sort of outside powers– including the United States—and finally by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. All the participants had their own agendas and rivalries that overwhelmed whatever ideals nurtured the original opposition to Assad.
Abouzeid also provides striking accounts of the ineptitude and double-dealings of various sponsors of the rebellion, among them Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The foreigners played favorites and “picked their teams” making supplying the rebels a haphazard affair. “We, the Syrians, are still a playground for everyone,” a fighter is quoted as saying.
Tension between Islamist militias and nationalists is a running theme. In Raqqa, a town freed form Assad’s rule only to fall under the severe rule of the Islamic State, a local resident objects to the black Islamic Flag flying over the city and said, “We are all Muslims. Who are you to force a flag on me. I am Syrian and I have a flag”
The intimate details of daily life and survival provided by Abouzeid make “No Turning Back” a most powerful and distressing read. Prisoners of Assad recount the torture and deprivation of Syrian prison life: it’s all the beatings, nakedness and hunger. Descriptions of the lives of non-combatants under bombardment put the reader in the living rooms and basements of homes under siege; you’re made aware of what people eat (little), how they are dressed (prisoners strip down to their underwear because they use their clothing to clean themselves), and how they respond to the violence surrounding them (frequently, vengeance is the order of the day).
Killings and kidnapping of women and children underscore the immense and unfeeling barbarism that has marked the conflict. A couple of girls are permitted by their captors to say goodbye to their mothers, who are kept behind. The pair “came back crying, their faces blood read” and they screamed at two other girls: “They’re all dead…Your mother was shot in the mouth and heart and stomach.”
It is a tribute to Abouzeid, one of the region’s most intrepid and thorough reporters, that she keeps the book’s focus on Syrians; her own appearances serve only to remind the reader that she was there, a witness who spoke directly to her subjects. She cautions that “No Turning Back” is but “a fraction” of Syria’s story. For all that, it is easy to imagine that the stories that Abouzeid tells apply to the many wars that mark our era, be they in Syria or Yemen or Iraq, Nigeria or Myanmar or Mali or Somalia or Sudan–all variations on an endless theme of 21st Century despair.
“No Turning Back” is published by W. W. Norton & Company.