The UN stopped trying to count the death toll in Syria in 2016. Its decision was taken for practical reasons. But it was also symptomatic of the world’s loss of interest in the Syrian war.
Foreign governments and fighters continue to involve themselves in Syria with devastating effect. But most ordinary people in the west stopped following the progress of the war long ago. They have switched off because the conflict is horrifying, confusing and apparently unending — with myriad factions and no telegenic “good guys” to cheer for.
The result is that the west has failed to focus on one of the biggest humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophes of the last decade. An entire country has been ripped apart. Millions have died, been seriously wounded or lost their homes. And while the EU has strived to ignore the conflict, its consequences have shaken European societies and politics — with the arrival of more than 1m refugees, mostly from Syria, in Germany, for example.
There is no better way to refocus on Syria than to read Rania Abouzeid’s book. A freelance journalist who has covered the war since its inception, Abouzeid tells the story of the conflict through the life stories of individuals.
What could simply be a standard journalistic device succeeds triumphantly because of the skill and sensitivity of Abouzeid’s writing, the depth of her reporting and the extraordinary nature of the stories she tells. As a result, her book has the compelling qualities of a novel, rather than simply a work of reportage.
The book starts and ends with the story of Suleiman, who is one of its most sympathetic and intriguing figures. At the start of the war, he was a wealthy manager of an insurance office in the city of Hama, with family connections to the Assad regime. He had no material or personal incentive to get involved in the rebellion. But he was swept along by the excitement at the prospect of political freedom in Syria — with predictably tragic personal consequences.
Another key figure, Mohammad, was hostile to the regime and sympathetic to radical Islamism long before the war broke out. Abouzeid makes his views comprehensible by tracing his story. “One particular childhood event shaped his adulthood,” she writes — the experience of seeing a beloved neighbour seized by the secret police and beaten and humiliated on a hillside, in front of the village, while another elderly woman was forced to strip naked and threatened with rape.
Mohammad spent long years in Syria’s ghastly jails and torture chambers — an experience that is described in unsparing but necessary detail. His radicalisation is easy to understand. But Abouzeid also charts the way in which the war makes him progressively more brutal. By the end, as a commander for Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, he too is committing atrocities.
There are also more obviously sympathetic figures — such as Ruha, a nine-year-old girl, and Abu Azzam, a literature student who ends up fighting with the Free Syrian Army. But one thing that links the personal stories is the inexorable, tragic quality of events that turn their lives upside down. In many cases, there is a particular event after which there is “no turning back” to the comforts of a previous life. That phrase — the title of the book — also serves as an epitaph for Syria itself, as the country plunges towards destruction.
Writing the book required repeated solo trips into a war-zone, where acts of terrible violence and cruelty were taking place. But unlike a previous generation of war correspondents — including some that made their name in Vietnam — Abouzeid resists the temptation to put herself at the heart of the story, or to flaunt her bravery.
She is part of a new generation of war reporters, many of them women — they include the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, Channel 4’s Lindsey Hilsum and the freelancer, Iona Craig — who have covered contemporary conflicts in the Middle East with great courage, persistence and understanding.
Abouzeid’s efforts have produced an extraordinary book that deserves to be read widely. To gain the audience it deserves, however, it will have to overcome the west’s continuing desire to turn away from the relentless horror of events in Syria.
The reviewer is the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist
No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria, Oneworld, £18.99/$29.99
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