One Thursday in May 2012, Janine di Giovanni stepped onto the balcony of her room at the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus and looked out onto a surreal panorama. Partygoers – cocktails in hand – frolicked in designer swimwear to thumping house music at the poolside below, oblivious to the sound of explosions and the clouds of smoke that billowed from shelling in the southern suburbs a few miles away. She had just arrived in Syria for the first time, but such scenes of denial were familiar to her. “I had been in Bosnia in 1992 moments before the Siege of Sarajevo, and I wanted to tell these people that the same was going to happen here – that war was imminent and they need to be prepared,” she explains.
The venerated foreign correspondent and Middle East Editor of Newsweek has reported from the epicentres of danger zones around the world for over two decades. She has covered the Balkan, Afghanistan and Iraq wars; conflicts in the West African countries of Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, and the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Jordan to name a few. In her latest book (her sixth) The Morning They Came For Us, she writes an unsparing account of her experiences in Syria over a six-month period in 2012, drawing on the stories of ordinary people embroiled in the violence. She introduces us to Nada, a pro-democracy activist who was savagely beaten and raped in one of President Bashar al-Assad’s military prisons, and Hussein, a law student recovering in hospital months after having been tortured – he had to fake his own death in order to escape the compound where he was being detained. Di Giovanni’s life on the front line is worlds apart from her cosseted upbringing in a wealthy neighbourhood in New Jersey. Her father fled Italy during the rise of fascism in the 1930s, before going on to work as an aeronautical engineer for Howard Hughes on Wall Street. “My parents were about family and food,” she reminisces. “Every Sunday we’d have huge dinners (always involving pasta) for our friends and relatives.” It is to growing up in a large family that she owes her liberal-mindedness and ability to deal with trauma while spending up to three quarters of the year on the road. “Being the youngest of seven kids teaches you how to be tolerant, independent and the importance of working as a team,” she says. “Three of my siblings died, which was devastating – especially for my mother – but loss makes you realise that life’s short and that you need to seize opportunity.”
Seize opportunity she did. Despite the 4% admittance rate, the young literature graduate was accepted to the elite Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA program, and her experiences there sound almost identical to that of Hannah Horvath’s (Lena Dunham’s character in Girls). “There were only two nice people in the class – me and Suketa Mehta who later won the American Book Award for Maximum City,” she says, half-joking. “In those days my aim was to be a novelist but I felt as though I hadn’t lived enough. I didn’t want to write fiction about being 23 and disillusioned, and the life of a writer is a lonely one – I desperately wanted to get out in the world.” A few years later, in the late 1980s, while studying for her second masters in London, di Giovanni’s “academic bubble”, as she calls it, finally burst when she saw a photograph in a newspaper of a Palestinian boy being buried alive by an Israeli soldier. Soon afterwards she boarded a plane to report on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “As a writer it’s not my place to judge. Of course I have my own views and opinions, but my job is to tell a balanced story so readers can make up their own minds,” she explains. Within a decade di Giovanni had cemented her name as a world-renowned correspondent, and was writing cover articles for The New York Times and Vanity Fair. Her story, Madness Visible, for the latter described her experiences during the Balkan wars and earned her the prestigious National Magazine Award in 1999, and in 2005 she was the subject of the documentary Bearing Witness by Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple. The film follows five female reporters working in Iraq during the Second Gulf War, and also profiled di Giovanni’s friend and colleague the late Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times, who was killed in the Siege of Homs. “Marie was a very glamorous creature,” she recalls. “The first time we met was at the photocopier at the Times and she was wearing a beautiful Calvin Klein dress having come from a wedding. She was a great listener, I remember her consoling me as we drove to work one day after I had broken up with a boyfriend.” While di Giovanni and I are talking she receives a message from the father of Steve Sotloff, the Time journalist beheaded by Islamic State militants 18 months ago. As one of the last people to see him alive, he has asked her what her final memories are of his son. It’s a stark reminder of the dangers correspondents face in order to disseminate Syria’s current affairs. But over the years do you become desensitised to these risks? I ask. “Of course I still feel fear, especially of being maimed,” she says. “If I lost my sight how would I work? How would I survive? Marie lost an eye and continued to work but she found it very hard.”
When working in Syria or any other country around the world, foreign correspondents rely on local journalists known as ‘fixers’ to help arrange their stories. “We are often in intense circumstances so we become close very quickly,” she says. “When I come home, I stay in touch with them and think about them all the time.” However when she is in the field it is her 12-year old son, Luca, who is on her mind, galvanising her determination to return safely. Ever since Luca’s father, Bruno Girodon – a senior correspondent for TV channel France 2 – survived being shot in the face in Libya while documenting the fall of Gaddafi in 2011; di Giovanni had been increasingly open with her son about her work. “I’ve heard people ask him if he worries when his mother goes away, and he replies: ‘she knows what she’s doing, she’s very experienced and doesn’t take risks,’” says di Giovanni. “I think he knows that if I’m fulfilled then I’m going to be a better parent – having a mother who loves her work is very inspirational for him.” Di Giovanni is now based in Paris – the site of two ISIS-led terror attacks in the past 14-months. “It’s one thing to report on a conflict, and another to have it in your back garden,” she says. “What worries me most is the way the National Front use it to their political advantage, like the fascist parties before World War II. But on the whole the resilience of the French people really made me fall in love with this city.” Resilience is the human quality di Giovanni says she sees prevailing in every conflict zone she visits, and was a common thread of the stories she heard in 2014 while working on a UNHCR project for Syrian refugee women, which she describes in the final chapter of her book. “A majority of the refugees want to be able to safely return to their homes, so we need to find a political solution to ending the war in Syria because the civilian suffering has become too great,” she says. “As for the refugees who want to stay, we need to eradicate this notion that they are going to damage our economy, and instead look at what their ideas and innovations could contribute to our society. It’s important not to isolate what is happening to other people – one day the same thing could happen to us.” The Morning They Came for Us is published by Bloomsbury.