Reporting On The Suddenness Of War In Syria NPR's Deb Amos and Newsweek's Janine di Giovanni have both covered the Middle East for decades, and Syria since the beginning of the war. As the war enters its fifth year this week, Amos and Di Giovanni look back to how it started, with a quick shift from protests to brutality.

Reporting On The Suddenness Of War In Syria

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The story of Syria's civil war is one of loss - loss of country, loss of society, loss of dignity, loss of life.


Of the 22 million people who call Syria home, more than half have had to flee their homes - more than half. Death is very common; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 215,000 people in Syria have died since the war began - 5,000 in just the past five weeks.

MONTAGNE: And there is no relief in sight. As the war enters its fifth year this week, we've listened to Syrians who have gone beyond the horror to portray the humanity. This morning, we turn to NPR's Deborah Amos and Janine di Giovanni, Mideast editor for Newsweek. Both have covered the conflict from the beginning.

Good morning to both of you.



MONTAGNE: May I start with you, Janine? You wrote an incredible piece several years ago about the moment life goes from normal to when war begins. What specifically signaled to you that a series of protests in Syria had crossed over into war?

DI GIOVANNI: I think for me it was the moment when it turned from being peaceful demonstrations into a violent demonstration. And I know from past experience how quickly it turns into something brutal. And that happened very quickly in Syria, and I think the people that could leave or wanted to leave did. And I think that's also a very telling moment - who goes, who doesn't, when you start seeing more and more people who've decided to leave to go to Beirut, go to America, to join their families somewhere else. And the people who sort of say I'm never going to leave; I'm going to stay here, and eventually as the months drag on and then it becomes years, they do eventually go.

MONTAGNE: Deb Amos - for you, Deb, what didn't you know then that later, in fact, helped shape the course of this war?

AMOS: I think in the beginning, we - and I say this as a group - didn't know how quickly the Iranians came to Damascus as advisers. I don't think we knew how quickly this revolt was going to be armed. I don't think we knew how quickly Islamist jihadis saw Syria as an opportunity and jumped into this chaos. And I don't think that we knew how fragile - almost shells - all of these governments were - from Libya to Egypt to Syria to Iraq. These are now all dysfunctional governments, if they're governments at all.

I think we didn't realize how fragile this system was. And when it broke apart, it was the centrifugal force that began to send people across the border. You know, the U.N. is always running out of adjectives to bring people's attention to what it means to have millions of people move across borders. And we couldn't see it back in 2011 when these uprisings began.

MONTAGNE: And back to you, Janine, was there for you a defining moment in your covering this war?

DI GIOVANNI: There were two things. One for me was noticing when the jihadis really were beginning to come to northern Syria and the moment when it really became more than risky to cover it, when the kidnapping started. And also, the kind of relentless destruction, relentless destruction of the fabric of society.

One thing that particularly I will never forget was seeing a nearly newborn baby who died in front of us. And this baby didn't die of shrapnel or of being hit by a barrel bomb, but instead because of a simple respiratory infection and the parents couldn't get her to the hospital in time because the shelling was so severe. And that for me really symbolized the kind of futility of it and the frustration of it. So that's something for me, if I look back on the past four years, that immediately jumps out.

MONTAGNE: I wonder for you, Deb, is there a single story or an image that has haunted you about this war?

AMOS: You know, there are so many, it's really hard to pick out. As this conflict has unfolded, certainly in the early days, there was lots of talk about, you know, 100 years of history being abandoned, that the borders were now fluid, that those borders would be erased. But the truth of the matter is that the borders didn't change; it's the people who moved.

And I think all of the countries surrounding Syria - Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan - now have to deal with the reality of this population shift. In any normal refugee situation, 30 percent of the population doesn't go home. And this has repercussions in these societies. And we will be living with those consequences for generations to come in the way that the hundred years of history was undone, you know, five years ago. But what comes next is what nobody knows.

MONTAGNE: Thank you both very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

DI GIOVANNI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Deborah Amos and Newsweek's Janine di Giovanni. She's author of the upcoming book "Seven Days In The Life Of Syria."

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