We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know by Sophie McNeill

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Sophie McNeill has assembled diverse stories from the Middle East, linked by her involvement as an ABC journalist and humanitarian. Refugees, war and authoritarian regimes are prominent. These are delivered to us in a way that brief television reports could not. They follow individuals or families and their ability to survive, and sometimes thrive, in the face of overwhelming odds.

Sophie has a way of describing these real situations in a way that puts us in the midst of dramatic circumstances.  The stories range from intensely harrowing to safe endings. The scale of tragedy and death can be overwhelming and seeing events through the eyes of those living through them offers the reader a unique perspective.

Syria is a major focus, including the civil war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians, many of whom were actively targeted by Assad and Russian actions. Syria is a good example of why this book is important, because it shows that no matter which military group – government, terrorist, rebels or foreign – happens to attack a particular city, the people living there will be profoundly affected,  whether or not they have taken sides.  

The stories are told straightforwardly, but always with a sense of compassion. Sometimes Sophie’s compassion goes well beyond her journalistic brief. She becomes part of the story in some remarkable interventions to help people – even complete strangers – whose fate would otherwise be dire.

On a debris-strewn beach on Lesvos Island during the height of the Syrian refugee diaspora, where many had drowned on dodgy boats and unpredictable seas, Sophie and her team witness new arrivals: “So those in front of me were the lucky ones. They had made it. There was a cheer and a clap as the first boat ground up onto the sand. ….. ‘I’m from Syria,’ declared a teenage boy as he jumped off a boat, wiping tears from his eyes. ‘Thank you, thank you’” [p50].   The throng of men women and children regrouped and set off for a searingly hot 50km walk to the main town – just one more part of a long and difficult journey.  “As the beach began to clear, I noticed one old man standing alone by himself. Leaning on a cane and quietly crying. ‘I’ve been separated from my wife and children,’ he said, wiping tears away with his hand. ‘I don’t know what to do now!’ [p52].

Faced with continuing to chase stories or help this old man, Sophie and her colleagues make the moral choice. What follows is a harrowing journey of disappointment, frustration and reunion that may not have happened without that choice.

The most edge-of-the-seat narrative is the attempted escape from Saudi Arabia by teenager Rahaf Mohammed. Sophie played an active and risky part in helping Rahaf during a period of near imprisonment in a Bangkok airport hotel. A riveting story of secrecy, brinksmanship and the power of social media, that would do justice to any spy novel.  But with high stakes, as failure to escape could result in Rahaf’s incarceration, torture and even death.

The Australian government’s intransigence towards asylum seekers is highlighted in the story, where instead of helping Rahaf, the bureaucracy fails to lift a finger and it is left to another country to welcome her. 

Australia is also noted for its secrecy. As we know, Australian governments are willing to send our military personnel to countries which present no direct military threat to ours. So you would think that the least we could do is to try and ensure that our actions are directed at military targets rather than civilians. In the offensive against ISIS occupied parts of Iraq and Syria, both the USA and the UK military commands provided dates and specific locations of alleged civilian casualties. But Australia refused to co-operate and were considered “the least transparent members of the coalition”. Hardly surprising when “…. freedom of information request revealed that the Australians were not even collecting data on alleged civilian casualty incidents” [p219].  Other nations reportedly see this as a moral, if not legal, obligation.

Traditional and social media are often the only means by which information about the plight of citizens escapes the country. Time and again, stories only emerge because of the perilous efforts of individuals in the firing line to collect evidence and circulate it. But the media response is capricious.

A video clip of a little boy, Omran Daqneesh, shows him in the back of an ambulance after being rescued from his Aleppo  home hit by an airstrike: “He sits on an orange seat that’s too big for his tiny body, looking confused, his forehead and shirt covered in blood”  [p169]. Despite having tweeted many other “poignant and disturbing photos from Aleppo”, Sophie notes that this one went viral [p171]. According to a local doctor, “Dozens and dozens of journalist were suddenly asking about Omran…..[but] we looked after him the same as any other kid…This kid became like the face of the Syrian children’s suffering”  [p171].  Sophie notes that “Omran’s story failed to translate into anything more than temporary outrage and social media anguish” [pp171-2].   

Politicians are sometimes a little out of touch as well. In a 2016 news interview, US presidential hopeful Gary Johnson was asked about the crisis in Aleppo:  “And what is Aleppo?” was his imprudent reply [p173]. Australian politicians are not always briefed either. When visiting Jerusalem at a crucial time in Syrian crisis talks between the US and Russia, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop seemed surprised to be asked about the possible outcomes. Turning to her aide with more than a hint of admonition, “You didn’t tell me they were going to ask about Syria” [p173].

Sophie has skilfully woven her many civilian sources, social media and news feeds into a reconstruction of events that have never been properly recorded. These are not histories that are neatly summarised in Wikipedia or analysed in scholarly tomes. She brings an impressive pedigree to her first book – 15 years experience as an investigative reporter and Middle East correspondent including Syria, Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq and Turkey.

Sophie emerges as a woman of conscience. She is modest about her involvement and probably feels frustrated at not being able to do more. And most of all, she seems genuinely impressed with the resilience of her contacts.

“Dr Farida is also there in Idlib, still delivering babies amid the airstrikes and dreaming of a free Syria. ‘Every time I hear a new baby cry, I have hope,’ she says, smiling. ‘I haven’t lost hope for a good future for Syria’” [p211].

It is clear from Sophie’s book that war itself is the problem. When nations go to war, there is inevitably inadvertent or deliberate violence towards citizens who are caught on the battlefields.

This book helps us understand recent conflicts and tragic events that are poorly documented from a civilian perspective. The reader cannot help but think about the issues raised and feel for the people who populate the pages. But the final chapter urges us to do something about it.  That is the hard part. Sophie offers no prescriptions, but I hope that enough people will read it, make some plans and make a difference. 

We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know

(March 2020)

by Sophie McNeill

ABC Books; Harper Collins

ISBN: 9780733340154

416pp

$34.99 (paperback)

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