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La Guerra Dentro

Book review: Francesca Borri, La Guerra Dentro, Bompiani, 2014

Francesca Borri is a freelance journalist who, in 2012, decided to go to Syria to cover on-site the conflict between Bashar al-Assad’s forces and a variegated ensemble of rebel groups. La Guerra Dentro (meaning The War Inside in the original Italian, but hopefully the book will soon be translated) is the collection of her memories and thoughts throughout the months she spent trying to understand, report and make us understand Syrians and their ordinary life of need and fear.

Rather than just focusing on the political reasons of the armed conflict in Syria, indeed, Francesca tries to give us a picture of the people at the centre of the conflict. Young rebels fighting in flip-flops and wearing a Messi football jersey as a uniform. A five-year-old kid in a Pokémon T-shirt, craving to cut out the throat of the infidels. Families living in underground graves, and those buried in aboveground ruins.

Francesca manages to talk about the Syrians even when not mentioning them at all. She describes Aleppo’s embellished homes and its flavourful market as they had been before the war, and the reader’s mind immediately goes to the people animating them. She describes those same places after the war has abused them, and the reader’s mind again goes to the people who used to animate them.

La Guerra Dentro may surprise those accustomed to a smooth writing style, perfect for a quiet read on the living room sofa on a rainy evening. Here, instead, words are sometimes laid out on the page almost casually. Sometimes Francesca fires words as if they were bullets coming out of a hypothetical Kalashnikov. Powerful, distinct and yet so quickly close to each other, they pierce whatever armour the reader is wearing. On other occasions, gentle and warm images are often followed by gruesome details scarring you deeply, like a marksman’s shot during a peaceful stroll.

In Francesca’s memories war is not described in a canonical, beautiful, perfect style, but is instead depicted with repetitions and contradictions. Exactly the kind of things your literature teacher – at high school – told you to avoid.  In La Guerra Dentro you often find the same sentence repeated two, three, five times over the various chapters. Some episodes are reported twice, in chapters that should chronologically be distant from each other. And yet this is how war is, full of repetitions and contradictions, and Francesca Borri could not find a better way to show us.

La Guerra Dentro might be disturbing to all those who – like me – are used to academic literature in the fields of international law and international relations. It shows how small, and yet how important, the impact of our work can be. If only we focused on what matters to people, rather than on what is convenient for our own careers. Francesca witnesses the aloof and at times cynical behaviour of NGOs or international organizations’ officers, and of her fellow journalists. Somewhat reassuringly, she often compares this behaviour with the heartening words of Antonio Cassese, her former professor in Florence. It is therefore possible to be both a humanist and a lawyer or journalist

In La Guerra Dentro Francesca Borri recalls the spark that moved her to go to Syria. It all happened when she came across Alessio Romenzi’s photos, published on Time Magazine and winner of a prestigious photojournalism prize. Those photos, she explains, told more about the Syrian people than anyone had ever done at that stage. She also felt compelled to tell the world about the Syrian people.

I have an idea of why those pictures enraptured her. Francesca Borri is not actually a writer.  She is a photographer – a gifted one - trapped in the body of a conscientious and successful freelance journalist. La Guerra Dentro is the most meaningful photo-reportage about Syria I have seen so far.

Antonio Coco