Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 7, 2022

We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know (2020), by Sophie McNeill

It’s very, very hard to read this book…

Sophie McNeill is well-known to viewers of the ABC.  This is her profile at Human Rights Watch:

Sophie McNeill is the Australia researcher for Human Rights Watch, based in Western Australia. She was formerly an investigative reporter with ABC TV’s Four Corners program where she produced programs on the Hong Kong protest movement and the mass arbitrary detention of Xinjiang’s Muslims by the Chinese government. Sophie was also a foreign correspondent for the ABC and SBS in the Middle East, working across the region in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Turkey, as well as Israel/Palestine. Sophie has twice been awarded Australian Young TV Journalist of the Year and in 2010 won a Walkley Award for her investigation into the killing of five children in Afghanistan by Australian Special Forces soldiers. She was also nominated for a Walkley in 2015 for her coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2016 she won two more Walkleys for her coverage of Yemen and besieged towns in Syria. Previously, she worked as a reporter for ABC’s Foreign Correspondent and SBS’s Dateline programs and she is a former host of triple j’s news and current affairs program Hack.

We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know: Dispatches from an Age of Impunity provides more comprehensive details, background and insights than TV reportage allows.  There are profiles of individuals and families caught up in Middle Eastern conflicts, and there are harrowing stories of refugees stranded on a Greek island two days walk from help without food, water or warm clothing.  There are stories of families separated in the chaos, or left behind in peril because there isn’t enough money to pay people smugglers for all of them.  Children literally starving to death in Syria and Yemen, the failures of the UN, and sickening information about Australian complicity in arms sales and defence force training for Saudi Arabia’s bombardment of Yemen.

The titular chapter, ‘We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know’ is about the siege of Aleppo.  Aleppo is the site of the family burial plot in the novel  Death is Hard Work (2016) by Khaled Khalifa, (translated by Leri Price) which I reviewed here.  In that novel Bolbol’s makes an epic quest to fulfil his father’s dying wish, but even in death Bolbol’s father is a trouble-maker because he has been providing medical help to the opponents of Assad’s regime. As McNeill testifies, Assad targeted medical facilities, in direct contravention of international humanitarian law.

By mid 2016, Aleppo was a shell of its former self.  Before the war, the northern city had been the most populous in Syria, home to more than 2.3 million people, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.  Thousands of tourists had flocked to Aleppo each year, to explore the famous covered markets and visit the World-Heritage-listed ruins of the ancient citadel overlooking the city.  But Aleppo had since hosted some of the fiercest fighting in the Syrian civil war.  In early 2014, after the regime began targeting Aleppo with a barrage of barrel bombs and airstrikes on the rebel-held east and opposition forces shelled the west, hundreds of thousands of residents had fled north to live as refugees in Turkey.  The UN estimated 200,000-300,000 civilians remained in the east, while over one million lived in government held west Aleppo.

As Sam [a volunteer surgeon from the US] entered the opposition-held neighbourhoods, he saw an apocalyptic wasteland. Row after row of apartment blocks had been obliterated by the Syrian air force.  Deeper inside the city, civilians scurried between the ruins, trying to retain some semblance of normal life, refusing to submit to the death that came in waves from the sky.  (pp.159-160).

I have also read and reviewed Chrisy Lefteri’s novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo, (2019) tracing the journey of refugees from this terrible situation.  It was a haunting novel, based on Lefteri’s work with refugees, but it spared readers some of the horrific detail that McNeill insists on, in her efforts to force long-overdue action to help the victims of the conflict.

The Assad regime labelled everyone who chose to stay in the rebel-controlled east ‘terrorists’.  But each day, the patients that Sam saw being rushed into M10’s ER were overwhelmingly civilians, pummelled from the skies by the regime and their Russian allies.  A 40-year-old mother paralysed from the waist down.  A child with shrapnel embedded in his spinal cord.  A grandmother with half her face crushed and her arm bone sticking out.  A boy with severe burns and his intestines protruding from his little belly. (p.162)

One can only admire McNeill’s fortitude in witnessing this horror, but she doesn’t want our admiration.  She wants change, and her frustration is palpable:

I knew it was repetitive.  More pictures of dead people and distraught children.  But to look away was criminal.  If this was the world we had created, where war crimes were allowed to be carried out live, day after day with no consequence, then we were — at the very least — required to watch and recognise the full cost of our inaction. (p.189)

There is a chapter about the people of Mosul and Raqqa escaping from ISIS, and Australia’s complete lack of transparency about its actions there. And how it was not until it was identified by the NGO Airwars in 2016 as one of the coalition’s ‘least transparent members’ that it has taken steps to improve the reporting of alleged civilian casualties.

There is no doubt that the enemy the US-led coalition faced in Mosul was horrifically cruel and morally corrupt.  But no matter what barbarous tactics the jihadists employed, this did not relieve the coalition of its obligation to take all feasible precautions to minimise harm to civilians.  Time after time, evidence built up that this was just not the case.  (p.232)

There is more. And all of it is hard to read.  Written in 2020, McNeill’s words are prescient:

My greatest fear is that our collective indifference to the mass death, atrocities and war crimes in the Middle East over the past decade has sanctioned a broader unravelling of global order.  World leaders, those democratically elected and authoritarian dictators, now know exactly what they can get away with.  We have proved ambivalent to their slaughter.  In the absence of any sufficient deterrence, they are now liberated from any pressure to rein in their murderous ways.  As a result, we are now paying an unimaginable price — a world with seemingly no rules and no truth, where disinformation thrives. (p.365)/

What makes me angry is that the West has not hesitated to engage in a proxy war in Ukraine, and has welcomed white, Christian Ukrainian refugees with open arms, but has turned a blind eye to events in the Middle East.

Author: Sophie McNeill
Title: We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know, Dispatches from the Age of Impunity
Cover design: Amy Daoud
Publisher: ABC Books, Harper Collins, 2020
ISBN: 9780733340154, pbk., 406 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings, $34.99



  1. Excellent post, Lisa – in the West we’re so selective in our responses to world issues (and I suspect the party in charge over here is simply using the Ukraine war for its own ends…)


  2. I was going to, and probably will, say the big problem is the US (and their proxy in the Middle East, Israel – or vice versa sometimes) which commit war crimes themselves and so cannot support any system which might involve their own prosecution.

    But the real big problem is our complete indifference to any violence which is not actually on our own doorstep.


    • I’ve been thinking about this ever since that Amnesty report about Ukrainians putting their own civilians at risk when they set up and fired from apartment blocks, schools etc.
      Surely the reality is that most people live in cities, therefore warfare will be in cities, and will include sieges along with street battles and drones, and both sides will inevitably kill civilians, more so than soldiers . To the dead and their loved ones, it’s irrelevant whether it’s attack or retaliation. The civilians are dead and the cities are trashed.
      And with nuclear installations all over the place, that’s a disaster waiting to happen too. Armed warfare is just Not On, in the 21st century because it cannot be conducted according to the so-called rules of engagement.
      Surely there must be a way of dealing with political conflict without armed warfare. The sanctions system isn’t the solution, those suffering most at the moment are not the Russians, it’s the ordinary people of Europe and the UK. It took decades for South African sanctions to have any effect, and it’s arguable if they ever influenced reform.
      The UN could make a start by controlling arms manufacture, but that’s a pipe dream.


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