Books

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

The title of this book hits you like a reproach and the provocation is very much deliberate. Investigative reporter Sophie McNeill has more than 15 years’ experience working in oppressive regimes and We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know, her first book, bears testament to what seems like a relentless stream of human rights abuses, collating stories of civilians who have become collateral damage in the bloody politicking of their leaders.

In a brief introduction, McNeill explains how growing up in small-town Perth prompted her to explore beyond its confines, and how she took inspiration from John Pilger’s work. At age 18 she joined the SBS newsroom in Sydney, and in 2015 she moved to Jerusalem to become the ABC’s Middle East correspondent. Her journalism during this time occupies most of the focus in We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know, covering civil war in Syria, Yemen and Palestine.

There are remarkable tales within of courage and conviction in outrageous conditions. A nurse in Damascus became part of an underground network of medical staff secretly treating activists, and was forced by circumstance to become a surgeon. A software developer opened up the internet to bypass Syrian government censorship and distribute footage of demonstrations, but a crackdown followed. McNeill speaks with a large number of the afflicted and her accounts are brutal. She attends the funeral of a Yemeni child soldier, visits children who are severely malnourished because of strategic food blockages, listens to the survivor of a wedding that was targeted in a malicious airstrike, follows the exodus of stricken refugees heading for Europe, and stops at the new Médicins Sans Frontières hospital in Amman that specialises in reconstructive surgery for those injured by regime-sanctioned air raids and cluster bombs.

And yet, despite citizens being subjected to and killed by the most egregious war crimes, nothing much changes. The flagrant flouting of international humanitarian law by various warring factions in the Middle East is why the book’s subtitle refers to “an age of impunity”. The atrocities that McNeill and her team uncover – along with the wider world’s indifference, or even complicity, in the suffering of tens of thousands – makes We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know a sobering and enraging read.

Thuy On

ABC Books, 416pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 21, 2020 as "Sophie McNeill, We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know".

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Reviewer: Thuy On

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