We may be having to endure a global pandemic, but reading Perth journalist and author Sophie McNeill’s book, We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know provides much-needed perspective. What a reminder it is of how lucky we Australians are, including those who’ve had to stay at home for a few weeks during lockdown.
In her work as a Middle East foreign correspondent for the ABC, Sophie, 35, was regularly immersed in a world of violent conflict, death, poverty and anguish. She met astonishing characters, refusing to lose hope in the most dire of circumstances. She ended up writing a book about her experiences, and some of those inspirational individuals.
Sophie is now back in WA, working for Human Rights Watch, an international organisation which investigates abuse worldwide. She chats to The Starfish:
When you took on the job of Middle East Correspondent for the ABC, you presumably had a fairly good idea of what you were in for – but was it so much more than you’d imagined?
I don’t think I or anyone else could have imagine how bad things could get. Particularly when remembering the hope that was initially felt after the Arab Spring in 2011. To think that 5000,000 people would be killed by war in Syria, that a group like ISIS would take over large swathes of territory and kill thousands, that Gaza would endure another horrific war and Yemen would be bombed, blockaded and starved. It’s devastating to think of the suffering the people of the Middle East have endured over the past decade.
How long have you been back in Perth? Is this where you wrote the book?
I moved back to Perth in February just before Covid so I feel really lucky about the timing. The book was written in the early hours of the morning and late at night while I was living in Sydney working for Four Corners and I finished it in January.
Was it hard to recollect everything in detail, or did you keep a diary?
I’m lucky, I have my camera tapes, transcripts from my interviews and so many photos from my reporting. I also have years of WhatsApp message with key characters that help preserve exactly what was said and when.
What was the main reason you wrote the book?
To try and make sense of what I witnessed and how to better understand what generates change, what doesn’t and why. You also want to try and do as much as you can for the people you met, because you always wished you could have done more, so writing a book is one way of attempting to do that.
What does the title of your book refer to?
It was initially a hashtag I used on footage that came out of Syria. The footage went viral, millions of people watched this image of a young Syrian boy in siting in shock in an ambulance. For me the key part was that all the evidence was there with Syria, it was the most documented war in history. We had no excuses for not acting. This was not Rwanda or the Balkans or the last few months of the Sri Lankan Civil war. Our excuses have run out. War crimes in Syria happened year after year live on our timelines and yet still we looked the other way.
Have you a favourite chapter? If so, which one?
Probably the ‘Bride and Groom of the Revolution’ a true love story that also encapsulates the devastating story of Syria’s amazing courageous democracy movement.
You said when were you growing up in Perth, you already wanted to be a journalist. Why was that?
I think I wasn’t quite sure the rest of the world really existed. You felt so far away and removed from everything, growing up in WA. I was desperate to get out and see it all for myself.
As journalists, we’re taught to remain objective, not to get too emotionally involved with the people we interview. How difficult was this for you in the course of your work? Well I never studied journalism, I’m a drop out, so I don’t subscribe to that school of thought! The best journalism gets in deep and is emotional. I have a fierce commitment to the facts and evidence but I don’t shy away from following my heart.
You personally helped one of the heroes in your book, Khaled, and his family migrate to Australia, and safety. Was that one of the most satisfying achievements?
In your varied career, what are you most proud of?
Probably Khaled moving to Australia and helping Rahaf, a young Saudi asylum seeker who was being detained and threatened with forced deportation in Thailand.
You’ve travelled so much in your career. What country holds a special place in your heart?
Iraq. It has the most kind, generous people, who have endured so much tragedy and still manage to hold onto a wicked sense of humour.
Here in the lucky country, many of us remain oblivious to how tough it is for people in other lands. Does it frustrate you that many of us are so ignorant about the goings-on beyond our nation?
When I looked back at Australia and saw more people protesting about what time bars closed in Sydney, rather than the slaughter of Syrian or Yemeni kids, I was filled with frustration. Now, having spent a few more years back at home, I am more sympathetic to how removed we feel from what happens “over there” and the misplaced belief that we can afford to look the other way, because ultimately it won’t affect us, our lives or those we love. But it will. That’s what happens when all the rules are broken. The system is eroded and while we might not realise it now, we do and will need it in the years to come.
It’s increasingly clear that the rise of authoritarian rule and the climate emergency will be the greatest threats to peace on our planet and our children. So how will we win these monumental battles when our leaders have already squandered their moral standing? When facts and evidence are ‘debatable’ and easily dismissed, ‘truth’ is subjective, and our governments pick and choose when ‘the rules’ apply?
In your book’s acknowledgements, you thank all the brave and dignified people “for teaching me life.”
If you could sum it up in a sentence or two, what is it, would you say, that they’ve taught you?
That nothing else really matters in life but love and family.
For those of us who feel aggrieved by some of the cases outlined, who don’t want to look the other way, what is the best thing we can do to help in our own small way?
You don’t need to fly to the Middle East to make a difference and change the world for the better. There is so much that needs to be done right here. Whether it is on the environment, the climate emergency, Indigenous rights, asylum seekers, there’s heaps of work to be done. Unless more of us make self-sacrifices and devote our own time and energy to fighting for a fairer, more just, safer world nothing is going to change in the long run. We all need to stop waiting for someone else to lead and instead step up and be willing to become leaders in our own communities.
Can you see yourself working as a middle east correspondent again in the future?
No. I have lost faith in my belief that simply telling people is the best way to spur change. It breaks my heart to admit that, but it’s true. It is time to put my money where my mouth is and take action myself. Now I’m faced with a new, long-term goal – how to change our culture and that of our leaders to prioritise human rights, so next time we see war crimes on the news, we don’t look the other way.
You now work for Human Rights Watch. What does your job entail?
I’ve recently joined Human Rights Watch as their inaugural Australia researcher to research, and advocate to our state and federal governments to prioritise human rights in all their policies.
Currently the young Melbourne academic Australian Kylie Moore-Gilbert is languishing in Iran’s Qarchak prison. Should our government be doing more to get her out?
I think the evidence has shown that quiet diplomacy isn’t working in the case of Kylie Moore-Gilbert. I do think the Australian government should press forcefully and consistently for her release and safe return to Australia.
Finally, if you could get on a plane tomorrow and head for the middle east, where would you go and why?
I’d go to Gaza and see my dear friends there who have been locked away from the world for far too long, for years before Covid was even a thing!
Sophie’s book is out now. She is part of this year’s virtual Ubud Writers Festival, speaking on Writing in Times Of Crisis with two other WA writers, Elizabeth Tan and Yuot Alaak (interviewed recently in The Starfish.)
For details visit www.ubudwritersfestival.com