Sophie McNeill will appear as part of Perth Festival’s Literature and Ideas program at His Majesty’s Theatre on Saturday 20 February, and at ‘Literature in Joondalup’ on Monday 22 February.
For years now, images and examples of war, torture and egregious abuses of human rights across the Middle East have filled our screens and our newspapers. To comfortable observers like we in Australia, these events may seem distant, removed from reality; they may seem like stories. But of course, these images of horrific war crimes, of desperation and fear, aren’t of imaginary people in some tale. They’re images of real people, in the most extreme circumstances imaginable.
This distinction between ‘story’ and people is at the heart of Sophie McNeill’s remarkable book, We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know: Dispatches From an Age of Impunity. A former journalist with SBS’s Dateline and ABC’s Foreign Correspondent and Four Corners, McNeill has covered some of the past two decades’ most horrific conflicts. As the ABC’s Middle East Correspondent, she reported on the Syrian conflicts and refugee crisis, on the Saudi bombing of Yemen, and on the experiences of the Palestinian people of Gaza and the West Bank. She won multiple Walkleys throughout this period. Now, she’s the Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
This book is an act of resistance to the practices of neutral journalism, where the lives of people are used simply as material for ‘the yarn’. It’s also deeply critical of the ineffectual international rules-based order, and of the people of Australia and the West, who have unprecedented 24/7 access to evidence of cruelty and genocide but do so little in response. Most of all, however, it’s a powerfully affecting account of incredible individuals, who, from the Mediterranean Sea to Gaza to Yemen, “refuse to just look the other way, and refused to think that they were hopeless and helpless and couldn’t do anything to make this world a better place.”
We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know is the kind of book that makes every other book seem somewhat meaningless for a while, such is the immediacy and compelling power of the experiences and lives it documents. Read it. You’ll cry regularly, and be repeatedly angered by the impunity of political leaders on all sides of these conflicts, including our own; but, just as regularly, you’ll be inspired to steel yourself, to stop looking away, and maybe even to start taking action of your own.
Riley Faulds: So, Sophie, is it strange or difficult being stuck in Perth when so much of your job has involved travel?
Sophie McNeill: Yeah, it’s a weird feeling. I mean, I haven’t been in one place for this long, since I was like 18. I’ve kind of been non-stop on the go for seventeen years. So it is very weird, but also of all the places to be stuck, it’s pretty amazing. So I feel so lucky. If it happened while I was living overseas, it would have been a nightmare, being separated from my parents and having the kids overseas at a time like this would be really hard. I have a lot of friends who are going through really terrible circumstances in the Middle East and South Asia and London. I think if anything, it just makes you realise how lucky you are. It’s quite good in that way, I guess.
RF: Yeah, I remember in your book, when you’re talking to Khaled during a gunfight in Lebanon and you say, “It’s not like this in Perth”. That, now more than ever, rang true.
SM: Yeah, and you’d hope that some Australians will come out of this and be a bit more perceptive about what it’s like to be someone who can’t travel; who’s stateless, or a refugee, or trapped in a place like Gaza or Yemen. This might give us a tiny little insight into what it’s like to have a lot of restrictions on your life. And to have your possibilities kind of capped, you know, what happens to so many people around the world. And we’re lucky because a lot of these things we’ve never had to deal with it, we’ve never had to worry about, you know, the health of our families, and whether we’d be able to protect them, things that are really commonplace for a lot of people in a lot of places. So I’m hoping that perhaps we will emerge out of this a little bit more empathetic, compassionate. Because maybe we’ve had a tiny insight into what it might be like for people who have had to endure these kinds of things for years on end.
RF: Exactly. In a very minor way for us, really. Well, your book is incredible; it’s the sort of book that makes other books feel meaningless in a way, for a little while.
How would you describe your book to our readers?
SM: Well, I always say I want it to anger but inspire you. Because it’s easy to feel kind of hopeless and helpless. And to just look at all litany of war crimes and things that go on. I do document them all in the book. But I think what the book does, is show you what you can do about things and you meet these amazing people who refuse to just look the other way, and refused to think that they were hopeless and helpless and couldn’t do anything to make this world a better place. And they all risked everything to be on the right side of history, and were so courageous and so brave. These people weren’t anyone special, they were just like you or me; a nurse, or a mum, or a dad. They totally changed their life, you know, to stand up for what they believed in.
And I just wish we could all take a little bit of that courage, a little bit of that bravery and in our own everyday lives make more sacrifices. It’s not something that we’re used to doing much in a privileged western country like Australia, self sacrifice. But it’s something that I feel a lot of people do in the Middle East, whether it’s for their country, their fellow citizens; to make huge sacrifices, to set up what they believe in. And so I just think we could be a little bit more like them. So I’m hoping when people read about these events, they will be saddened by them and angered but ultimately, I want them to leave feeling inspired. That they can do something and they should; because they can’t say that they didn’t know.
RF: Amazing title, by the way. And I think the book really does hit that balance between angering and inspiring really well. So you’ve nailed that.
What motivated you to turn these sorts of stories and experiences into a book when you’ve reported on them so extensively in different forms and different media?
SM: I think you always feel like you want to have done the most you could have done. And sometimes when you’re working in TV and news, you know, it just feels too quick. You file on something, the story goes out there, and then it just kind of appears. Whereas these aren’t just stories. These are people; people’s lives, people’s fates, people’s families, their whole futures. It’s never just a story for me, you know, these are real life people who I stay in touch with and keep hearing about. And so I just felt like to do them justice, you know, for having heard their story and having known what has happened to them, that I had to do as much as I could to get that story out to as many people as possible. So, the thought of putting it all together in a book, I felt obliged to do it! Like it had to be done.
But also, I think I needed to make sense of my time there, you know, I needed to come back and look at it all. And just kind of think, ‘What impact did that reporting have?’ Seeing all those things, what impact did it have? And it’s pretty galling, when you realise sometimes that it has no impact. It’s pretty upsetting when you’ve spent your whole life kind of devoted to this idea, which is, you know, I will show people the truth and the evidence and things will change and become better as a result. And you kind of have to come to terms with the fact that that’s increasingly less realistic these days. That the amount of impact you can have, sometimes, coming face to face with the reality of how much impact you have. All those big important questions needed to be answered. And I don’t know if I’ve got all the answers in the book but I’ve got a lot of questions and I think I do have some answers. You know, I do talk to some of my theories of why impact and change are so hard and what it will take for us to actually change some of these things. So there’s not just questions there are a few answers too! If you read carefully!
RF: Is a book different in its potential to break through that for particular people?
SM: Maybe. TV comes and it goes quite quickly whereas a book is something all there put together. And sometimes it’s seeing those stories, experiencing Gaza and Yemen and Syria and Iraq, and putting that all together and realising, I guess, what we allowed the world to become. Seeing all that laid out, I think, is very powerful, putting it together that way, and then building an argument of what we knew and when. Our hypocrisy, our lack of consistency, and what we really need to do; my call at the end is on us as Australians, on the Australian Government, about my beliefs on what we need to do to ensure that this kind of impunity doesn’t continue. That we become the kind of country that doesn’t turn the other way when things happen as well.
RF: Definitely. And having all the different countries and examples all together and linking them shows that the difference between Syrian airstrikes and coalition airstrikes is pretty minimal, really, when it comes to the effect on actual people and their lives. That interweaving is something that the book does really well. On that, what do you think explains that sort of apathy or indifference, or lack of action from so many people? Not everyone, but many, many people who see the kinds of atrocities that you document and the evidence is on their TV screens, their phone screens, so regularly.
SM: It’s a feeling of hopelessness, that they can’t do anything to change it; which I think is incorrect, because I think the book shows what difference one person can have. Yes, you might not be able to go on a plane and go and help people in Idlib in Syria. But there are thousands of Syrian refugees in Australia, who are struggling, who need help. There are so many things that people can reach out and do in their own personal capacity. But they always just think “Why me?”
Whereas my question in the book is why not you? The book is full of amazing people who had total normal ordinary lives until they stood up and spoke out and really followed their heart and risked everything for what they believed in. We always look for someone else to lead, rather than trying to lead in our own little community. You know, your workplace, your school, your uni course, whatever it is. There’s so much work that needs to be done, you know, whether you’re passionate about the environment or asylum seekers, climate change, indigenous rights, there’s so much work to be done. So why not you? I think that that’s the key message for people to get past that initial thing.
But the other thing is, people will look at these horrors over there and think, well, “it’s sad, it’s terrible”. They might give twenty bucks to the UNHCR or whatever. That’s great. But they don’t actually do anything, or give it that much thought, because they think ultimately, it won’t hurt me, it won’t impact me and the people I love. But I argue that that’s untrue, and that the way that we have allowed the rulebook to be thrown out the window, and the fact that we’ve allowed this world to be created with the impunity that now reigns, I argue that it will, and it does affect us. Because even in a wonderfully safe place like Perth, Australia, you can look at the impact of what happens when you have that breakdown of the rules-based system, the international order. Look at COVID. I think that’s taught us a lot about the importance of international institutions, and how important it is for us all to work together on a global stage, when you look at the increasing concerning rise of authoritarian China and Xi Jinping and the impact that has on our region. And I think climate change is another brilliant example of something that will and is affecting us, even here in a stable place, like Perth. And if we don’t have a strong international system, if people don’t follow the rules, then we’re all in so much trouble. So I think I’m trying to get people to see that no one is an island, you can bury your head in the sand and look the other way. Or you can actually confront some of these big issues that, you know, we really need to start thinking, talking and doing more about every day, all of us, in whatever little way we can.
RF: Well, you have the example of East Timor in the introduction. And it seems like the response to that was quite different in Australia in terms of how we tried to hold our government accountable to do something about it. And that doesn’t seem to happen in the same way anymore. Why do you think that is?
Yeah, it’s funny, because people gave me so much hope. It was one of the first things I really got involved in, and I saw that amazing example of people who were occupied and oppressed, and then they got their freedom. You know, it was a wonderful thing to see. You know, I was 16, in Timor for the first time. I think that’s kept me going for a long time in terms of inspiring me. But I do think the noughties generally were filled up with a lot of optimism. The International Criminal Court was established, and there was a lot of talk about ‘never again’ we’d had the horror in Rwanda. People said we would learn from these things, that we would create the international systems and institutions to address genocide and war crimes, that we wouldn’t allow impunity to continue. So I think there was that period of hope.
And I guess my book really documents the last decade where we have seen that terrible failure of the international system, and that we have seen real impunity return in the war crimes documented in the book, from Iraq, to Syria, to Gaza to Yemen. You know, it is really terrifying to think of the precedents that were set during that time. And so, I think there’s not one thing you can pin it on, but there is a series of failures, you know, the undermining of the UN Security Council, the rise of China. There’s Obama stepping back allowing Russia to fill that power vacuum in the Middle East. There’s a whole series of things you can point to as to how that horrible series of years unfolded in the Middle East and the horror it brought and continues to bring; and nothing’s changed. And thank god Syria’s quietened down a little bit, but the war is still going on in Yemen. People in Gaza are still trapped there and have no future.
And East Timor was on our doorstep, so I think that that helps. Also, after September 11, there was so much demonisation of Islam and Muslims, I think sometimes people find it hard to relate to people in the Middle East. They think that they’re different from us. Maybe they get used to tragedy or horror, or they’re used to their families being killed. I’m not sure, I’ve always had Muslim friends. And I first went to the Middle East when I was eighteen, and I’ve always loved the region, and its people and the cultures. So I think sometimes it’s hard for people to relate to. So I’m just hoping that people are slowly starting to change their attitudes and realise that there is no difference between a mate that I have here, go and have a coffee with in Perth or someone I do the same with in Jerusalem, or Gaza or Syria. We’re all exactly the same. But I think sometimes we forget that.
RF: How difficult is it for you to go from that intensity of being a foreign correspondent in the Middle East to a life in Australia, with the kinds of different pressures involved in that? Is that a difficult thing?
SM: Yeah, I’ve got two small kids and I’ve always travelled a huge amount, and never been around that much. We had quite a few years living in the Middle East. So, it felt like it was time to come home at a certain point, because also that kind of place, I could see the impact point, that has on children, living in a place where you can’t trust the police, you can’t trust the government. It’s a scary, insecure place where adults whisper about things and attacks happen. And the older my kids got, the more I could see that they were like “hang on, something’s not quite right here!”
If I can see the impact of the trauma I’ve reported on for years, I can’t really knowingly subject my own children to this can I? That wouldn’t be being the best mother in the world. So there are those practicalities of having to bring your kids back for a few years, in that way. But, like I said, you don’t have to go all the way to Middle East to try and make a difference in the world. You know, there is so much work that we have to do here. And I feel like I’ve started a new chapter of work. And in some ways, it’s harder; the Middle East is kind of sexy, on the news, primetime violence, and it’s easy to get a story up or get people to pay attention to something like that. But some of the more kind of systemic racism in this country and the deep-rooted social inequities, and tackling something as difficult as climate change; there are so many things here that are really hard to come up with a solution to. So struggles all over. And there’s everywhere that needs to be done, I think wherever you look.
RF: And you’re working for Human Rights Watch as their Australia researcher, right?
SM: Yes indeed.
RF: How’s that different to being a journalist? Does that have different kinds of pressures or responsibilities; are you freer in some ways, or?
SM: Yeah, much freer in some ways. You don’t have to worry about, kind of like, the bullshit anymore. What I love about my job now is that it’s the best bits that I loved about my old job being a journalist, but now all I have to worry about is human rights; advocating for that, researching it and exposing it, trying to get change happening. In journalism, you just tell the story, it’s not your job to actually try and see the change or come up with a policy recommendation and then lobby as hard as you can until it happens. Working to develop coalitions and work carefully with people, with a lot of nuance; that’s not your job, you just do the story, drop it and move on. And I was never like that, I struggle with that.
So what I like about my new job is that it’s complex, and it’s really hard. The biggest part of my job is actually trying to come up with a change; not just exposing something, but thinking, how do you fix this? You know, what is the policy answer? Or what does the government need to do to stop this? And then try to convince people to actually do that. So it’s much harder! I think my job now is really a lot more difficult. Challenging, and there’s no black or white. Journalism’s kind of like, bang, bang, bang, this happens, put on the telly. Okay, what’s your next story?
It’s not a story. These things are real, you know, and I always struggle with that: this kind of idea that the journalism was just a story, you know, just your next piece on the news, your next yarn. It’s never like that for me. And so now, this job feels a lot more like who I always was.
RF: And when you went to support Rahaf Mohammed, when she was in Bangkok fleeing Saudi Arabia, some of the people at the ABC, were saying they were worried that you might be seen as an activist; are you pretty comfortable seeing yourself as an activist now?
SM: Yeah, like I said, it was always more than a story. I cared about the people. I cared about the issues. It wasn’t just about, you know, ratings, or winning Walkleys, or whatever; it was about what actually went on. And I get really upset sometimes with my industry, or my colleagues; it felt like a bit of a game, really. So this job feels a lot truer to who I am and what I want to try and do in this world.
RF: Well, they’re very lucky to have you! You’re the kind of person who can hopefully have a real impact.
SM: If I can ever leave my suburb again!
RF: Hmm, so true…
You have an epigraph from the poet Tawfiq Ziad in the book. I’m interested, just as a side note, in what kind of impact poetry specifically can have? Are the more creative literary arts useful in resistance, in witness to atrocities and these issues and people?
SM: Look, I’m not a very artistic person, so I might have misled you! I don’t really read much poetry, I’m sorry. I’m really not that cultured, I just read nonfiction. That’s it! But I came across that poem and it was always in my head: “What you have done to our people has been registered in notebooks.” And, you know, I’ve been in terrible situations, seeing the most fucked up things; and I’d get so angry and I’d just be madly scribbling it all down in these notebooks. And you cling to this belief, this hope that it will make a difference; that all of these facts, these figures will be evidence of what they did and the crimes that they one day will be held to account for, that there will be justice. You have to hang on to that otherwise you can’t keep going. So that’s why I felt like it had to be right at the beginning of the book. It encapsulated a lot of what I clung on to.
Interviewed by Riley Faulds
Image courtesy of Perth Festival