In conversation with Sophie McNeill

On outrage, powerful stories, and what happens when all the rules are broken.

Photograph: The Sydney Morning Herald

Sophie McNeill is the former ABC Middle East Correspondent. Her first book We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know: Dispatches from an age of impunity was released in March, and it’s one of the most eye-opening and important books I’ve read. When I sat down to chat to her, she told me that this book is a tribute to the courage of the people who have been at the forefront of war zones in the Middle East – the acts of selflessness and bravery that they performed for others when their own lives were at risk.

Ranuka Tandan: The focus of your book is the stories of the people who are living on the ground in the war zones of the Middle East, rather than the facts and numbers themselves. Can you explain why you structured your book that way?

Sophie McNeill: This is a book of personal human stories and the aim is to show the effect of these horrific policies I’ve seen in the Middle East over the past decade and to really bring them alive through people, and to show the readers what happens to people just like us when all the rules are broken. That’s the theme of the book, that we’ve broken all the rules, that there’s no deterrent to this kind of horrific behaviour out in the world. Our system’s really broken and the book is about the impact that has on people’s lives. The book is not a memoir; it’s a tribute really to all the amazing, brave, courageous people that I was lucky enough to – you know, some of them I met, some of them I couldn’t meet but I got to know through their close friends. So yeah, it’s based on years and years of work and hundreds and hundreds of hours of interviews.

RT: I got so invested in the stories of these people that you met just from reading them, so I can’t imagine how you must have felt. Did you try and separate yourself from your work at all? Is that possible?

SM: No, it’s not something I do, and I think that’s pretty obvious in the book. I think this whole thing about journalists being objective – you know, there’s a difference between being objective and being able to call things out when they’re false, letting people know what the evidence and the truth is, and stopping being like a human being, where you’re just operating like a robot. Just because you’re a journalist doesn’t mean you should stop being a human out there in the field so I always went out of my way to put my humanity first and to act like a person, because at the end of the day I couldn’t live with myself if all I did was prioritise my journalism, my stories and just pass up that opportunity to help people. And part of the reason for writing it is because these people – you do feel so privileged to have got to know them and hear their stories and you want to do as much as you humanly, possibly can to try and help them. So I guess the book is like the ultimate way of doing as much as you can to try and get their stories out.

RT: Absolutely. You must have felt weird at points though, especially when people are suffering so much and you are there taking photos and videoing. I suppose there’s a certain amount of awkwardness you’ve got to get past in realising that the bigger picture is to tell their stories.

SM: Yeah, in most cases people are pretty good, but that’s like, if you’re in a hospital ward in Yemen and babies are starving in front of you and someone’s life is at stake and you can give twenty bucks to the intensive care unit manager – you know, I’ll always make that choice to do that you know, because that’s real life. I’m not just going to walk into that ICU unit and just be thinking about my stories when I see a starving kid and I fear that his parents need this twenty bucks to help him, but I’m going to turn the other way because I’ve got what I need for my story. That’s not how I operate and I think we shouldn’t encourage journalists to be like that either. I think that good storytellers are people that relate to other humans on that level. People love to talk about, well “where’s the line?” and I just think that those are people who don’t get out in the field enough because when you’re out in the field it’s very clear where the line is. The line is, if me handing over twenty bucks is going to save a kids life, then for me….

RT: Of course you’re going to do it.

SM: Of course you’re going to do it. It’s in the realms of what you should do, as a human being. And anyone who says that crosses a journalistic line, I think they’re lucky enough to have never been in a situation like that.

RT: I really relate to the anger you must have felt when the ABC chose not to publish your news package on the shocking situation in Syria. I’m constantly disappointed by the lack of coverage mainstream media often gives to issues in other countries which I see as really important. Can the profession push past this?

SM: As long as it’s still happening I want it to be on the news. The book is really honest, you know, I talk about a lot of struggles with my editors. In Lesbos we saw this old man who was lost and we helped him find his family. That wasn’t what my editors had asked me to do that day, but what was I going to do? Just walk away and leave him? And it’s not like I didn’t do my job, I always got stories out of it, but I also made sure that I could live with myself.

RT: That was probably one of my favourite stories from the book – I cried so much in Nazieh’s story.

SM: It’s so cute. I just, I can’t wait. Bloody coronavirus! When it’s all over I really want to take my kids to Europe. I promised Nazieh I’d bring my kids to meet him so I’ve gotta do that.

RT: Oh absolutely. The photos of him reunited with his family – that makes it all worth it right?

SM: Totally, totally! This is it right, like I really cared, I didn’t just care about the story, I cared about the people I met and actually, really caring makes you a better journalist. 

RT: It’s such a powerful way to get people to understand and care about the situation as well, when you put it in people terms. You started by making documentaries when you were a student. Lots of us engage in activism around these issues, but often with refugee policy in particular, it feels like we have no chance of changing attitudes. I feel like your experience gives you a good perspective on this, so how would you encourage students to keep fighting these fights? Refugee policy is something I think we struggle with a lot more than say, climate movements which have gained a lot of momentum recently.

SM: People often ask me, do you have any hope? Because I guess there’s a lot of depressing stuff in the book. But I always approach it from a place of like, outrage and anger. People say, “don’t you ever feel so in despair at the state of the world that you just feel like, what difference will it all make?” But the book is full of people who made a huge amount of difference. One brave individual was able to enact so much change; whether it was Rahaf, the young, brave Saudi woman who managed to blow right open the claims of the Saudi regime that they’re modernising for women; or Khaled the nurse, who risked everything to be on the right side of history; or Noura and Bassel. Even the stories about the refugees. Nazieh and all those Syrians – that was so brave what they did, going to Europe. They didn’t just sit and wait in the refugees camps – they’d done that for years and no one was helping them. It was a huge risk for them to do what they did, but that was so brave and courageous! And they didn’t really have a choice, because the world wasn’t helping them. So they took that decision. The book is full of people being courageous and I always say, “I’m sick of talking about hope, I want to talk about courage.”

And I just hope that in a way this book will enrage and inspire people to see how we can take a bit more of that courage into our daily lives. Because I think it’s easy to feel powerless and that’s what the bastards want us to feel! You know, everyone perpetuating these horrible things, they want us to feel powerless. We can’t let them win!

Every time I guess I feel a little bit down or overwhelmed, I think about these people I met, who overcame such adversity. Even if they didn’t overcome it, they had this amazing courage to stand up against it. And I just think that we need to learn from them and to try and exhibit a little bit more courage in our lives, and to be leaders. The book is full of extraordinary, ordinary people who became leaders, and I think we need to stop waiting for our leaders to show courage and exhibit the high moral ground. We can do it. Whether you care about refugees or climate change or human rights or Indigenous issues, there’s so much to be done, and I think that we actually all need to make more self-sacrifice in our lives. The book is about people who all sacrificed for the greater good, for their country, for their town. Some of them lost everything. And I think that right now in these times, with the coronavirus, actually for the first time, a lot of us are having to self-sacrifice – for our community, for the greater good – and I think it’s an important lesson we’re learning. It’s not something we’re used to. But I think it’s something that needs to be done, because unless we all show a bit more courage and make self-sacrifice to make this world a better place – you know, put time, put money into things that are going to make a difference – then nothing will change, things will stay the same. So I think it’s easy to feel hopeless and helpless but we can’t let the bastards win.

RT: Absolutely, that’s such a good attitude to have. And you’re right, this is a crazy time. I’ve seen some things on Facebook comparing our situation now, which people are complaining about, to situations in war zones where people have been in lockdown for years, some people have been in lockdown for their whole lives.

SM: Oh this is it. They can’t leave you know, people in Syria, people in Yemen, in Gaza, they’re absolutely trapped. And we’re whingeing about it, and it’s the first time in our lives. For the first time in our lives we have to think about, “do I have the food I need?”, “how can I keep my family safe?” All of these things. People in Syria have had to think like that for nine years now. So I’m hoping that we can all emerge out of this a little bit more compassionate because we’ve had a little insight into it. How scary is it when you’re worried about keeping your family safe? It’s terrifying. And here we are, faced with it for the first time and you know, not being able to get the food you need, or see the people you love. All that kind of stuff. So hopefully people learn.

RT: I hope so. Would you be able to explain a little bit behind the title of your book? It’s really powerful and the story behind it is important.

SM: Yeah. It was like two o’clock in the morning and I was following things happening in Aleppo. I couldn’t go there, it was too dangerous for reporters to go there by the time I arrived in the Middle East in 2015, so I had these WhatsApp groups of doctors and nurses inside that I used to speak to everyday, and I got this video late at night of this little kid sitting in the back of the ambulance. That video went viral – I put it up on Twitter and on the ABC webpage and it got like 12 million views in 24 hours. Everyone was just kind of really struck by this image of this kid that looked really used to this horror unfolding around him. He was just kind of so weary, he looked absolutely weary of this world. And it really struck people.

When I tweeted that video that night I just said, “Watch this video from Aleppo tonight. And watch it again. And remind yourself that with Syria #wecantsaywedidntknow.” Because I just felt like, I was sick of telling everyone what was going on and nothing was being done. It became this theme, and it’s the title that’s the theme of the book. We can’t say we didn’t know about any of this, so what the hell are you going to do about it? Because now you know as well! You’ve read the book, you know! This is it. We’ve all got to stop thinking that someone else is going to fix these things. And we need to all start taking action ourselves. People might think that I sound a bit naive or silly, like how can one person stop the war in Syria? But it’s not about that, it’s about looking at people like Noura and Khaled and Rahaf and see how much change they managed to make in their communities on their issues and looking at people like Greta Thunberg and seeing the amazing work that one person can do.

So we all just need to pick something we care about and spend a bit of time and money and effort to create positive change, and it’s not that hard, you just start on one small thing. I started on all this stuff just by borrowing my high school’s video camera and making this little self-produced documentary about a clinic in Timor that desperately needed money because people were dying of preventable disease there. And I managed to end up in my dream job, which was the ABC Middle East correspondent, but what the book is about is about how now, it’s so much harder to generate change. With the 24 hour news cycle and social media we feel overwhelmed by all the horror and sadness and tragedies going on in the world and we feel like we can’t make a difference. And so you know, the book is really telling people that if we continue to do this then we’re allowing our leaders to continue doing this because there’s no deterrent. If we prove indifferent to the mass slaughter that we’ve seen happen and these horrific human rights abuses… we just have to call out that kind of hypocrisy.

RT: You write about being stunned at how welcoming the German policemen were to Syrian refugees. It just doesn’t relate to the Australian response at all. How have you grappled with Australia’s response when you’ve seen the warzones that people are fleeing from?

SM: Oh it’s hugely painful. I just wish that they could meet them. I think that’s the problem. Too many Australians who are against resettling more refugees or expanding our refugee program – I just think the sad thing is that they’ve never met anyone like that. So they have this real unfounded fear of the “other” you know, but they might never have had a Muslim friend, so they just look at Syrian refugees and they feel fear, or they don’t understand who ISIS is, and they think Syrian refugees support ISIS, and they don’t understand that they’re the ones who have suffered at the hands of ISIS – things like that. Misinformation and fear; we see politicians daily use fear and it’s horrible. So I am often in despair when I see the way people refer to refugees because we all know we’d do absolutely everything for our families if we were in that situation we find it hard to imagine that situation. So I’m hoping that by telling a few of their stories in the book that it will help people realise that they’re just like us – they’re literally no different. And these people in the book, they’re as good friends to me as people I’ve known for years growing up in Perth or Sydney. Khaled the nurse, stuck in Madaya, the refugee, now lives in Perth and actually came around yesterday and dropped me off a washing machine! Which is a really long story, how Khaled from Madaya ended up in Perth dropping me off a washing machine, but you know, if you read the book you know sort of how that story ends up! So you know, the world is an amazing place, and it’s so small. So small! And I think that’s another lesson this terrible pandemic is teaching us.

RT: You have to have faith in people.

SM: Yeah absolutely.

SM: I know in these times, people are probably like “I don’t want to read that book, it’s depressing.” But I’m hoping that actually – I think it’s exactly what we need to read now, because people have endured these kinds of things for years, and they got through it. They all rose to the occasion and stood up and helped each other, and made sacrifices to achieve change and things like that so I’m just hoping that actually, this is the right time to read this book, and that we all emerge out of this stronger and more compassionate. We’ve got this little insight into what life can be like for millions of people around the world all the time.

RT: I hope so too. Thank you very much Sophie.

We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know can be bought online.