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In conversation with Sophie McNeill

16 Apr 2020

In March, award-winning journalist and ABC’s former foreign correspondent in the Middle East Sophie McNeill, launched her first book, ‘We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know’. The book details the stories of people Sophie met along the way – including young patients she met at the MSF Reconstructive Surgery Hospital in Amann.  


Sophie sat down with Jennifer Tierney, Executive Director of MSF Australia, to talk about the book and why she has nominated MSF to receive a donation for every book sold in Australia. 


Jennifer Tierney: The title of your first book is ‘We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know: Dispatches from an age of impunity’. What do you mean by ‘an age of impunity’?

Sophie McNeill: I think when I look back on the last few years that I have covered the Middle East, particularly the last decade there, I think you could say that the rulebook has been thrown out the window. I think there has been an unprecedented number of attacks on hospitals and on humanitarian workers, aid convoys. I think there's a pattern and not often, in many of these cases has been held accountable. And I fear that that’s what we have created by looking away at the war crimes that have occurred throughout the region, some more well-known than others. We don’t hear as much about places like Yemen.

There's been so much horror that has gone on in Gaza, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, in the last few years so that’s really what the book is about – trying to track what’s happened, why and how, and then ask, ‘is this the kind of world we want to live in?’

Jennifer Tierney: I read the book and it’s told through stories. Pretty much the people you met along the way. Can you tell us about one person who really struck you that you included in the book?

Sophie McNeill: I had to include the story of Khaled; an amazing nurse who was actually working in an MSF-supported facility. He was the only qualified medical practitioner in a town of 30,000 people. He was witness to the horrific use of siege tactics in Syria and his evidence that he collected, his bravery in getting this story out to the world, about how food was being used as a weapon of war in Syria, was just amazing to see how much difference this one individual made through his bravery and his courage. The book is full of courageous, brave people, but Khaled is amazing for what he did, and how much he sacrificed to stand up for what he thought is right and to help his fellow people. He's just one of the many amazing people I had the privilege of getting to know over the years. 

Jennifer Tierney: You mention courage and you talk about having courage over hope. What do you mean by that?

Sophie McNeill: I think that it's very easy to talk about hope for change, or we can dream of a better world, but I want to know, what are you going to do? I want concrete results. I want action and so my book is a call to arms to ask people, ‘What are you going to do?’ Because we can’t say we didn’t know, we’ve run out of excuses, it’s all there, we know exactly what's going on, and what are we going to do to make this world a better place? 

So I do think that we can take a lot of lessons from people in the book, the Middle East is full of incredible brave individuals who really stood up, and made incredible sacrifices to help their communities, to help their country and their fellow citizens so I think that we can learn a lot from them.

Jennifer Tierney: There are a lot of worthy organisations working in the Middle East, you chose to give a portion of proceeds of this book to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, ourselves, we are incredibly grateful. Why did you choose us?

Sophie McNeill: I think when you read the book, you’ll see that MSF just pops up. I'm three hours north of Sana’a in Yemen, and I’m filming people displaced from the bombing up north and there’s an MSF tent, you know, weighing babies. Or I'm at the main hospital in Sana’a and there’s a little boy who – his cousin was killed by a cluster bomb and this young boy, Murad his name was, he still had some of the cluster bomb embedded in his skull, and the family couldn’t afford to pay for the operation so MSF did.  The doctors that I worked with in Aleppo who were caught between – you know no one had the best interests of civilians at heart in that conflict and they were under a barrage of Russian and Syrian government airstrikes and they never left their patients and they received so much support from MSF over the years. I spent a lot of time reporting in Gaza and I’ve seen the work that MSF has done there so I think that MSF just keeps popping up wherever I was, doing amazing things and I saw with my own eyes how many lives they saved, how many individual’s lives they changed for the better and saved, and so it was always a privilege to work with them on the ground, so it was a privilege to hopefully help a little bit if the books sells!