A Syrian woman looks over Damascus
AMMAN — It is the most dreadfully silent crime currently perpetrated in Syria. A mass crime, carried out by the regime in the most barbaric ways that relies on the most deep-rooted taboos of traditional Syrian society — and on the silence of the victims, convinced they will be rejected by their own family, or even sentenced to death.
United Nations investigators and numerous NGOs say because of the silence they have failed to adequately document the widespread accounts of systematic rape since the outbreak of the uprising in Syria.
Mentions of the crime were utterly absent from the Geneva talks, even though activists believe there have been tens of thousands of victims. Yes, rape has been Bashar al-Assad’s secret weapon of war for the past three years.
Alma (all the names of victims have been changed), is lying, scrawny, on a hospital bed in the heart of Amman. She will never walk again, her spine has been shattered by blows inflicted by a militiaman of the regime with the butt of his rifle. In the first months of the revolution, this 27-year-old mother of four, a graduate in management, started working with the rebellion. First, she brought over food and medicine. Then, she carried ammunition in a knotted package on her stomach, pretending to be pregnant.
“You wanted freedom?”
One day, she was arrested at a checkpoint in the suburbs of Damascus. She spent 38 days in a detention center of the air force intelligence services, with around 100 other women.
“Compared to this, Abu Ghraib must have been paradise,” she says with a faint smile, alluding to the American prison in Iraq. “I’ve been through everything! I’ve been battered, flogged with steel cables, had cigarette butts in the neck, razor blades all over my body, electricity in my vagina. I’ve been raped while blindfolded every day by several men who stank of alcohol and obeyed their superior’s orders, who was always there. They shouted: “You wanted freedom? Well here it is!”
Many of the women, she explains, in addition to their pain, thought their families might kill them if they found out what had happened to them. Her determination to enroll in the Free Syrian Army became only stronger. When she was released, she became one of the rare women to lead a battalion, at the head of 20 men, before being seriously injured and evacuated by her fellow rebels.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have flowed into Jordan, and this is where, thanks to doctors, lawyers, psychologists, we managed to gather and cross-reference a large number of testimonies, as well as meet several victims, face-to-face.
“Affect the fathers, brothers and husbands”
Burhan Ghalioun, the former president of the Syrian National Council and prominent member of the opposition, said international attention should be focused on the mass rape carried out by the regime. “This is this weapon that made our revolution, which aimed to be peaceful, turn so violent.”
As early as spring 2011, he says, campaigns of rape by militias were organized inside homes, while families were still there. Daughters were raped in front of their fathers, wives in front of their husbands. Men became crazy with anger and yelled that they would defend themselves and avenge their honor. “I used to think we had to do everything we could to avoid getting into a militarized phase, and that arming the revolution would multiply the number of dead by 100,” Ghalioun said. “But the use of rape decided otherwise. And I think Assad wanted it this way. Once the revolutionaries were armed, he could easily justify the massacres of those he already called ‘terrorists’.”
This theory is hard to prove. But what is established is that sexual violence has risen, thus contributing to the climate of terror. “Women are used as means to affect the fathers, brothers and husbands,” says the writer Samar Yazbek, who has taken refuge in France. “Their bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers. The silence of the international community on this tragedy seems deafening to me.”
Several international organizations have reported rapes committed by the regime — Amnesty International, the International Rescue Committee, the International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch. But all of them also mention the extreme difficulty of obtaining direct testimonies, the obstinate silence of the victims, the fear of honor crimes committed against raped women and the anxiety born from the generalized perception that a woman who has been arrested has necessarily been raped.
A particularly well-documented report, published in November by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, confirms the extent of the tragedy and points out the urgency of investigating these war crimes — which, if their premeditation is proven, could be qualified as crimes against humanity.
“The regime has made women their first target,” Sema Nassar, the main author of the report, says, speaking via Skype. “They are aimed at, as such, by snipers, especially pregnant women. They serve as human shields, like in the Ashria neighborhood, in Homs, in Feb. 2012, when the army forced women to walk in front of the troops, or even made them board tanks during patrols. They are also subject to kidnappings for ransoms or exchanges. Systematically raping them, whether they are 9 or 60 years old, is a way to destroy the entire social fabric over the long term.”
Gang raped in front of a camera
Yes, she does have stories to tell, says Sema Nassar. Specific cases, with dates. Dozens of them. Like this young girl from Hama, currently a refugee in the United States, who was at home with her three brothers when soldiers burst in and told the three men to rape their sister. The first refused; they decapitated him. The second refused; he suffered the same fate. The third accepted; they killed him on the girl, whom they then raped.
Or, there is the story that another Syrian woman has recounted, of being brought to a house in the suburbs of Homs in the summer of 2012, along with around 20 other women. They were tortured and gang raped in front of a camera. The videotape was then sent to her uncle, a prominent sheik, television preacher and member of the opposition.
“This practice is very frequent during raids on villages and systematic in secret service detention centers,” the head of the Syrian League for Human Rights Abdel Karim Rihaoui told Le Monde. Currently living in Cairo, he estimates that over 50,000 women have been raped in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons since the beginning of the revolution.
In the Syrian refugee camp of Zaatari, 80 kilometers away from Amman, we met Salma, who looked like she was physically exhausted, with no life in her eyes. She was born in Daraa some 50 years ago but lived in Damascus with her husband and eight children. In 2011, she was stunned to learn that, in retaliation for the uprising of her hometown, her children had been expelled from their school, in the capital. “In what name are you punishing my little ones? They have nothing to do with these events!,” she complained to the school principal.
She had not even finished her sentence when the secret services burst in. They put a bag on her head and led her to the basement of a detention center, where she was thrown into a pitch black cell full of rats. She spent two days in solitary confinement, with no food or water, before joining two other women in a tiny cell where she spent six months. “We couldn’t lie down. We weren’t allowed to wash ourselves, even during our periods. We were raped every day, as they chanted: “We Alawites will destroy you.” A single sign of protest and we had electric prods in the vagina or anus. They beat me so much that they broke my leg. It turned black. My family didn’t hear about me for six months. As I can’t read or write, I signed any confession with my index finger.” When she was released, her husband had disappeared with their car.
Oum Mohamed, 45, was arrested in the street with her daughter on Sept. 21, 2012, and brought to the Mezzeh military airport. Because the student’s cellphone displayed the flag of the resistance and the photo of a “martyr,” the two women were imprisoned for 20 days during which they were beaten, raped, locked up in a cell measuring four square meters with 17 other women and several children. One woman, the wife of a member of the Free Syrian Army suspected of having been part of the kidnapping of 48 Iranians in a bus in August 2012, was there with her children aged 8 and 9. The husband of another, a prison director who was punished for opposing outrageous torture, was held one floor below, in such a way that he could hear the cries of his wife while she was raped. “Everything was seen as an opportunity for sexual abuse,” she said, as tears filled her eyes. She fears the future of her daughter, who lost almost 45 pounds, is jeopardized for good.
Doctors have described “ravaged” vaginas, martyred bodies, “incurable” traumas. And so the next question: Were these barbaric initiatives carried out by lone groups of mercenaries left to their own devices, or part of a thought-out strategy, deployed by a hierarchy under orders?
The head of the Syrian League for Human Rights Abdel Karim Rihaoui has no doubt: “It is a political choice made to crush the people. Technique, sadism, perversity: Everything is meticulously organized. It is not a coincidence. The testimonies are similar and some rapists have admitted themselves to have acted on orders.”
Lawyers we reached in Syria share this opinion, despite the difficulty of gathering evidence. “I have photos of [sexual] stimulant boxes that the militiamen pack before leaving for a raid in a village,” Sema Nassar says. Several testimonies also reported the use of paralyzing products injected in the thighs of the women before they were raped.
Worse than death
One of the victims, Amal, explains that, in a Damascus detention center, a doctor — nicknamed “Dr. Cetamol” — went around the cells to note the dates of every woman’s periods, and hand out birth control pills. “We lived in filth, in blood, in shit, with no water and barely any food. But we had such an obsessive fear of becoming pregnant that we took these pills scrupulously. Once, when my period was late, the doctor gave me pills that gave me stomach pains all night.” Experts says this is crucial testimony in order to establish the premeditation of rapes in detention.
But babies have been born from these gang rapes, leading to series of tragedies. In Latakia, a young woman committed suicide because she was not able to abort. Another was thrown off the first floor balcony by her father. Newborn babies have been found at dawn in back alleys in Daraa.
“How can we help these women?”, asks Alia Mansour, a member of the Syrian National Coalition. “They are so scared when they are released from detention that they shut themselves away in their despair, without being able to ask for help.”
In Homs, Syrian poet Lina Tibi tells us about a woman who has managed to organize, in one week and in great secrecy, 50 hymenoplasty procedures on girls aged from 13 to 16 who were raped. “It was the only way to save their lives.”
But families are disintegrating. Husbands are turning away and divorcing. In Homs, the family-in-law of a woman who had not even been released from prison yet gathered her belongings to throw her out of the house. Parents are rushing their daughters to marry the first man who agrees.
“The world is preoccupied with the chemical weapons, but, for us, Syrian women, rape is worse than death,” whispers a law student, in tears. She has not told anyone about her tragedy yet. Especially not her husband.