SYRIA: Syrian Women Who Fled to Jordan Tell of Horrific Rapes Back Home

Monday, April 8, 2013
The Star
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Human Rights

The cell was small with iron bars across the door. Three women, all naked, were chained to each corner. Nour was stripped, taken to the fourth, and handcuffed to the wall.

Every day, for more than 60 days, Nour says she and the other prisoners were raped in one of Syria's most notorious detention centres. Some of her attackers at the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence in Damascus were in uniform, others in civilian clothes.

“They had visitors in the prison playing cards and they said in front of us, ‘if you want sex, there are girls here,' ” she says. Two girls died in the cell, she says.

Nour, which is not her real name, wrings her small white hands constantly as she speaks, the only sign of distress as she recalls with precision and composure the assaults she suffered between December 2011 and February 2012. When her body was being violated she emptied her mind, she says. Her body no longer belonged to her but she could try to protect her soul.

“This war has taken me from one world to another life,” she says. “We have a saying that the wheel of life turns. But the wheel turned over on me. I used to have a normal life.”

Her so-called crime was to take photographs of protesters in Homs one afternoon in November 2011, naively indulging a hobby that the authorities said demonstrated support for the uprising.

International human rights groups are alarmed at the consistent reports of rape from refugees flooding into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Sexual violence is increasingly a “weapon of war” in Syria and perpetrated “by all sides,” senior UN official Erika Feller told the world body's Human Rights Council in Geneva in February. The charity International Rescue Committee recently warned in a report that rape, or the fear of it, was the main reason why families were fleeing the country.

However, the full scope of sexual violence is not clear; whether it is a systematic policy of President Bashar Assad's regime or by the rebels to punish pro-government supporters.

Few women and girls are speaking out. In Jordan, nearly every Syrian refugee has a story about rape the vast majority at the hands of the regime. Stories that begin with the refrain ‘I heard' are common. ‘I heard' that girls are being dragged off the street by the pro-regime shabiha thugs, drugged and raped. ‘I heard' they are raping girls in prison cutting up their bodies and sending them back to their families. It is difficult to know how many are talking about their own experiences but refusing to admit it.

Several factors may be conspiring to keep them silent. Victims have no hope of getting justice, there is little medical help available and the risk of being cast out or even killed to protect the family's honour is high. Nour is telling her story because she has nothing to lose. Her husband took their young son to Bahrain. She is literally dead to her family.

“My family issued a death certificate for me. One of my brothers did it,” she says.

“A woman should be pure like glass when she marries,” Maram says. Maram, 42, grew up in Damascus and has lived in Jordan for nearly 30 years.

The sanctity of a home in Arab culture is paramount to the extent that it is taboo for a strange man to enter a room where there are women he is not related to.

In the women's quarters of Maram's sister-in-law's house in Amman, the women chat freely while she explains the shame rape brings upon women. Even here, away from the gaze and out of the earshot of men, Maram cannot bring herself to say the word ‘rape.'

“It is too much of a bad thing, the worst that can happen to a woman,” she says. “People say if she could not defend herself she wanted this to happen.”

Maram is part of a small, informal network of middle-class Syrian housewives married to businessmen long settled in Jordan, trying to comfort their distressed countrywomen by referring them to doctors or giving them food.

One of the refugees she helped is Huda, a mother of five girls who says she witnessed a terrifying scene of mass rape which forced her to run from her home in Homs with her daughters.

“I have not lied, not one word,” she begins. “They are burned in my heart.”

In the first week of March 2012, she cannot remember the precise day, her home in the Bab al Sabaa neighbourhood was hit by a missile and looted. She ran out of the house with her children and they took cover from snipers. On Adawiya St., a column of 10 to 15 women were walking in front of government tanks marked with Bashar Assad's name, she says.

“They (soldiers) raped them in front of the tanks. They made the women walk in front of the tanks first to use them as shields,” she says. “They passed a resistance area and then stripped them and raped them and killed them.”

Huda and three of her daughters escaped through a series of destroyed houses.

“We walked through the houses, through broken walls, broken doors, and gardens. The resistance army helped us,” she says. “The girls being raped were screaming ‘God, we have nobody but you.' No one could help them.”

Eventually, Huda's family reached Damascus, then Jordan.

It is difficult to independently verify her account because access to Syria is restricted. However, in early March 2012, Homs, a major battleground in the war, was under heavy siege as pro- and anti-government forces fought for control of the city.

Huda has not reported the attacks to anyone. She still has two daughters stranded in Homs city and is scared about what might happen to them if she tells anyone what she saw.

Besides, she adds, “Who can help them?”

There is virtually no hope of any international intervention in bringing the attackers to justice partly because the UN Security Council has so far refused to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Nour doesn't believe she will ever see her torturers in prison, no matter the pain those guards inflicted on her and the other girls.

Sometimes the guards used rats as a rape instrument, she says. “They would bring a rat tied with a string and put it, well, you know where,” Nour says. “They did this to me too. One of the girls they did it to bled so badly she died.”

The prison guards hound her still. She moves every few months because the man who ran the Damascus detention centre found out her address in Amman and has sent men to threaten her. He was not pleased that one of the guards helped free her in February 2012 when all the others were ordered to quell a demonstration elsewhere in Damascus, she says. The guard who helped her escape must have felt remorse because he was also one of her rapists.

“He said on the drive, ‘I was forced to do this. I did not want to,' ” she says.

“I stayed in his house in Deraa for three days with his wife and mother,” she says, referring to the Syrian town close to Jordan's border. “A Bedouin family smuggled me to Jordan.”

Humanitarian agencies are overwhelmed, struggling to provide even the basics of life to the 470,000 Syrians who have crossed the border since the war began in March 2011. Zaatari, the largest refugee camp, is at risk of running out of water. UNICEF may stop its vaccination program. The UN's refugee agency constantly pleads for more help from the international community but less than 25 per cent of the $1.5 billion (U.S.) pledged last year at a donors conference has arrived.

Dr. Mohamed Abo Hilal, a Damascus psychiatrist who fled to Amman after being detained by Syrian authorities and tortured last year, treats 200 patients in two clinics he runs with a team of counsellors. Their traumas are severe but none has admitted personal experiences of rape, he says, although plenty say their neighbours or friends experienced sexual violence.

“We think the regime, when they arrest women and put them in jail, the rapes happen in jail. But I do not think it is systematic like in Bosnia,” he says, referring to the rape camps of the Balkan wars in the 1990s. He believes sexual assaults are concentrated in mixed sectarian areas such as Homs where it is easy for opposition groups or the regime to demonize the other side.

“But there is no real documentation so we do not know for certain,” he adds.

Abo Hilal's wife, Dr. Hala al Ghawi, a surgeon, treats patients at the Zaatari camp and says two women told her they had been raped but later recanted. One told her that she had been gang-raped by soldiers who forced their way inside her house as her husband was taking part in demonstrations in Homs.

“She was very emotional and crying to me,” says al Ghawi. “But the next day, she said it did not happen. She was scared if her husband or brothers found out her husband would divorce her and her brothers would kill her after the divorce.”

The women who are trying to help rape victims are also at risk.

Maimona Sayed, a Syrian citizen, opened a small shelter where she has helped 15 women, including Nour, receive medical treatment and counselling. Her network of friends and relatives in Syria sent the victims to her.

Sayed, 44, whose husband taught judo to the bodyguards of Jordan's King Abdullah, received death threats after images of the outside of the shelter were broadcast on a major Arab satellite channel. Her son now drives her to every appointment. But she is not afraid, she says.

“I am playing a role in freeing my country,” she says. Sayed raises money by sewing dresses in the colours of the Syrian flag, or stringing misbaha prayer beads and auctioning them at charity events in Saudi Arabia. In a spare room of her house, bolts of cloth are stacked against the wall.

Sayed estimates at least 4,000 women and girls have been raped by government forces, based on figures from her contacts with anti-regime activists across Syria. If a girl is detained at a government jail her family automatically assumes she was raped and that assumption puts her life in danger.

“Unfortunately, there is a lot of ignorance. But there are a lot of these families in Syria where, after the daughters are released from prison, they are killed immediately or forced to commit suicide,” she says. Sometimes the victims are pressured by fathers or brothers to get married quickly to rehabilitate their reputations, she adds.

“They marry to cover their shame but it is wrong,” she says. “I know two cases of women who got married but then divorced because they could not accept a man anymore.”

The unmarried victims are more anxious to have hymen reconstruction surgery to restore their virginal status than psychological treatment, she says. A single girl who is not a virgin will never have offers of marriage.

Sayed gently coaxes the victims to confide in her, sometimes giving them religious books to read for strength or a notepad with a lock to write down their feelings. One young woman she is currently trying to reach was a university student in Homs who was held hostage with her parents for a month.

“She was taken away from her parents daily for questioning by one man,” she says. “The mother of the girl is understanding and says if her daughter was raped she will not be ashamed.”

Hiba's family lives in a small apartment in an eastern suburb marked by dusty olive trees. Selwa, her mother, warmly greets Sayed at the door. Hiba, hovers behind. She has long brown hair and wears bright red lipstick.

Selwa says in January 2012 eight shabiha kidnapped them from their home and took them to a nearby street and kept them for 24 days. One of Selwa's relatives was in the Farouk brigade, a rebel group. They were held hostage in exchange for a shabiha fighter being held by the rebels.

“They put us in a dark room with no electricity,” she says. “Abu Ali whose brother had been kidnapped used to take Hiba to another room and threaten her.”

Hiba casts her eyes down. Both women say they never saw any sexual violence. After nearly a month, the prisoners were exchanged and Hiba's family escaped to Jordan.

After a few minutes, Hiba says she has some happy news to share.

“I am getting married at the end of the month,” she says. Sayed expresses her surprise and happiness.

“He is Syrian and he knows our whole story,” Hiba adds.

After the visit ends, Sayed stands in front of her car, hesitantly looking back at the house. It is Hiba's time as a hostage not her impending nuptials that are on her mind.

“I've approached Hiba several times but she says she was not assaulted, but I am sure she was,” she says.

At least Hiba has her family to protect her, she adds.

Nour, after escaping from Damascus, now lives with three young orphaned girls and their aunt. The charitable Jordanian landlady allows them to pay the rent late. Her medical treatment was paid for by Jordanian and Saudi benefactors who offered to marry her but she refused.

“I am destroyed inside,” she says. “I will never marry again.”

But a single woman living alone is an object of scorn, she admits. Sometimes she knocks on her neighbours' doors to ask for help but they do not answer.

“When I was in prison with the other women we dreamed that we would leave and go back to our houses and be understood and sympathized with,” she says. “But when I see how I have been treated I wish I had died in that prison.”