Rape is always an issue in war, but it has become a particular concern in Syria — not just as a “normal” war crime, but as a deliberate tactic to terrorize and subjugate combatants and civilians. In January, an International Rescue Committee report surveyed Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and identified rape “as the primary reason their families fled the country.” Not long after, Erika Feller, assistant high commissioner at the United Nations' refugee agency, asserted while addressing the Human Rights Council in Geneva that “Syria is increasingly marked by rape and sexual violence employed as a weapon of war [to destroy] identity, dignity, and the social fabrics of families and communities.”
Together, the I.R.C. report and Feller's remarks set off some controversy among human-rights workers and also in the media, which — thanks to mischaracterizations of the report as well as the efforts of some well-meaning but overzealous activists — have been filled with unverified reports of “mass rape” taking place in Syria. Unable to interview victims directly or cross over into Syria, some activists have used “crowd sourcing” and other means of unverified social media, such as YouTube videos, as a means of collecting data on rape.
Unfortunately, without solid information to back up charges, using terms such as “mass rape” or “systematic rape” (which happened in Bosnia and Rwanda, for instance, where orders to rape were given by higher-ups) is dangerous for everyone involved. The problem: while activists' claims have drawn needed attention to a deplorable conflict, imprecise charges of mass rape without documentation can distract aid workers and donors from other, possibly even more pressing human-rights crises. Charges that are eventually shown to be exaggerated can also set a dangerous precedent for future conflicts and could even hamper potential war-crimes tribunals.
“Sexual violence in Syria is not systematic — it's not like Rwanda,” said Dr. Zahra, a Syrian gynecologist working with refugee women in Antakya, Turkey, not far from the Syrian border, where nearly an estimated 10,000 Syrians are living, having fled their country. “But it is happening. It is happening every day.”
The truth, in other words, is bad enough. But getting accurate and reliable data on rape in Syria is, of course, extremely difficult, due to the chaos and danger of operating in a war zone. Cultural and religious beliefs are a further hindrance to accurate reporting. A woman's virginity is closely linked to the concept of honor — not just the victim's but also her family's. A recent U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on Syria cites five instances of women who committed suicide after being raped, so intense is the shame associated with the crime. “People just cannot talk about it,” said Dr. Zahra. As the C.O.I. report noted, “Chronic under-reporting has made judging the magnitude of this violation difficult.” That is likely true as well for male rape, which has been reported in prisons and detention centers.
In May 2012, I received a grant from The Nation Institute (affiliated with The Nation magazine) to begin researching torture and other human-rights abuses on both sides of the Syrian civil war. Over the past year, I have traveled inside the ravaged country multiple times, often working undercover and alone, or with a female interpreter, and I have spoken to a dozen or so men and women who had been incarcerated by the government and who told me that rape was always threatened if they did not cooperate with interrogators. One woman I spoke to told me she herself had been raped as part of her interrogation; others might well have been but were afraid to reveal it.
Because reporting from the Damascus side is so difficult — journalists and human-rights workers are largely banned from government-controlled areas — most of my interviews have been from the rebel side. It’s important to note that the victimizers are not always government troops but often members of the Shabiha, a brutal militia loyal to President Bashar al-Assad that has committed some of the war’s worst atrocities. Which is not to say the rebels are angels, by any means. When I have had the luck to get a government visa to report from the Damascus side, I've been told by Alawi and Christian women that they feared for their life and sexual honor at the hands of rebel soldiers. Women living in the countryside, in small villages and towns, seem the most perturbed by the threat of sexual violence, checkpoints being a particular focus of fear. But the rebels have their own detention centers, too, and human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented abuse in those facilities.
Like others, I can’t offer a definitive assessment of the problem, but I can bear witness to women’s stories. And as I learned, rape, or the threat of rape, has become a daily reality in Syria.
In Northern Syria, one young woman told me that she had been imprisoned by the government, and forced to watch the soldiers beating her mother.
“I did not care what they did to me,” she said. “But to see my mother suffering . . .” She said that the soldiers threatened to rape her mother, then told her mother they were going to rape the daughter. “This was the most terrible psychological pressure.”
A young woman in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which has been the site of some of the war's fiercest fighting and worst atrocities, said she was arrested by government troops for putting up revolutionary posters. She was partially stripped, blindfolded, and tied to a chair. “Then they said they would pass me from man to man.”
At a safe house in Turkey, near the Syrian border, I was introduced to a 25-year-old Sunni woman named Nada whose ordeal was especially horrific because of the length of her detention. “Eight months and three days,” she explained very slowly when I first met her in late spring. (I've changed her name here to protect her identity.) A member of a Syrian youth organization allied with rebel forces, she told me she had witnessed and been subjected to vast human-rights abuses, including repeated beatings, while imprisoned by the government. At one point she was hit in the face with such force that her orthodontia broke through her skin. I wondered how such a fragile-looking young woman could endure months of abuse. Her shoulders were the width of a child’s. Her waist was minuscule. Her head was covered with a lavender hijab, and she wore a thick sweater over her tight jeans, but you could see the thin outline of her almost adolescent body.
It requires extreme sensitivity to interview victims of rape and other sexual abuses and to verify their accounts. I have spent large amounts of time over two decades collecting information on rape during the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, often working in collaboration with human-rights organizations. There is a methodology to collecting data, but mainly one must rely on patience and repeat interviews to make sure details are correct and victims are not changing their stories, exaggerating, or lying. Years of experience working in war zones hones one’s intuition, and I would be shocked, given Nada's extreme reactions to telling her story, if she were lying, though I should note that I had no independent way to corroborate her account.
Nada's first days in detention were largely spent without sleep, she said, while she was relentlessly interrogated for names, for dates, for occasions where she had met others in her organization. She could hear the screams of fellow prisoners being beaten. She was continually threatened with sexual violence.
“They would say, 'Talk or we will strip you,'” she told me, covering her eyes, unable to look at me. Her interrogators brought her to a cell full of male prisoners in their underwear. Leering, the jailers told her that they would leave her alone with the prisoners “to take care of me.” To a conservative young Sunni woman, this was unthinkable. She began to scream for them to let her out of the jail.
“I thought I was being given to these men for them to rape me,” she said. “I think I screamed for three hours. They wanted to break me. Finally, I said, 'O.K., I will tell you the truth.'”
Whatever she told them wasn’t enough. For eight months Nada was held at various prisons and detention centers, a journey that finally ended in one of the most renowned torture centers in Damascus. When telling me of the degradations she experienced, she would not use the word “rape,” although a Syrian-American N.G.O. worker who had been caring for Nada whispered to me that she had been subject to sexual abuse and had “probably been raped” while there. “But she needs to rebuild her life, and you know what rape means in Syrian society,” the woman told me privately. “It means no one will marry her. So she cannot say it.”
At one point during a detailed interview that lasted hours, while Nada described being forced to watch a male prisoner being sodomized, she ran from the room and vomited. When she came back, she shook for several minutes and was silent. In appearance, she seemed to shift from a young girl to an old and debilitated woman.
“Do you know what it is like to hear a man cry?” she asked, then dropped her head in her hands.
She is not sure why she was finally set free. One day, the jailers just told her to gather her things and go. She stayed two weeks inside her country before fleeing for “outside.” She does not know when she can, or will, return to Syria and her family. The prospect of marriage and children seems distant if not impossible for her.
Inside Syria, on the road toward the destroyed and ravaged Aleppo, I met opposition soldiers who passed along accounts of women who had been raped in various villages by the Shabiha. The stories were always the same: the Shabiha came after the heavy fighting ended, cleared out the houses, stole what was left, beat the men, and, in some cases, raped the women. But most people would have fled by the time the Shabiha arrived — if they could get away.
Near Idlib province, where active battles were raging, civilians were fleeing the fighting. When I met refugees from there, they told me about the fear they had for their daughters and wives and their vulnerability to rape. Near a small Kurdish village between the Turkish border and Aleppo, I met a local woman who ran a safe house for “around eight” women who had been raped and had to leave their families because of the shame associated with the crime. Unfortunately, when I returned in hopes of speaking to some of the women, they had been moved elsewhere because of fierce local fighting.
“Rape is one way to clear out a village, a town,” said a lawyer in Aleppo who is working to document war crimes on both sides of the conflict and asked not to be identified. It takes courage to pursue such a task in Aleppo. The city is an apocalyptic place, with stinking piles of trash rotting in the wan sunlight, with children whose eyes are empty and haunted and whose hands reach toward you in hopes of money or food. The sound of bombs detonating is constant; people no longer cower with fear. Toys lie crushed under piles of rubble.
“Rape happens because we have no state now,” the lawyer told me. “We have no laws. There is violation from both sides. The government side is guilty because of the number of people in detention. And the opposition side has their own courts, and we are also hearing many cases of rape committed by the rebels.” He sighed deeply. “We have seen the beginning. But there is no end.”
In a second safe house in southern Turkey, another young Syrian woman met with me. Like Nada, she had also come out from a long period of detention by government forces. She had also been abused.
Sabeen (not her real name) is 37, a former teacher; she declined to offer any more possibly identifying details. She was dressed somberly in black trousers, a long black belted coat despite the heat, a head scarf, silver rings, and a watch. She was nervous and jittery. She shook when she talked.
Sabeen was arrested in February 2012, at the Damascus airport on her way to a women's conference in Egypt. She believes part of the reason she was singled out was because she comes from a political family sympathetic to the opposition. Her father was arrested before the revolution started and has since “disappeared.” She herself had been arrested several times before 2012 and questioned by Assad’s police but quickly released. “I always told them I was not a political person, that I work in civil society,” she said. This time was different.
She was taken to a state security prison in Damascus. She said that during her initial interrogation, which lasted hours, she was blindfolded.
The questioning exhausted her, but she hadn’t been physically abused and she had no intention of giving away any names. Then the interrogators changed their tactics, and their voices grew rougher. They began to hit her, and one wallop knocked her to the floor. While she was on the ground, they tied her hands together.
“That is where they . . . abused . . .” She stumbled over the word.
She said the men kept her on the floor. They partially removed her clothes. “They said they would do terrible things if I did not cooperate. . . ” Sabeen’s shoulders begin to shake. “They said 'rape' . . . then I was on the floor . . . then I felt something hard inside me . . .”
She paused, trembling. “They raped me,” she finally said. All the breath seemed to go out of her. “I think it took them less than half an hour. After they untied me and took off my blindfold, I found blood on my legs.”
She was released shortly after the rape; like Nada, she is not sure why.
“I think I was supposed to be a message to other women. You protest; we take your virginity, your honor,” she told me. “I think that’s why they raped me.”
Near the end of our interview, Sabeen began crying. She said she has been seeing a psychiatrist but that therapy has not helped her. She said her doctor had urged her to tell her fiancé the truth of what had happened to her, but then, when she did, he left her. She said she feels more than violated; she feels ruined.
“If I get engaged again,” she told me, “I will never tell him.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.