Sexual violence is being used by almost all the warring factions in the Syrian conflict. When victims are forced to suffer in silence, documenting instances of rape is nearly impossible.
BEIRUT — Rahaf feared going home. Her clothes had been torn, making visible the painful red welts that would turn into eggplant-colored bruises. On her arms and legs, her family and fiance would be able to see the round burn marks where they put out cigarettes on her skin.
When the 19-year-old left her home in the Damascus suburbs earlier that day, she was on her way to school to take her final exam of senior year. That's when a group of men Rahaf says were affiliated with pro-Syrian regime militias attacked her. Her wedding was to be in just a few days.
"A car filled with thugs working for the Syrian regime pulled over. They dragged me into their car, hit me and stubbed out their cigarette butts on my skin," she told Syria Deeply, using a pseudonym because she feared her community's reaction. "They took me to the Mazzeh military airport where they raped me, and they left me on the street."
Syrian society does not offer a safe setting for these stories to become public, but rather normalizes rape and often blames the victim through a culture built on honor and shame. Survivors are often marginalized or encouraged to hide and reshape their past. This makes it all the more dangerous to speak out about abuses, and the result is twofold: sexual violence has become a devastatingly common and effective tactic of repression and fear in Syria, and documenting incidents has become extremely challenging.
"There are no accurate statistics on the number of women who have been victims of war, especially those who have been raped," said Dr. Sabah Halaq, a researcher of women's issues in Syria. "But I have dealt with and still deal with cases from Darya in Rif Dimashq, and Hawla, and Karm al-Zaitoun in Homs," she added.
For many women like Rahaf, the impact of sexual assault lives on long after the crime was committed and permeates nearly every facet of a woman's life. But between the stigma attached to victims and the taboo of discussing the crime, Syrian women who have been sexually assaulted must suffer in silence.
"Whether women were jailed and assaulted or raped for political reasons such as their activities and their involvement in the revolution, whether they were detained to denounce family members and friends, whether they were jailed for different reasons, being put in such situations means the end of ‘normal life" ever after," said Aya Mehanna, a psychotherapist who has worked with many Syrians in neighboring countries over the past few years.
When Rahaf's fiance saw her, he stormed out, enraged, without telling her where he was going. "That night I heard an explosion. The next morning, I learned that my fiance had blown up the security police's car," she said.
A Weapon With Widespread Consequences
For many parties fighting in Syria, rape has become an additional weapon used to achieve their military or political goals.
"For all of the women I have worked with, a before and after exists and is undeniably what shapes their new identity," Mehanna said. "Some of them have been accepted by their family but feel there is always a stigma on them, a sense of shame in the eyes of their close ones."
Some victims are not accepted by their families, particularly women from conservative or traditional backgrounds. Some view it as a loss of her honor, something that can follow her for the rest of her life.
After she was raped, Rahaf never finished school. She moved to Lebanon, and her fiance left for opposition-controlled Idlib. Though he refuses to break off their engagement, he also has not agreed to set a new date for their wedding.
"The trauma of the rape is present, heavy and is lived in a very lonely way. It is difficult to talk about. It is difficult to accept it, and the victimization that society used as a means to make it feel less harsh is in itself difficult to bear," Mehanna said.
"I can still remember the smell, and the sounds of tortured prisoners … it was in that hallway that I was raped several times."
Not only does it destroy people, but it also inflames tensions between communities, according to independent journalist Marie Forestier, who collected testimonies from survivors of rape, former detainees in government prisons, doctors, lawyers and regime defectors in her report, "Rape as a Tactic of the Assad Regime."
The most documented instances of rape during the conflict in Syria have been those committed by pro-regime forces, though they are not the only perpetrators. Like barrel bombs, chemical weapons and mass executions, rape has been used to quell the opposition. One of the most vivid examples took place in 2012, during the al-Houla massacre in Homs, when stories emerged of the Syrian army raping women as they invaded houses to arrest men.
Most occurred during offensives in opposition strongholds or during interrogations in prisons and at checkpoints, where "raping detainees was a way of terrorizing them and punishing them," Forestier said.
In some detention centers, according to her report, guards even distributed contraceptive pills to detainees. "Contraceptive pills are not something that you expect to be necessary or available in detention," she said. "These are elements that indicate that rapes from pro-regime forces have been systematic in Syria."
All the survivors Forestier talked to were either activists, relatives of activists, opposition fighters or residents of opposition areas. As a result, according to Forestier, women who had links with the opposition – or who were suspected to be linked to them – were intended targets.
Pressure to abuse detainees was one of the reasons Ahmed defected from the army in 2012. "When I decided to leave the Syrian army, I had one thought in mind: I will never be that person, that evil officer who will beat and rape any human, guilty or not," he told Syria Deeply.
But many other regime officers did not share the same view, particularly when they were losing.
"The issue is never a mere feminine submission to male chauvinism; the more men are oppressed, the more they practice oppression on women," Dr. Ahmad al-Shikhani wrote in "Survived Women in the Syrian Society," a research booklet based on testimonies of women who were raped and abused in the Syrian regime's prisons.
Just before pro-regime forces left the northwestern city of Idlib in February 2013, ceding control to the opposition, the Syrian army arrested 31-year-old Iman, because of accusations that her brothers joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA). She had just graduated from the institute of computer science in Idlib when she was detained for nearly five months, moved between the Political Security branch in Idlib, the military police and a civil women's prison, she told Syria Deeply.
"It was hell by all means. I was left lying on the floor in a hallway, right next to the bathroom," she added. "I can still remember the smell, and the sounds of tortured prisoners … it was in that hallway that I was raped several times."
Iman suffered from a physical disability, and had endured many surgeries. Using this, she tried to talk her way out of prison many times. "I would sometimes scream and beg them to stop beating me on my legs, but they did that on purpose."
Torture and abuse is rampant in regime-run prisons for detainees of both genders. But for women who are raped while detained, the nightmare does not end when they are released.
"While male detainees are hailed as heroes when released, female detainees are forced to suffer yet another dilemma," Shikhani said.
Iman is one of the few who continued activism work after her release from jail. She found a job at a local NGO supporting social issues, specifically women in times of war and distress.
But testimonies in Forestier's report show that many survivors left the country. This has been part of a successful strategy of the regime: scores of activists who were detained left Syria after their release. Many women who fled Syria cited fear of rape as their primary reason. It emptied the country of the people active in the early stage of the revolution.
Some have also tried to end their lives. Others decide to move on either by using a new identity, changing countries and engaging in human rights activism or in domains unrelated to politics.
Many women who fled Syria cited fear of rape as their primary reason. It emptied the country of the people active in the early stage of the revolution.
Documenting cases of rape in opposition-controlled territory is nearly impossible, though there have been unverified reports over the last six years. In a June 2013 OHCHR report, interviewees described women being "segregated during house searches in Aleppo city, in joint operations by anti-government armed groups, with an implication of possible sexual violence." Another interviewee in the same report said she had been sexually assaulted in Yarmouk in April 2013.
Noura Jizawi, a former detainee and human rights activist working on the Start point project, publisher of the "Alma" report, explains how no one was able to verify and confirm rapes on the opposition's side: "It was almost impossible to track down. We heard stories about some violations practiced by Al-Islam army and a few others, but nothing is verified."
Asaad Hanna, a former FSA political officer, said it is difficult to document or identify rapes in opposition or al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) areas, partially because such acts would contribute to them losing respect and support from the local population.
"HTS members are occupying their own areas where they were either born or raised. It's their own society and entourage, they are very familiar with it and with the people's values. Basically, they are controlling areas in which their families and friends live," Hanna said.
Hanna said that since both ISIS and the Syrian regime announced control of territory and gained popular support, they practiced their own strategies of war, including rape. "HTS was still gathering support and did not announce its "empire" yet. This is an important difference between HTS and ISIS. HTS is interested in civilians' support, and committing rape will not serve what they are trying to advertise."
However, according to Samira, a media activist residing in northern Syria, the values shared by many groups in control of opposition areas blur the line of what constitutes sexual violence. Prostitution, for example, exists in northern Syria, despite it defying "the norms and values of these area." She added that this cannot be compared to rape, as it is considered consensual.
Samira said she has met several women in prison in Idlib accused of prostitution.
The Cost of Silence
The shame and stigma associated with sexual violence have left very little room for victims to seek support.
"Some women saw a doctor, but long-term treatment is inaccessible most of the time. Psychosocial support is very rare. What's more, most women don't dare ask for treatment, so they keep their pain quiet," Forestier said.
When asked about organizations tackling this issue, Mehanna elaborated: "Local NGOs … do not have the capacity to work long term with these women who need a long-term follow-up or therapies."
However, according to Mehanna, many initiatives are offered but are related to protection and awareness of sexual abuse. "Many women feel that such initiatives are impersonal and do not really tackle their needs."
The problem with current options for support is that they feed into the the existing stigmas, according to former detainee Jizawi. "Some people think that the right way to support a woman who was raped in detention is by offering her money; others think that finding her a husband will protect her honor," she said.
Her organization provides psychosocial support, capacity building and tracks both displacement and demographic changes. In 2015, it supported 60 victims.
"We still have a very long way to go," she said.
While human rights organizations have collected numbers and figures of rape practiced by the Syrian regime, decision-makers have focused on ISIS crimes. Countering terrorism "tops the agenda nowadays," according to Forestier.
"Remember, sexual violence is an effective tool in wars because it manages to destroy people while not costing anything," said Forestier. "Rape is also a silent weapon. Few survivors speak out about it. Eventually, most of the times, impunity has prevailed for perpetrators. That's why accountability is essential to fight the use of rape as a weapon in conflicts."
However, the kidnapping and rape of the Yazidis was widely publicized, and many Yazidi survivors of sexual violence told their stories publicly afterward, in order to cast ISIS in the worst possible light. This was a major difference from the plight of former Syrian female detainees.
As the regime appears likely to stay in place for now, it would complicate negotiations to point at the crimes that it has committed. Forestier agrees.
To speak and share stories will still be a challenge for survivors, but it's possible if they see a tangible benefit afterward. Promising them justice in times of war is neither fair nor enough, but offering them the needed support and protection, from local to larger scales, could encourage more to speak out, ensuring more testimonies to proceed with justice mechanisms that are to address sexual crimes committed by all sides.
Marie Forestier is a strong believer that the stigma attached to sexual crimes in Syria deters women from speaking. "A change of mentality would be necessary so that women could speak," she said. And it is never too late to speak.