In the northern city of Raqqa, the condemned — some civilians, some soldiers, shabiha or alleged Assad collaborators — are brought blindfolded and handcuffed to the city square to be shot in the head in public. Once celebrated as one of Syria’s first fully liberated cities, Raqqa, now under the control of the al-Qaida backed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has become infamous for brutal public executions and other fear tactics carried out by extremists.
The executions are carried out swiftly and without legal counsel. Asyad al-Mousa, a 34-year-old lawyer, is dedicated to documenting the mounting number of war crimes committed in his city by both the regime and the rebels. “When I collect the proof,” he says, “I feel as though I have done something to protect those people’s human rights.”
Asyad and fellow legal activists protested an execution ordered by secret courts four months ago. “We made a camp in the square where they were executed and we wrote on a banner, ‘Here is the light of freedom and you will not take it,’” he says. Although the three-day protest was too late to save the condemned, there were no more public executions until last month, when 17 people were killed in the city and the surrounding villages.
Asyad and other lawyers in Raqqa oppose the death squads’ practice of denying the accused their rights. He says he visited a group of condemned regime soldiers who had been imprisoned by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and who were later kidnapped by ISIL. “Their conditions were good,” he says. “I managed to connect them to their parents to let their parents know they were OK.” According to Asyad, the FSA were trying to arrange a prisoner exchange before ISIL kidnapped them. ISIL then kidnapped the prisoners.
But not all public executions weigh on Asyad. “It depends,” he says. “I am not happy, but some of them deserve it. Once I saw the corpse of the man who had tortured me under the regime. He deserved it and I didn’t feel bad.”
Asyad says the worst human rights abuses are taking place in the prisons run by Raqqa’s armed militias. Gaining access to these prisons is virtually impossible and he has to rely on the testimony of the few that leave alive to fill his records. “They testify secretly because they are very scared,” he says. “They talk about torture worse than what the regime commits, especially by ISIL.”
Survivors of ISIL prisons talk of “The Scorpion.” With his hands tied diagonally behind his back, the prisoner is left for hours in a squeeze box measuring 60 cm by 40 cm, with a bolted iron door. “If they forget him, it’s too bad for him,” Asyad says. “This is not to mention the beatings.”
Asyad and his colleagues also struggle to document the war crimes that could one day be used to charge Bashar al-Assad’s regime with crimes against humanity.
Footage and proof
On Sept. 29, he was 500 meters away when he says government planes struck a Raqqa high school. “When I arrived I saw about 30 people in pieces,” he says. “We removed the body parts and took the survivors to hospital.”
Asyad and his team cover all bases when they gather evidence. At the scene, he interviewed survivors who said the plane had fired two rockets as children arrived at school at 8 a.m. He returned to the school later that day to document witness statements by video and to gather footage of the attack itself.
He was not as lucky collecting rocket fragments; the local children had taken them to use as toys.
The original video of the attack, collected by the lawyer, could be used as evidence should the regime be tried for war crimes. He says YouTube uploads mean little in a court of law. “I thought the video alone would be enough, but now I know I have to keep this video card safe. I will guard it with my life.”
Once he’d finished for the day, Asyad learned his 16-year-old cousin was among the dead. “He was one of the corpses I collected,” he says. “I lifted him and helped the responders, but I didn’t see that it was him until I was at the hospital.”
Still, Asyad, who has four young children, says he now fears ISIL more than the regime. He believes he is protected in Raqqa because he is known among the local Islamist leaders as a Muslim conservative, open to their ideas and religious beliefs. But he draws a line between himself and ISIL. “I haven’t reached their level of extremism because I’m normal,” he says, “and I believe in justice.”
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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