One of the least explored aspects of the Syrian regime’s repression is the raping of women. Various human rights monitors have documented cases of sexual violence perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad’s security forces against men, many of them young boys as young as 11 years-old. According to the UN Human Rights Council’s November 2011 report on Syria, former detainees testified to being subjected to “beatings of genitals, forced oral sex, electroshocks and cigarette burns to the anus in detention facilities, including those of the Air Force Intelligence in Damascus, the Military Intelligence in Jisr Al Shughour, the Military Intelligence and the Political Security in Idlib and Al Ladhiqiyah and the intelligence detention facilities in Tartus.”
While rumours of women being raped have run rampant in Syria since the early months of the uprising, first person testimonies have been harder to come by. This is owing to both an Arab cultural stigma on the subject and to fears of regime reprisals. Many of these rape victims have already lost parents or children to the state’s barbarism. They’re told if they want to keep the one who are left, they’ll keep quiet.
I spoke yesterday to a Syrian expat living in Washington, D.C. who asked to be identified as Farha Ghazi. She left her native Hama 18 years ago and has lately been working with Syrian women’s organisations. I’d been put in touch with Farha by a Syrian doctor friend of mine, and I knew broadly what to expect from our conversation. Still, nothing in a year’s worth of reporting on the carnage and misery of this country has chilled me more than what Farha told me.
Salma was a young girl in Baba Amr whose house was raided last February by the shabbiha – pro-Assad mercenary militias – when that rebel-held neighbourhood in Homs fell after a month-long siege. “She told them, ‘Please, please – don’t you have sisters? Don’t you have mothers?’”, Farha said. “Just leave me, please not in front of my dad.’” They didn’t listen. Instead, the shabbiha strapped Salma’s father to a chair in his own house and forced him to watch as three or four men raped his daughter. “They made him keep his eyes open and watch.”
This is standard practice now in Assad’s Syria. Boys and men might be spirited away to a mukhabarat dungeon for torture, but the women are done over in their own homes, in front of their families.
Farha said that she’s begun coordinating with gynaecologists who can attend to those who have been impregnated by their rapists. These victims’ ages range between 11 and 46. “We have documented 11 cases so far of women needing abortions because they were raped. We had to move them all from either Baba Amr or Idleb to Aleppo, where it was safer to perform this procedure. They are all safe now, but when I called some of them, they were in hysterics. All have suffered severe psychological trauma because of what they’ve gone through.” Many, she said, want reconstructive surgery to repair their hymens so as to make them appear virgins again. “We are working with a team of doctors, but it’s hard. This is not the medical priority right now.”
And impregnation isn’t the only aftereffect. Some girls have sustained severe internal damage. Farha emailed me the following medical note written by a Syrian doctor and stamped by the Ministry of Health attesting to types of injuries common to rape victims. The names of the doctor and patient and all identifying marks have been blacked out. The note reads:
“To Whom It May Concern:
I have reviewed the case of _______, the daughter of Hassan, on Wednesday, date _______. She was suffering from bruising and tears along the posterior vaginal wall, along with tears in the anal sphincter. These injuries were the result of a sexual rape. A surgical procedure was done repairing the wall of the vagina and the sphincter. She is now in the hospital recuperating.
Signed, Surgical consultant. This report was written free from duress.