In December 2017, a French documentary broadcast by TV channel France 2 featured a group of women who had survived rape and torture in the secret prisons of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. In the 72-minute film titled “Syrie, le cri étouffé” (Syria, the Muffled Cry), the survivors, who are now refugees in Turkey, Jordan and throughout Europe, speak about their arrest and subsequent detention, describing how the Assad regime used rape to settle scores with opponents and subjugate communities opposed to its rule.
The documentary emerged at a global watershed moment which set off an avalanche of daring revelations by victims of sexual abuse who took to social media using the hashtag #MeToo. The campaign was sparked by the scandal of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein who used his leverage to sexually blackmail a long list of Hollywood stars. The trend soon spread like wildfire, with increasing numbers of victims speaking up, knocking celebrities and politicians worldwide off their pedestals.
In a bold move rarely precedented, two women opted to speak about their harrowing experiences with full names and uncovered faces. In a patriarchal Syrian society rife with blaming victims of sexual violence, discussing the issue is an entrenched taboo. Blowing the lid off horrendous stories taking place in a dark underworld of torture and rape dubbed a ”torture archipelago” in a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, the documentary shattered the longtime silence that has haunted victims and kept the issue largely underreported.
According to UN estimates, tens of thousands of people are detained by the Syrian security forces.
It was October..at night..I was sitting at the bedside pondering what will happen next…the door opens..three enormous men entered. I heard one ask another: ”Who is to start first?” My blood ran cold. What does that mean?
The voice of one of the women featured in the documentary shakes as she remembers the dreadful moments leading up to her rape at one of Syria's notorious detention centers. Arrested at a military checkpoint in the southern city of Daraa for taking part in peaceful protests and medical efforts after a military crackdown, the woman says she was accused of “carrying weapons to terrorists,” a common charge leveled at Assad opponents.
She describes how she was first made to watch another woman she identifies as Alwa being raped as a warning that should she withhold any information, the same fate will befall her.
Alwa's hands and legs were pinned down by three men, a fourth on top raping her. She was screaming. What an awful sight! Alwa was unmarried. The wedding dress, party, trills of joy, decoration…Everything she was robbed of came to my mind at that moment.
Speaking in the dark and her face invisible, the woman's voice and movement of hands betray overwhelming emotion and visible agitation as she revisits these bitter memories.
Her own rape took place at the notorious 215 security branch in Kafr Sousa, Damascus. She says:
Three monsters entered the room. The first started to unzip my jacket. He set off to forcefully remove my clothes. I was in denial as to what was happening. I was screaming…in so much pain…I felt my soul leaving my body. My whole world came tumbling down. I was stark naked when I woke up…the sheets were stained. I could not remember what happened…
On one occasion, five men took turns raping her.
With the fourth, I began to feel excruciating pain like I was in labor. I heard one tell another. ‘Go on, it's OK!’ I felt something unusual was happening. When I looked down, I saw a pool of blood underneath me. I tried to rise to my feet but I couldn't, at which point I lost consciousness.
When I woke up, I found myself in a hospital. A doctor told me that I suffered a stroke and lost a lot of blood. The nurse later told me that the doctor made them believe I was dead so that I can escape.
Another rape survivor was Mariam Khleif from Hama, a university student, an employee as well as a mother of four. During the regime's crackdown on protests in her hometown, she engaged in rescue operations amid the staggering death toll and injuries, treating the wounded at a field hospital nearby. Mariam was arrested when security forces raided her house shortly after she secretly dropped by to visit her family whom she had not seen in four months. Speaking with her face uncovered, Mariam reflects on the day she was arrested:
They barged into the house, smashed the door and dragged me on to the street. Men stood watching with their faces cast down, unable to lift a finger.
She was put in an armored vehicle in which five other women were rounded up, among them a 55-year old called Um Mustafa who was beaten and kicked all the way to the prison.
Mariam describes the unspeakable physical torture she underwent that caused severe damage to her kidney.
I was hanged from the ceiling…My hands tied to the wall…severely beaten in an unimaginably brutal way.
The beating happened as a song extolling Bashar al-Assad was being played all the time. As she describes the torture, her voice trails off and she bursts into tears:
I thought that was all and they were done with torture. How naïve I was! Everything that happened up to that moment was nothing compared to what was to come…
When the night falls, they would pick beautiful detainees, take them to someone called Lt. Colonel Sulaiman from Tartous. His room had a door leading to another room, equipped with two beds and a table on which all kinds of alcohol were arrayed. He even invited friends to watch the rapings, one of them was a usual visitor called Colonel Jihad, who took part in raping women.
I watched them rape my friend. Another woman was seven months pregnant when they raped her. She had a miscarriage due to brutal rape and the kicks to her belly. I saw it with my own eyes. I was screaming hysterically. No one ever heard…
They would pour Arak [alcoholic spirit] on the bodies of women…
Mariam herself was gang-raped by four men, among them Colonel Jihad. She describes the daily torture routine for women in the prison as a cycle of beatings during the day and rapes at night.
Rape as a Weapon of War
A female officer from Deraa who served for eight years in the Assad military before her defection says rape, in the beginning, happened only in detention centers. Speaking with her back to the camera, she says that later on, rape became more systematic: women were raped at checkpoints, in the streets, inside their houses before their husbands.
The regime used rape to humiliate the Syrian man. Women were detained to blackmail Syrian men. When a man is engaged in the revolution, his female relatives were detained as a blackmail tactic.
Acting upon the orders of military commanders, female relatives of anti-Assad fighters were raped during raids. Rapes were filmed and the videos sent to the fighters to “crush the men's spirits,” she says.
A recently released woman confirmed a sharp increase in the numbers of detained women lately, especially from rebel-held areas, attributing it to the regime's intention to use them as bargaining chips in prisoner swaps with the opposition.
Social Stigma: Adding Injury to Injury
The raped women's tragedy does not end with their release. In another twist of the knife, the social stigma attached to rape and sexual abuse make their lives nearly impossible.
While men who survive detention are mostly feted as heroes, women receive little or no sympathy, often blamed for bringing dishonor to their families.
According to one of the women interviewed in the film:
In a conservative Syrian society, like all Muslim societies, rape shakes basic Islamic values. It desecrates a sacrosanct thing that is a woman's body. It is hard for a Muslim society to reconcile itself to such thing, that's why utmost secrecy is enforced.
When the raped woman is a mother, the life of the entire family is upended.
For another woman, death would have been easier than rape:
My self-image was tarnished because of a bunch of monsters. Rape is much worse than death.
Many of the raped women were disowned by their families, stigmatized by society.
People tell us that we should not have allowed it to happen. How is that possible? It happened against our will.
This culture of intolerance plays into the hands of the regime which uses rape to inflict as much infamy and dishonor as possible.
Fawziah Hussein al-Khalaf, who survived al-Houla massacre in Homs, also speaks with an uncovered face. Shabiha militia invaded her house. Her pleas for them to rape her but spare her daughters went unheeded. She was raped along with her daughters before the Shabiha militia members slit their throats one after another. Only Fawziah and her daughter Rasha survived the massacre. Engulfed with shame, they never mingled with people thereafter. They avoided gatherings and never took buses.
A former prisoner in a secret prison called “Afaq” who was released in a prisoner swap between the regime and opposition factions said she counted five suicides by raped female detainees in the course of two months.
“Raped women are caught between the anvil of the regime and the hammer of society,” says the woman from Deraa.
Like many of the other women, Mariam became a refugee to escape the stigma and start a new life. As she describes how much she misses Syria, tears roll down her cheeks. She says that Alwa had a much worse fate. Her ambiguous death led many to assume she was killed by her father.
I am now divorced with four children. I am a stranger here…I am nothing…a soulless body,
A mixed response from documentary audiences
The documentary caused a stir on social media, with many sharing the video. Some changed their profile picture to the photos of the women who appeared in the documentary. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po at the Paris School of International Affairs, wrote an article urging the French President Emanuel Macron to revoke France's Legion of Honor (France's highest civilian distinction) from the Syrian dictator as he did with Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, reminding the French president of earlier statements demanding Assad's ouster and trial for war crimes.
Syrian, Lebanese and French activists launched a campaign on social media led by the French philosopher Frederic Lonoir, signing a petition addressed to the French President, calling on him to intervene for the release of the Syrian female detainees.
However, many saw nothing but a very slim hope of a concrete action despite the furor sparked by the documentary.
Anwar al-Bunni, Head of the Syrian Center for Studies and Legal Research voiced pessimism over efforts to bring perpetrators to justice.
The Syrian people now realize that pleas for the world to stop these violations are futile.
Speaking to Arabi 21, al-Bunni said the Syrian regime is blocking progress on this file which it considers a lifeline.
The regime is using this file as a weapon. It is impossible to make progress as long as Assad remains in power.
Russia and China have repeatedly used vetos to block UN resolutions against the Syrian regime, shielding their ally from sanctions over war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The French president has shown a softening attitude towards the fate of Assad. Rounds of peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition have failed to achieve a breakthrough in the file of detainees.
Jaundiced by a history of inaction, this pessimism was echoed by the women in the documentary. For Mariam:
I am convinced that people will see the documentary, look the other way and carry on with their lives as normal. For over five years, we have been calling on the West to push for the release of Syrian women. Nothing has happened.
This is a call for the women of the West…Do something to help Syrian women…