Rape is now defining Syria’s conflict

Syrian women travel in the back of a truck in the northern city of Aleppo on February 14, 2013. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC

When Syrian soldiers burst into a home and found no trace of the young men they had come to recruit by force, they raped their sister instead. Helpless, her father watched in horror as his daughter was defiled in his own living room, he later told a United Nations relief worker in Jordan.Another Syrian man, blinded by fear and the shame of risking his family’s honor, shot his own daughter to prevent approaching Syrian soldiers from gang raping her. One Syrian father opted for the unbearable, heart wrenching choice of giving up his youngest girl to armed troops lusting after her at a military checkpoint. They had threatened to mow down all family members in the car with him under a hail of bullets unless he complied with their commander’s request.

“Sophie’s Choice,” the World War II story of a Polish mother bullied by a German Nazi soldier to choose between who, her daughter or son, would be carted off to the death camp at Auschwitz, pales in comparison. The 1979 novel by American writer William Styron was adapted into a film. What is happening now in Syria is ghastly and unthinkable. And it is real.

Syria’s embattled regime once boasted that it championed causes of Arab honor, dignity and valor. They were its claim to Arab leadership and the twisted rationale for heavy-handed actions. How that bogus image has foundered.

Sexual violence against women and, in some cases, young boys, documented and aggregated in reports by Human Rights Watch , the International Rescue Committee and the New York-based Media Center initiative known as Women under Siege, have shattered all pretenses, shredding all fake veneers of social propriety in war-lacerated Syria. Assumptions about Arab family cohesion and paternal protection shielding women folk against predators and rape have been turned inside out.

Though humanitarian organizations tracking the rise of rape in Syria largely accuse the Syrian Army, and the proxy militia of the regime, the Shabbiha, for perpetrating these acts, they do not exclude certain elements of the predominantly Islamist rebels.

As outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton once aptly said, women do not start conflicts, but they often end up as victims. Syria is inching toward replacing the Congo as the world’s rape capital. The U.S.-based IRC designated rape as a primary factor in the exodus of women and children refugees to neighboring Lebanon and Jordan.

“Many women and girls relayed accounts of being attacked in public or in their homes, primarily by armed men. These rapes, sometimes by multiple perpetrators, often occur in front of family members,” the IRC said. The findings, based on 240 interviews, indicate that rape has become a “significant and disturbing” feature of Syria’s war.

Women and girls told of being kidnapped, raped and tortured. At military checkpoints, they have become targets of opportunity. Later, some victims are killed or married off.

Melissa Fleming, the Geneva-based spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, said, “The taboo is so great that what we are hearing is a fraction of what is going on. What we are trying to do with groups such as Save the Children, the IRC and UNICEF is create spaces so that these women can come forward.”

Centers for counseling and care for sexual and gender-based violence are being upgraded in Jordan and Lebanon. “We are stepping up our ability to respond. If we have any reason to believe that a woman is vulnerable, she will be pushed to the front of the line and registered, so she can receive medical care and counseling,” she explained.

Humanitarian groups are reluctant to give finite figures. However, maps and diagrams drawn up by Women under Siege, based on accounts gleaned from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, show surges in the frequency of reported rapes in specific locales in Syria.

After unveiling a Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the United Kingdom was sending specialists to investigate and deal with rape and sexual violence in Syria. Seventy doctors, forensic specialists, psychologists and lawyers were brought together by the Foreign Office so that they could be dispatched to conflict zones. They are expected to train local health professionals and to gather evidence which may serve as documentation in future prosecutions.

Incidents of sexual assault against female activists in Tahrir Square triggered demonstrations in Cairo and Beirut after one young woman was stabbed in her most intimate parts with a sharp blade. Arab governments remain comatose and hypocritical with their heads buried in the sand.

The intensity of war is not only known to unleash depraved instincts for mindless rape, but it also sets off a spike in cases of domestic violence.

Oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, rushing to provide military assistance to hasten the collapse of the reign of President Bashar Assad should act now, as Arab “sisters” languish in Syrian gulags of torture or fall victim to marauding soldiers. The United States and the European Union stepped up as top donors so far with Washington giving $210 million and the EU giving $477 million. Arab Gulf states have lagged behind with only $155 million for Syrian refugees. The IRC urged donors to recognize sexual violence as an alarming feature of the Syrian conflict and to boost aid to offset quality service shortages in host countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

The reported release of a celebrity Saudi preacher Fayhan al-Ghamdi, after he agreed to play blood money for raping, torturing and killing his 5-year-old daughter Lama, does not bode well. In contrast, one rape in India mobilized press, university students, civic groups, lawmakers and professionals to break through the wall of national consciousness.

Nora Boustany is an independent writer and former Washington Post correspondent and columnist who teaches journalism at the American University of Beirut. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 18, 2013, on page 7.




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