RONAN L TYNAN:
“I screamed, but no one came,” a chilling line from the testimony of a woman raped in Dara’a, Syria quoted in a recent UN report, and reflects the almost invisible nature of one of the biggest mass rape campaigns of recent times by President Bashar al-Assad to suppress the 2011 peaceful uprising against his dictatorship.
This has troubled me since we made our documentary ‘Syria – The Impossible Revolution’ because of the number of times reference was made to the Assad regime’s rape campaign and yet that is not reflected in coverage of the Syrian conflict.
(In this article I deliberately avoided describing explicitly the nature of these crimes which many might find too difficult to read.)
But why has this potential crime or crimes against humanity received virtually no publicity as more and more evidence surfaces not least with the publication of the report by the UN Commission of Inquiry – ‘ “I lost my dignity”: Sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian Arab Republic’. The report underlined the scale of these crimes and horrific abuses suffered by of Syrian women and young girls, some as young as ten years old. And while the UN extensively reported on the egregious nature of the Islamic State’s horrific campaign against Yazidi women which used rape and sexual violence as a form of genocide the latter may also explain why Assad’s systematic mass rape campaign received little or no attention. However, the latest report also noted that while armed groups were responsible for similar crimes they were ‘considerably less common than rape by Syrian Government forces and associated militias.’
On International Women’s Day one still must ask why have the tens of thousands of victims of rape and sexual violence at the hands of the Syrian regime and its associated militias been ignored for so long? However, as a rising tide of evidence about their systematic rape and sexual violence comes to light it is clear that the day of reckoning for these crimes is approaching? More so because Syrian women themselves are starting to raise their voices and demand justice? Women like Zahira (not her real name) interviewed in the UK ‘Independent’ which described her story as ‘not easy to read’ and what she went through as ‘beyond the imagination of most of us.’
Very important to point out, as all reports on Assad’s rape campaign note, that men and boys were also subjected to rape and sexual torture but on a much smaller scale than women and girls.
A Grave Humiliation
The relative delay in these mass rapes and sexual crimes coming to light is partly explained by a great irony. Rape and sexual violence are perceived as a grave humiliation in Syrian culture with considerable social stigma and shame attaching to the victims. In our own society women and girls who are victims of rape also find it difficult to come forward and seek to ensure those who rape them are brought to justice. In Syrian society as London School of Economics researcher Marie Forestier explained in her report ‘“You Want Freedom? This is your freedom”: Rape as a tactic of the Assad Regime’ women and girls are even less likely to come forward as they face being rejected by their husbands or families even though they are victim of the most egregious of crimes.
Forestier revealed how she was told by one defector: ‘There is nothing worse in our culture’ as if to underline that when Assad resorted to a rape campaign its potential and objective were clear. As one activist explained to her: ‘By extension, the humiliation of women spills over to her family, and her community. ‘In Syria, honour is associated with women. So, in order to humiliate a community, the regime targeted women’.’ Her report showed that anywhere regime forces engaged with the population which was perceived to be part of the opposition women and girls were raped whether as check points, at home or in detention centres. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of that attempt to break communities was the way in which women were raped in front of their families with wives and mothers for example raped in front of husbands and children like the case of Fawziya in Al Houla.
However, if Forestier’s report was shocking the UN Commission of Inquiry Report was even more disturbing because of its revelations about both the scale and nature of the use of rape as tactic by Assad in attempting to break the opposition. The report also showed how the use of rape mirrored the conflict on the ground. For example, in the early phase when the Syrian regime prioritised ground operations and house raids most women and young girls were raped at home, often in front of their families. However, as conflict developed from 2012 ‘Government forces began to prioritise the use of airstrikes, thus decreasing the interaction between Government troops and the wider population. As the conflict progressed, most sexual and gender-based violations by Government forces therefore occurred at checkpoints or in detention.’ In other words, rape remained a key part of Assad’s strategy but women and girls were more likely to be raped at check points and in prison than at home.
This is but a very short summary about one of the most egregious crimes committed by the Syrian regime against its own people. But as more and more women find the courage against incredible pressure to provide evidence, prosecutions that must include Assad himself are inevitable?
Ronan L Tynan is Director of the multi award winning ‘Syrian – The Impossible Revolution’ and co-founder with Anne Daly of Esperanza Productions:
Web site: http://www.esperanza.ie