AMMAN - Three years ago, Syrian government security forces stormed 23-year-old Reema Barakat’s home in the coastal Syrian province of Latakia.
Minutes later, she became one of thousands of detainees held in government prisons.
Her crime? Her husband was a defector and a member of the Free Syrian Army.
Reema, not her real name, spent the next 19 months in a government prisons before her release as part of a prisoner exchange with rebel brigades. The three rapes she survived in detention were only the beginning, she told Syria Direct.
“When I got out I faced another injustice, through no fault of my own: my husband divorced me and my society rejected me.”
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a UK-based, independent violations monitor, estimates at least 117,000 men, women and children have been arbitrarily arrested and detained since the uprising began in 2011.
The government, the SNHR concluded, carried out the large majority of those arrests. Those who have been released describe torture, starvation and sexual assault. Thousands are thought to have died in detention, and thousands more are missing.
The release of thousands of men, women and children currently held in Syrian prisons is a key demand of the Syrian opposition delegation participating in a third round of peace talks in Geneva set to resume in April.
While the majority of those arrested are men, government security forces have detained at least 7,080 women since 2011. SNHR and the Syrian Center for Statistics and Research, an independent research organisation, estimates 2,850 remain in detention. Both groups have documented the deaths of at least 19 of those women and girls by torture.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the arrest of women puts pressure on family members. Both government and rebel factions routinely use women as bargaining chips in hostage exchanges.
After being freed, women may face social stigma and rejection from spouses and family members, in part due to a widespread belief that all women are raped while in detention.
“Our society doesn’t accept a woman who’s been detained,” Reema told Syria Direct, describing her release from prison and the subsequent rejection she faced. “From the way that people looked at me, I knew that I was finished,” she added.
“I felt as though I was being raped again with every look of pity and contempt.”
“Due to the stigma associated with rape and sexual assault, people tend to stay away from families of detainees or former detainees,” concluded a May 2015 report by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), building on the testimonies of 53 women who spent time in government detention.
“Irrespective of the actual number of cases – that are difficult to document – of women raped or sexually assaulted, this general social state of mind has been used by the warring parties to tear apart the fabric of society by detaining women.”
There are no reliable statistics on the number of women and men subjected to sexual violence by the many warring factions over the course of this war, largely due to a reluctance on the part of survivors to report and a lack of confidence that doing so would lead to justice.
A February 2015 report by the United Nations Human Rights Council that detailed a litany of human rights violations by the warring parties pointed to the widespread use of rape by the Islamic State and Syrian government forces.
“Women and girls were found to have been raped and sexually assaulted in government detention facilities,” the report, which also details the sexual torture and assault of men and boys, found. “State officials have perpetrated rape, a crime against humanity,” the report said.
For Syrian women like Reema, state violence interacts with community stigma, leaving them with nowhere to turn.
“Our society sentences a girl to death just for being detained,” said Reema.
“The pressures surrounding me turned the world black. My husband rejected me, even though I was arrested because of him.”
Addiction and assault
The possibility of community or family rejection and violence faced by women who are former detainees is not only related to the possibility of sexual assault, however, as in the case of 30-year-old Hala Muhammad.
Arrested before dawn from her Jableh, Latakia home in 2012 for participating in peaceful protests and anti-government activism, Hala spent the next two years in detention. During that time, she became dependent on painkillers that she says some prison staff gave detainees after beatings.
“At first, I would throw them out,” Hala told Syria Direct, “but after months of beatings and systematic torture your body gets worn out. Your injuries get infected, you’re in searing pain day and night.”
“When you get to that point, you take the pills of salvation, to quiet the pain.”
When Hala was released in 2014 as part of a prisoner exchange with rebels in the Latakia countryside, she faced social stigma resulting both from her detention and dependence on painkillers, she says.
“The pain from the wounds that tore my body was nothing compared to the pain you see in the eyes of your father, mother, friends,” Hala told Syria Direct from Turkey. “They throw looks at you that make you hate yourself and wish you could die all the time.”
Finally, Hala’s father took her to the border with Turkey and left her, saying “go, you’re the cause of all our misfortunes”.
“I’m not an addict, it’s not my fault,” said Hala. “That’s the last thing I told my father.”
Facing a lack of support from families and society, many former detainees, whether they have survived sexual violence or not, face “severe psychological trauma upon their release including varying degrees of anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, loss of meaning in life and a sense of futility,” EMHRN’s 2015 report found, extending to “psychosis and even suicide.”
“I’ve internalised this rejection,” Reema told Syria Direct from Turkey, where she currently resides. “I feel as though I’m incomplete and worthless,” she said, adding: “I live on sedatives and I reject all the men in the world. I often consider suicide.”
There is a “huge need for rehabilitation centers” to serve former detainees, “to promote their self-confidence and integrate them into society, empower them economically and extend a bridge to families rejecting their child,” the Syrian Women’s Network reported in February.
The network, made up of Syrian women activists and organisations inside and outside Syria, also highlighted the importance of “protecting women from violence that they could face from their family.”
‘I decided to begin my life again’
Without support from their family and community, both Hala and Reema are making their way alone.
For now, Hala is trying to “forget and start over” in Turkey, where she now lives with Turkish women and works at a salon.
“I learned Turkish and I decided to begin my life again,” she told Syria Direct, avoiding reminders of the past and members of her former community in Syria.
“I refuse to live with Syrians because I don’t want anybody to ask me about my story and what happened,” she told Syria Direct. “I’ve stayed away from anybody who knows me.”
Hala’s body remembers, however: “I suffer from pain in my spine - I have a broken vertebra from being hit in the back with a Kalashnikov while in detention, and it’s affected my walking a little,” she says.
Her injury also made it difficult to find work when she first got to Turkey, leaving her temporarily dependent on “treatment, support and assistance from charitable organisations”.
When Reema was released from prison, authorities did not return her passport, ID and other official documents which were taken upon her arrest, she says, and with a record as a detainee she couldn’t go to government offices to receive new documents, making it impossible to stay in Syria and extremely difficult to leave.
After finally making her way to Turkey, her relatives insisted that Reema could only live with them if she abided by a host of restrictions, including not leaving the house.
“The curse of imprisonment followed me out of Syria. I was to become a hostage to the ideas of a narrow-minded, patriarchal society. So I didn’t stay with them.”
Today, Reema works at a travel agency and saves all her money to “treat the effects of the torture,” which she said “bring back the memories of the…rape that destroyed my life.”
Like Hala, Reema avoids those who might ask her questions about her past, and is trying to move forwards.
“I want to know who I am and what my identity is now,” Reema told Syria Direct. “My dream is to go on with my life, go back to my studies and forget the past.”
“I know I won’t be able to forget what happened to me,” said Hala, “but I hope I’ll be able to go back to living a normal life. I haven’t given up.”