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ALEPPO, Syria and ANTAKYA, Turkey — Nawar refuses to be seen as a victim. Even when describing how Syrian soldiers tortured and assaulted her, she remains tough and outspoken. Sitting in a quiet corner of a coffee shop in Antakya, she spoke unashamedly, with anger rather than fear while she smoked a chain of cigarettes.
“For me, speaking out is about revenge. Revenge has become an obsession,” she said.
Violence against women has skyrocketed since the Syrian conflict began. Incidents of gang rape, sexual assault, and domestic abuse have risen with the intensity of the conflict, both throughout the country and in refugee camps across the region. This means horrific stories like Nawar's are becoming tragically common.
In April last year, Nawar and her fiancé Ahmed, referred to by first name only to protect their identities, were captured at a checkpoint in the Syrian province of Latakia by government troops. They were pulled from the car, thrown to the ground and tied with rope. One month later Nawar was released alone after experiencing what she describes as excruciating torture and sexual abuse while her fiancé was forced to watch. Ahmed was a doctor whose crime had been treating and delivering medical supplies to Syrian rebel fighters.
“They put us facing each other. When they questioned him, they hit me. When they questioned me, they would hit him,” she said, describing her initial interrogation in a basement four floors underground at the Syrian air force intelligence detention center in Latakia.
She continued, “They removed my clothes in front of him. Then they removed his clothes….”
Nawar’s words trailed off as she puffed vigorously on her cigarette.
She went on to describe further torture over the following three weeks. “They pissed on me. They pulled out seven of my teeth,” she said showing the crowns that have now replaced them. “Then for one week there was nothing, and then they released me. I didn’t find out they had already killed Ahmed until some weeks later.”
In Syria, speaking out about sexual violence carries a stigma that can lead to divorce, rejection, further abuse at home and, in extreme cases, even honor killing by family members. In a culture where virginity is closely linked to honor — not only that of the victim but also the perceived honor of her family — most victims of rape are overwhelmed by shame and deny the abuse.
“No one else will speak out, so I will speak for all of them,” Nawar said. Since her ordeal, Nawar has met with almost 100 female refugees in Jordon, Lebanon and Turkey who have also been victims of violence or sexual assault since the beginning of the Syrian revolution.
In a report released in May, the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights listed 2,441 deaths from torture inside government prisons between the beginning of the revolution in March 2011 and May 15, 2013. Among the tally were 82 children and 24 women. The report included names and locations of each death, and in many cases photos, video evidence or testimony from fellow inmates or family members who received the bodies.
In their most recent figures, the Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 6,500 women still being detained in Syrian prisons, and more than 5,000 incidents of rape during the course of the conflict. On Monday, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Group, an umbrella organization comprised of dozens of human rights groups and institutions, released a report characterizing violence against women as a "bleeding wound in the Syrian conflict."
Gauging the true extent of abuse against both women and men in Syria is almost impossible. For many, facing the consequences of speaking out can be just as devastating as the crime itself.
“One girl I know in Latakia jumped from the fifth floor after she was raped,” said Nawar. “Many of the girls raped in Homs refused to run from the fighting. They wanted to stay and die there.”
Many of these cases have gone unreported, said Lauren Wolfe, an award-winning journalist who has focused on rape in conflict for several years. She is currently the director of Women Under Siege, a group that has been mapping reports of sexual violence in Syria over the past year.
“The general rule that I go by, and a lot of public health researchers go by, is for every one woman who speaks out, there are up to 10 more that remain silent,” Wolfe said.
To date the group has documented 216 reports, some involving mass offensives against dozens or hundreds of victims with many raped by more than one man.
“We have found three ways in which sexual violence is being used as a weapon in the Syrian conflict,” she said. “The first is rape at checkpoints. Either the males are removed from the vehicle and the female is assaulted inside, or sometimes men or women are taken to a building and raped by checkpoint staff before release.”
The second, Wolfe said, was during home raids. In some cases when government forces took over a village or suburb, survivors said they would move from house to house stealing, raping or killing. Wolfe said these crimes were more common in the early stages of the rebellion and are happening less frequently now.
The third, and the most likely to be reported, is the rape and sexual torture of both men and women in government detention centers.
Seventy percent of the abuses documented by Women Under Siege were committed by government or government-allied forces. Wolfe said this pattern is common in conflicts where military forces clash with rebel fighters heavily reliant on civilian support.
“We do have reports of [Free Syrian Army] FSA-perpetrated rape — mostly from government sources,” Wolfe said. “In war it happens on all sides. We know it is happening, but the difference is the socialization that exists among rebel forces that doesn’t exist on the government side.”
But women are not just suffering at the hands of armed forces.
At the Kurdish Center for Women’s Training and Education in Aleppo, director Zanab Mohammed said domestic violence has also skyrocketed.
“As the society becomes more violent, violence in the home increases also,” said Mohammed, a 40-year-old activist who was herself tortured during a five-year prison sentence for lobbying for women’s rights prior to the revolution. “Men have become more aggressive. We are receiving new cases every day, and in families where domestic violence existed before, men have become more aggressive using objects and weapons they had not previously used to hit their wives or daughters.”
Mohammed said the incidence of killing and assaults against women has increased both within families and from criminals taking advantage of the lack of security and weak judicial system in rebel-held areas.
“We have found women’s bodies in dumpsters,” she said. “Kidnappings have increased and, with sexual assault and raising tensions, honor killings have also increased.”
Abuse can come from a range of family members, Mohammed said, from husbands and fathers to brothers and even sons. Divorce and abandonment is also on the rise, as men who join the frontlines often have difficulty adjusting back to life at home.
For thousands who have made it out of the country, fleeing the conflict zone has brought little relief.
In refugee camps from Jordan to Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, many women have found themselves vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence.
“The level of frustration is so high in the camps. The stress of being a refugee and witnessing the things they have witnessed has made it a boiling pot,” said Wolfe.
She described a recent visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.
“Within an hour of arriving at the Zaatari camp I had a woman telling me her husband was beating her every day,” she said. “He would stay out with other women at night and then come home to beat her. I found it is very, very common there.”
Those who have fled violent attacks and rape in Syria are often left hopeless, abandoned and with no access to the psychological help they so desperately need.
“These women have not only been physically violated but emotionally scarred,” Wolfe said. She urges the international community to increase the resources available in refugee camps for victims of rape and abuse.
“After years of working on this issue, I don’t know how to stop it, but I know the one thing we can all do is provide resources for the people who need it now.”
For Nawar, despite her strength and determination, recovery has been slow.
“I cannot start my life again like before,” she said. “Until now I still can not sleep. Every night I still see their faces coming after me to touch me.”