Sunday, 24 April 2016

Janine di Giovanni: The Morning They Came For Us

Free Syrian Army protesters marching against President Bashar Al-Assad in November 2012. Picture: Matthew VanDyke / Aletheia Films

 " 'I lay there hiding my face as they kicked and thought: “They are using my body to practise their judo moves.”

 And the entire time they were beating me, they kept saying: “You want freedom? Here’s your freedom!” Every time they said freedom, they kicked or punched harder. Then suddenly the mood changed. It got darker. They started saying if I did not talk, they would rape me.'

 By early 2012, reports began emerging of mass rape in Syria, they seem to be perpetrated predominantly by President Bashar al-Assad’s men, largely paramilitary agents known as Shabiha, or ‘ghosts’.

 Although Assad’s own government troops were not always the perpetrators, the Shabiha did most of the dirty work when it came to sexual violence. Their tactics were largely to incite fear within communities — to enter towns or villages after the government troops had been fighting nearby, and spread the word that they would rape the women — daughters, mothers, cousins and nieces. Frightened, people would run, leaving scorched earth behind. It’s a convenient way to ethnically cleanse an entire region.

 Sexual violence was not reported to be only against women either. There are many accounts of male rape, particularly in detention. Although prisons and detention centres were usually the most susceptible places for the crime to occur, it happened at checkpoints and when houses were being ‘cleansed’ as well.
 The danger of such confessions is they could not be verified as not having been given under great duress, but the testimony given by a captured Shabiha is still chilling documentation.

 Question: How long have you been with the security forces?
 Response: Since the beginning of the revolution.
 Question: What is your aim?
 Response: To quash the revolution.

 Question: Do you go out to carry out raids?

 Response: Indeed. We enter the houses to search. If there are men we push them out of the houses for a few hours. We take all the money and jewels we find. And if there are women, we rape them.
 Question: How many women did you rape?
 Response: Seven cases of rape.
 Question: Seven?
 Response: Indeed.
 Question: Where did these rapes happen?
 Response: Some at the village Al Fawl. First cases at the school, we raped them for six continuous hours. Then we entered another house as security forces on the ground that there are terrorists inside. We entered the house, we have tied the man, stolen jewels and money, and we raped women. One of them is from Knissat Bani Az. And we were four to rape her (me and three shabiha) and she committed suicide following her rape. The other case is a girl, we entered to search her house as security forces and we have stolen money and raped her. And there is another rape in Damascus. We entered her house on the ground we are security forces elements. We entered the house and raped the girl.


 A small, dark cell became Nada’s home for eight months.
 Nada’s cell was not even big enough for her already small frame to stretch out in; she remained curled up. The jeans she wore throughout the entire ordeal are still creased in the areas of her body which she was unable to move.
 Other men and women were kept in the cells next to her own. She did not know who they were, but they too would scream out, crying, pleading for mercy, for an end to the torture. Some cried for their mothers.
 “This was part of my torture,” she says.” To hear other people begging, and to know they were coming for me next. When they would stop in front of my door and turn the key — my heart would stop.”
 When she asked for water, they would bring a male prisoner, make him urinate into a bottle, and try to force her to drink it. When she spat it out, they would throw it back in her face. The male prisoner, equally humiliated, would avoid her eyes.
 “I remember every single one of their faces,” she says bitterly of her tormentors, of that memory. “I will look for them. I AM looking for them.”
 One day, when she was not telling them what they wanted to hear, they brought her to an all-male cell where the prisoners were in their underwear.
 “I am a conservative Muslim woman, I thought I was being given to these men for them to rape me,” she said. “And so I started screaming. I think I screamed for three hours. Until my throat was stripped raw. They wanted to break me. And they did. Finally, I said, ‘Okay, I will tell you the truth’.”
 She said she talked. She told them things. But what she told them was not enough. After several hours, they moved her — the first of many moves — and brought her to a place that she calls “the horror room”. The room was only as wide as “a man’s body”. They tied her hands to an iron bar behind her back.
 Then a man entered with a whip. “Every time I said something he did not like,” she says, beginning to break into sobs, “he whipped me.”
 Her bloodied and bruised body was then handed over to another interrogator, who was told, “Okay, now really take care of her.”
 “Now the real beatings began,” she says sombrely, “and the terrible things.”
 When we first met, she cowered when I touched her hand in greeting. She seemed broken, vulnerable. She would not use the word rape. She told her story in staccato. But after a while of sitting quietly, her face changed into a myriad of emotions — sadness, pain, then the heavy flood of memory, and finally revulsion. She told of the day they brought in a male prisoner and forced her to watch him being sodomised. As she talks, her voice deadened, she opens and closes her hand mechanically, clutching at the straps of her backpack. She starts to cry. It very quickly turns to a raw sobbing.
 “The things I saw ... the things I saw ...” she spits out.
 “It is unbearable to explain what I saw ... I cannot forget … I saw ... another prisoner being raped ... a man being raped. I heard it ... I saw it ... Do you know what it’s like to hear a man cry?”
 “I changed a lot when I was in prison,” she says quietly.
 Then she smiles. “But you know, even there, I was the revolutionary.”
 In between beatings and interrogation sessions, she confronted her jailers. She chastised them for small things, for prisoners’ rights. It gave her a feeling of having some control.
 “I made them get plates for the other prisoners!” she says proudly. “I made them realise we are not just dogs to be kicked and used, but people. I made them put plastic over the broken windows.” She looks faintly triumphant. “Before we had nothing, then we got plates!”
 Small victories for a broken spirit."

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