Tuesday, 10 May 2016

In exile from Syria, humanitarian workers recall death threats, prison and torture

Humanitarians Mariah Abadeh, Houda Atassi and Sandra Bitarova were honored in Washington D.C. by CARE. (Carey Wagner/CARE)

 'In April 2011, as protesters began gathering in Homs’ Clock Square, Atassi joined them. Like many women, she brought her children along. For hours, she said, people stood and peacefully protested, for “freedom, justice, dignity, and pride.” Around midnight, regime forces began shooting.

 “I saw the first man killed. He was killed in front of his wife and children. My children were so afraid. We left, running to the car,” said Atassi. Though they escaped unharmed, she said, “this made me look for victims of the regime … This is when I decided to help.”

 In late 2012, her son, who was then 17, was detained at a Red Cross checkpoint in Homs while en route to distribute supplies to protesters. He was released only a week later.

 “Then myself and my family received direct threats for our humane work,” said Atassi. “That’s when we decided to leave.”

 Before fleeing Syria, Sandra Bitarova told Women in the World, she was detained twice for getting involved in humanitarian work there. This included connecting protesters with media outlets to share videos of their demonstrations, and distributing supplies, such as baby milk, in central Homs. The first time Bitarova was detained for only 24 hours. But the second time she said she was held for 35 days. While in jail, she said, “I kept hearing people screaming out of torture, and smelling burning flesh.”

 “I am one of the lucky few who didn’t get physically tortured, but there was psychological torture,” she said. “They were saying: ‘You will be next’ and ‘Where is your sister? We hear she is active too.’”

 After being released, Bitarova said she received information from a government agent, who later defected, that she would be arrested a third time. This time, the agent said, she would not be released. “He said you have two days to vanish,” according to Bitarova. And so, in August 2012, she and her sister fled the country.

 The women described a continued lack of basic services in many areas of Syria, random searches and arrests by government forces, millions who have lost their homes, children who have never been to school, and no recourse for government violations. “Anybody who does open a mouth is detained and tortured, eventually leading to death,” claimed Atassi.

 While Atassi said the general atmosphere of fear increased after the extremist group ISIS — or Daesh, as it is known in Syria — began seizing large parts of the country, the main terror remains Assad’s forces.

 “We always have to have hope, because without hope, we are not going to be living creatures,” said Atassi. “Our hope is to get rid of this crisis and this war… But I implore the world community to stick to their resolution to get Assad out, because as long as Assad is there, the problems are not going to end.”'

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